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Bucking Retail Slump, Outdoor And Sporting Goods Stores See Rebound

A cyclist rides down Day Boulevard in Boston, which was closed to traffic to allow pedestrians to socially distance, April 2020. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A cyclist rides down Day Boulevard in Boston, which was closed to traffic to allow pedestrians to socially distance, April 2020. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

It seems more Massachusetts residents are seeking refuge in the outdoors while the state continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. Since businesses began reopening, sporting goods stores are seeing certain items fly off the shelves.

"Basketball hoops are huge," said Henry Kanner, owner of Natick Outdoor Store. With 10 to 20 hoops being sold each week, he said it has been hard to keep up with customer demand. "They’re not traveling, they have money, and they want something to do when they’re hanging out at the house."

Or, in some cases, away from the house. Camping equipment, fishing gear, and paddle sports equipment have also been unusually popular.

"Kayaks are selling like crazy," Kanner said. "We sold 87 kayaks in three weeks when we first opened up, which would normally be probably a six month supply for us."

The wave of interest in outdoor recreation comes during a time when many Massachusetts retail stores have been struggling to regain their financial footing. Between February and May of this year, retail employment in Massachusetts decreased 20%, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Pioneer Institute.

Even as stores reopen, many retailers' sales are nowhere near the level they were at last year. (Source: U.S. Department of Commerce/Graph: Courtesy of Pioneer Institute)
Even as stores reopen, many retailers' sales are nowhere near the level they were at last year. (Source: U.S. Department of Commerce/Graph: Courtesy of Pioneer Institute)

But with worries about a potential second wave of coronavirus infections looming, and many indoor amusements like museums and restaurants only partially reopened, activities that can be done outside — and alone — have become all the more appealing.

"It seems more people are camping now than they have in the past," said David Kramer, manager at Hilton's Tent City in Cambridge, which has seen increased demand for tents, bedrolls, headlamps and isobutane cartridges used for outdoor cooking.

It's a change for a business that has been going "downhill," he said. Over the past few years, competition from Amazon and Walmart have cut into the store's revenue, while worries about mosquito-borne Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and tick-borne illnesses have scared some people away from camping and hiking.

In pandemic times, with people looking for an escape from their homes, Kramer said the store is starting to see business pick up.

Cam West, a retail sales manager at REI's Boston location, said customers are snatching up camping gear, along with bicycles and paddle sports equipment.

"Inflatable paddle boards have really been the hot ticket item," West said. "I've had friends call me and say, 'Hey, can you get me a stand up paddle board?' And I say, 'No, unless you want to spend fifteen-hundred bucks.' "

The price is high, he said, because only deluxe models are available right now due to the sudden increase in customer demand.

It hasn't all been on the upside for these retailers, though. Sales for items used in team sports like baseball and soccer are down.

"Everybody's sort of waiting and anticipating if it's going to be safe to do," said Natick Outdoor Store's Kanner. What's more, clothing sales are down, possibly because people are not traveling as much.

Still, Kanner said, the bump in revenue for things like hiking boots is exceeding the drop in sales for cleats and other items. And, he added, he feels lucky to see sales rebounding during a time when many retailers are still struggling.

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Adrian Ma Twitter Reporter
Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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