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Out There: The Madness of Outdoor Retailer

Columnist Susan Lacke takes you inside Outdoor Retailer, the zany trade show in Salt Lake City.

I’ve long thought it’d be fun to open my own running shop one day. In addition to spending my days slinging shoes and pointing people to the best trails in the area, I’d have first dibs on any and all new products before they even hit the market. In the romantic dream I conjured up as a proprietor, I’d carefully curate the goods I would stock on my shelves, personally testing each and every product to make sure it would meet my exacting standards.

Which is why, when my handlers at Competitor sent me to Outdoor Retailer this week in Salt Lake City, I got more than a little excited to indulge that fantasy. I thought I’d finally get to observe what makes these small business owners tick. Of the millions of products to choose from every year, how does a person narrow it down to what’s deserving of the limited space on their sales floor?

At Outdoor Retailer, I got my answer: With beer. Lots of beer.

Now I really want to own a running shop.

As the world’s largest showcase of products for the active lifestyle, Outdoor Retailer is where 20,000-plus real-life business owners (and one running magazine columnist) view next year’s shoes, nutrition, gear and other active lifestyle products vying for a spot on the rack of your local running store.

With hundreds of brands crammed in one tiny space, everyone’s got a gimmick to catch your attention—one running shoe company erected a two-story, 30-foot treadmill constantly filled with models running; another built a vending machine dispensing GPS watches. There are light shows and smoke machines and tiny food samples served up on tiny silver spoons. It’s exactly like Vegas, but with moisture-wicking fabric.

And, of course, the ultimate gimmick—at both Vegas and at Outdoor Retailer—is alcohol. Every booth has bottles, kegs or heavy pours of cabernet. I suspect this is a strategic move by the exhibitors, because there’s no easier way to seal a business deal than by getting your customer tipsy. By 5 p.m., most transactions looked like closing time at a dive bar: You’re cute. I think I’ll take you home with me. HEY, CAN I GET ANOTHER IPA OVER HERE BEFORE I GO?

The exhibitors imbibe as well, and their loose lips are entertaining. At one booth, a product was advertised as containing “RFL Technology.” Having no awareness of such a feature, I inquired about its meaning.

“You really wanna know?” The product representative flashed a sly smirk. I nodded. “We were kicking around ideas for advertising one night when someone said, man, this is really f***ing light. And there you have it: R…F…L.”

When he put his hand up for a high-five, I couldn’t help but laugh.

The booze continues to flow freely at private parties hosted by brands after the show closes each evening, and that’s when things get really crazy. In addition to several spontaneous beer miles in the streets of Salt Lake City last night, I saw someone drinking lager out of a trail shoe, “Das Boot” style. I was also cornered by a guy who insisted I arm-wrestle him for a free trucker cap (alas, my head remains unadorned, and I have begun a strict bench-press regimen in preparation for next year).

So there you have it: What shows up for sale in your local running store is very possibly the decision of a few too many craft beers at Outdoor Retailer. Given the “careful curating” done under the influence, it’s truly a wonder our shops aren’t stocking neon thongs and moon boots for our fall marathons.


About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke