The outdoor market was one of the winners during the pandemic because people were drawn outside. However, the current consumer slump is hitting the industry as hard as anyone, and it requires courageous steps, especially from sales. We talked to the newly appointed senior sales manager of the Oberalp Group for the DACH region, Irina Andorfer, about maintaining margins, price increases and the development of the outdoor market. She is responsible for sales for the brands Salewa, Dynafit, Wild Country and Evolv in the important DACH region for the Oberalp Group and is one of the still manageable number of women in management positions in the outdoor market. We met her at the Oberalp Convention in Zurich.
You have just taken over the sales management for most Oberalp brands in the important DACH market. Before that, you were responsible for sales at Dynafit for a long time. So it is safe to say that you must have done a few things right. What were those?
We are a people business and work in an emotional industry. Products are only one side of it. What probably sets me apart is that I seek out contact with retailers; I live that, it drives me every day. And I'm a team player: if the team works well, the business runs by itself. I put a lot of energy into team development and into creating the right framework conditions so that a team can develop. I don't have to and don't want to decide everything on my own - if you know your market, you often know best what to do.
The outdoor industry is said to be male-dominated. Have you also perceived that in your career?
Especially in the outdoor sector, it is still widespread that technical products are handled by men though I know enough women who are particularly tech-savvy. I think something is slowly changing but women in leadership positions are of course still scarce. Although it has never played a big role for me personally - I've been an athlete since childhood, and there was simply never this difference. When you sit together in a mountain hut, everyone is just the same. But when I look at the sports industry - and I've been in the sports industry for 16 years - then of course I see that it's predominantly men who hold the important positions. But professionally, I've never considered that an issue for me. I just did my job and always enjoyed it. I am relatively uncomplicated, and men have reciprocated in this way.
Does the outdoor industry need a statutory quota?
I am generally against a quota. In my opinion, competences should count. However, it is important to me, and I also pay attention to this in my team, that we have a mixed team and that different points of view are represented in it.
What will be your focus in the new position?
It is important for me to create efficient processes and to set up the right structures for this. The outdoor and sports industry has become very professionalised in recent years. The markets have grown and there are more brands, the competition has become bigger. In order to have the necessary relevance for customers and retailers, you have to be professional today. That's why we have just created six new positions to offer more services to retailers.
What does it mean to offer retailers more services?
As I said, we are a people business. We were one of the first companies to make in-person appointments with retailers again after the lockdowns during the pandemic - of course in compliance with all safety regulations. After all, the retailers’ livelihoods are at stake, and it is our job to support them in their work. It always depends on how you connect products and retailers. Our job is only done when the product sells well in stores. That's where I want to start again. In the last few months, some things have fallen by the wayside, because communication with retailers has simply revolved around when we can deliver the goods. That was the case with many brands.
Oberalp was one of the first companies to take the pandemic as an opportunity to revise its seasonal schedule. Fewer new products, more throughput, more focus on value retention. How has the strategy worked out so far?
The general strategy is, using Dynafit as an example, that there are two main collections (winter and summer) and an intermediate collection - our autumn collection. The colours are coordinated so that many pieces can continue to fit the new collection and run with it. That's what we've been doing anyway. More run-through is an important issue also in terms of sustainability. It simply makes a difference how long a product is on the market; it extends the product’s life cycle. This is even more relevant for hard goods than for clothing. If there are no new skis every season, then the current ones just have to be the latest product a bit longer. Of course, there are still highlights, but the basic collection runs alongside them. Retail appreciates that very much. It is about maintaining margins.
What else have you learned as a company during the pandemic?
Especially for Austria, it was extremely interesting to see during that time that Austrians are really enthusiastic about backcountry skiing. There were no tourists, but the number of sets sold for backcountry skiing increased. This means that Austrians love it!
Direct-to-consumer channels have gained enormously in importance for many brands during the pandemic, although the outdoor market is traditionally more brick-and-mortar-oriented and specialised stores. How high is the D2C share of the Oberalp Group's total turnover?
It is below five per cent. We are not planning any major growth here either. For us, our online shops are primarily brand showcases, just like our monobrand shops. We have to also build brand worlds online, which is extremely important, especially with regard to Gen Z. They identify much more strongly with online channels. Of course, at the end of the day, we also want to sell something, but these channels are not sales-driven.
The same is true on the brick-and-mortar side as well: our Dynafit Competence Centres are physical retailers that have a high level of credibility and competence. These retailers don't have to be big, but they are enormously important for us because they promote the brand. Here, too, we are not primarily concerned with sales.
Generally speaking, wholesale has played a major role and will continue to do so; it plays an essential role in brand building. The joint task of brands and retailers is to place the right products in the right channels. In concrete terms, this means that the best concept for success in cooperation is “value sharing” between brand and retail. If the end customer understands what a brand stands for - “Pure Mountain” for Salewa, for example, and Salewa products are carried by retailers who are also known for outdoor products - then this will be successful.
Are you planning to open more stores?
Our focus is on developing our Mountain Stores concept further. This is a franchise concept that we are implementing with existing partners, and the majority of the goods offered in the store are Oberalp brands. Of course, the topic of outdoor is important and we can cover it all with our brands, but we also want to offer end customers the option of having a selection beyond the Oberalp brands.
On the one hand, we have our own stores, and then we have the concept of Mountain Stores as a franchise concept, where the majority of the range consists of Oberalp brands. But it may be that a small part also consists of third-party brands. We want to develop this concept further, but there is no goal of opening a certain number of new stores; that happens more by chance when opportunities arise with our existing partners.
What role do marketplaces play for you? This topic is still viewed critically.
We are just getting started with this. The end customers decide where they buy, not us.
After the pandemic, this is already the second retail crisis. How is outdoor retail doing at the moment?
In our segment, the pandemic had the positive side effect that customers wanted to get out into nature. Those who were able to offer outdoor activities were able to make up for a lot. However, the great demand of the last two years has not materialised.
How are you reacting to the current situation?
Fortunately, we were very cautious and have limited production capacities even before the demand fell so as not to overproduce. In some cases, we did not even accept orders that were too high.
But of course we are also affected by the various repercussions of the crises. Deliveries are going ahead, but sometimes later than planned. Especially with bindings and skis, the bottleneck in production will persist, and that will still be an issue next year. Clothing works better than hard goods.
What does your price development look like?
Prices will increase. This development is coming. For our pre-order round for winter 2023/24, prices have increased by an average of ten percent. This is a cross-sector phenomenon, and we haven't even passed on all the increases yet.
Some fear that winter sports in particular will soon only be affordable for the rich. What do you think you can do about it?
There will still be entry-level price products in the future. The question will rather be: How long will I wear it, and do I really need my own equipment for all sports? This is where we can and do start with durable or multifunctional products.
But that also means less turnover for you.
I am sure that the outdoor market as a whole is growing, so we can compensate well if end consumers want to use our products longer. That is why it is particularly important not to overproduce, so that the market is not flooded with goods.
Some brands and retailers have started selling second-hand products. Is this already an option for you or your retailers?
There is already much interest, but from only a few retailers. Bergzeit has just started its own second-hand shop. Oberalp does this internally, where you can resell used equipment. The topic is very relevant and will become more important in the future. We are increasingly focusing on repair services, as are many of our retailers.
What are your next goals?
Building up the new team, optimising processes, bringing clarity to the structure. Focusing on retail and continuing to work closely together.
The interview took place at the Oberalp Convention in Zurich. At the two-day event, the company presented the new collections for HW/2023 to retailers and members of the press, as well as a talk on Generation Z.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.