Retailers Show Report #1 - Adventure for Sale

What is Miss Utah 2000 doing these days? I know it's a question that's been plaguing your mind for some time. Well, I'm here to tell you she's working the Outdoor Retailers Show as a human mannequin.

That's right, Keri Hatfield, former Ms. Utah, spent the day posing on a pedestal at the Hind booth here at the convention. The professional model and actress says its really good work, but her back and legs begin to ache by the end of the day. "The best part of this gig is when I stand really still, then reach out and scare people as they walk by." She says the "reach out" part really fast with a grabbing gesture.

Hind, a manufacturer of running apparel, has laid down huge money along with hundreds of other companies to put their items on display in hopes of gaining more market share. Like everyone here, they try to out glitz, out model and out gimmick their competitors in hopes of catching the eye of retailers eager for new product and image. Hind, however, has a very unique approach- a series of pedestals with men and women models showing off their latest running duds.

With literally hundreds of booths and thousands of products much of the show becomes just that... a show. Free stuff, free food, contests, demonstrations, interesting gimmicks, and even beer parties at the end of the day... it's a marketing free-for-all with reps vying to attract as many bodies in front of their company's booth as possible.

I must admit, some of the better, more eye catching gimmicks made me stop and pay attention. The Adidas booth had one of those arcade games with the moving mechanical claw, giving the chance to score new shoes by dropping the toy crane device and plucking one. At Rob Roy canoes, all the men working the booth were dressed in kilts to emphasize the historic Scottish name. Not far away, some boating companies had the most impressive display-- an entire swimming pool for full-blown demonstrations of their boats. I was tempted to undress, scream "Expedition4am baby!" rip off all my clothes, and dive in. Somehow restrained myself.

But it's not all about show, there was also salesmanship at play. AlpineAire Foods, a really small booth I stumbled upon, was simply handing out free samples of their dehydrated camping foods. The difference being that Aaron Clark, the rep, wasn't just giving free samples. Nosirree! He filled my plate full, not once but three times, and made certain I didn't leave hungry.

Since first off I'm a starving artist, and second I was starving... I happily pigged out. I scarfed several of their tasty pasta dishes, and could have eaten the entire package of the garlic mashed potatoes because they tasted THAT good. Aaron's gimmick-- feed anyone who stops by and the product will sell itself. How true, how true.

So you're probably thinking, "This is all very nice, Rob, but what's it all about? What does all this whiz-bang hype and propaganda boil down to?"

Here's the deal, ladies and gentlemen (and you, 1-cog)... I'm not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, but neither am I the dullest. Most of the time I can see the forest for the trees, and I'm here to give you the straight dope as I see it. So here it is...

All of this stuff boils down to one thing: The money in your pocket.

You love the out of doors, right? Well these companies are literally falling over each other in a spending frenzy to make sure your outdoor experience is as good as it can be. They want you to be warm, dry, fed, safe, energized, stylish, illuminated, equipped and entertained. If they can prove that their thing-a-ma-bob is somehow better than another company's thing-a-ma-jig, then they will take the money out of your pocket and put it into their pocket. If they fail, the other company gets your hard earned wampum. Simple as that.

"But, Rob," You say, "They're not taking my money because I'm not at the Outdoor Show."

Of course you're not, and they're not. Honestly, I not spending any cash either. I'm merely eating their snacks and looking at their wares.

The rubber meets the road when retailers place orders for actual product. They need to be convinced that this stuff will fly off the shelves and that they can "move" what they buy from the wholesalers or manufactures. So they come here to these conventions to be wowed and wooed by the marketing reps.

The reps put on a dog and pony show for the retailers, demonstrating their products, giving away free stuff, and throwing fancy parties. The retailers, in turn, have a good time, meet the sellers, get drunk, and see new stuff. But hey… the retailers need product to sell, so it all works out. They come to the convention ready to find the products they will eventually put in their stores and sell to YOU. Along the way, they have a good time on the marketing dime.

I stopped by the Timex booth and spoke with Jim Katz of Timex, the guy who's fronting our little Expeditio4am. He said that a lot of companies with smaller market share will blow their entire marketing budget on these kind of shows, dumping several millions of dollars into their convention efforts. The idea behind this approach is that a focused campaign to lure retailers is more effective than chasing the end consumer. After all, if they can beat the other companies to the shelf space, then their product will still get in front the consumer.

So that's what I see going on.

But honestly, I don't really care because it's the smoke and mirrors that interests me. Why? Simply put, this sort of convention is the freak show of big business. It a three ring free enterprise circus. Step right up and see the two headed man as he models the newest Teva line of sandals. Watch Glenda the Fat Lady and Byron the Midget perform their amazing kayak stunt-- with no net! Test your strength against the strongest man in the world, and win a box of Power Bars!

As I walked around the massive convention center, I couldn't help but think about the millions of dollars spent to catch my eye and pique my attention. The capitalist deep in my DNA was thrilled, because it saw the cogs of free enterprise turning and grinding. It's a fight for money, with no bloodshed. And all of it for ME, the American consumer!

Now if it sounds like I'm being sarcastic, sure I normally am. However, do not be fooled-- I LOVE IT. This convention represents survival of the fittest in the market place. Darwinism in free enterprise form. Ayn Rand Objectivism in action.

I personally believe that the best boxing matches are when the competitors duke it out for rounds and rounds. They take massive hits and bloody the hell out of each other. Sometimes the fight goes to the stronger, but other times it's the underdog who scores a victory... or even better, a knock out.

At the Outdoor Retailers Show it's not all about who has the biggest or fanciest booth with the sexiest ladies (although it sure helps), it's about muscling your way into the market place by the cleverest ways possible. As Aaron Clark with AlpineAire Foods demonstrated, it's about finding the most fetching way to attract the buyers, even if that simply means feeding them.

Our great country is all about competition, and what I witnessed the marketing equivalent of a cock fight. To me that's what was going on here, and it's a wonderful thing.

Most important, is what this means for you, the Outdoor Adventure consumer. With all of these companies fighting for your dollar, eventually what settles out is better products-- safer climbing gear, lighter and warmer fabrics, stronger and more comfortable shoes. And in a world where people want personalization, things that will speak to their own style, it also means choices and selection. Sometimes it means cost savings, but honestly, with the retailer mark up questionable.

So where does this leave Miss Utah 2000? Well, ladies and gents... the last time I saw Keri, all of this marketing money had put her exactly where she probably feels most comfortable-- on a pedestal.

-rob k