As the pandemic’s first winter begins, many Canadians are heading outdoors to skate, ski and snowmobile. Suppliers of winter gear are fast running out of equipment to sell them.
Sandra Stirling, co-owner of Overlander Sports in Yellowknife, described an uptick in early sales of outdoor sports equipment like snowshoes, skis and skates.
“There’s been a much bigger demand,” she said.
“Even though we haven’t had that much snow yet, people are still wanting to buy equipment earlier than they have in the past.”
Stirling believes that’s partly due to the pandemic, with outdoor sports one of the safest ways to stay active while following public health precautions. But she said the popularity of cross-country skiing waxes and wanes with the years.
“It goes in cycles, like everything else does. I think we’re just in a cycle where it’s become more popular,” Stirling said.
The Yellowknife Ski Club is seeing increased interest this winter. According to president Heather Scott, registration is already up 17 percent on last year and the club expects even more members to join.
“It looks really great and some of our programs for youth have increased in numbers significantly as well,” Scott said.
The ski club started a Facebook group where people can buy and sell used equipment, replacing a gear swap that normally takes place at the annual snow show. While that event was cancelled because of Covid-19, Scott said the social media group has proved popular.
Scott added a lot of Yellowknifers turned to skiing in March and April as the NWT’s pandemic restrictions first came into effect.
“People discovered or rediscovered their love of the sport,” she said.
Canadian retailers ‘clamouring’ for skis
With increased interest in skiing, Stirling said keeping the shelves stocked at Overlander has been a challenge.
The Yellowknife store has experienced delays to some shipments, while one supplier’s warehouse shut down due to the pandemic.
Overlander still has supplies of children’s skis, skate skis and backcountry skis, but Stirling said the store is almost sold out of regular adult cross-country skis. When more will arrive isn’t clear – Stirling said stores across Canada are “clamouring” for winter sports gear.
At Vancouver’s West Coast Sports, manager Chris Turjanica said: “Everyone’s been buying everything as much as possible. A lot of stuff, once we sell out of it, we can’t get any more in.”
At Skiis and Biikes in Toronto, general manager Stepfanie Dobson described waits of a month to six weeks to restock some equipment.
Dobson said a Ukraine factory belonging to ski manufacturer Fischer burned down last month, compounding the backlog and adding “insult to injury” in “one of the hottest years” for cross-country skiing.
Richard Wolvers is the ski and bike division director at Lanctôt, which distributes Fischer skis in Canada. Wolvers said the fire meant he didn’t get his full order of skis. Even if that hadn’t happened, he said, there wouldn’t be enough skis to meet demand that has “gone through the roof.”
“I always tell my boss that if it snows I’m a hero and if it doesn’t I’m a zero,” he said. “This year is the first time I’ve ever seen people just buying stuff without snow on the ground.”
Wolvers explained that manufacturers’ production plans are made well ahead of the winter season so factories have time to prepare. He made his first forecast for the fall of 2021-2022 this June.
For this winter, Wolvers said, Canadian suppliers actually reduced the amount of skis they expected to sell. They did so following a poor season in Europe last winter and on the back of initial uncertainty when Covid-19 first struck.
Suppliers increased their numbers as they realized demand was soaring, but it wasn’t enough.
“If we had a crystal ball we would’ve bought a lot more,” he said. “I don’t think any ski supplier in Canada bought enough product for the surge that we’re experiencing.”
The winter rush for outdoor gear mirrors what happened in the summer, when bicycles and kayaks also sold out across Canada. Wolvers expects that issue to persist in the summer of 2021, saying preorders for bikes are already outstretching factories’ capacity to manufacture them.
‘One of the best we’ve ever had’
It’s not just skiing.
At Hay River’s Diggerz Sports, which sells ATVs and snowmobiles, parts and sales manager Jody Irvine estimates sales have increased 30 percent.
“I sold six sleds last week. That doesn’t usually happen,” he said. Irvine puts the increase down to the fact few people are leaving the territory, so residents are “all spending their money at home.”
At the Polar Tech recreational vehicle dealership in Yellowknife, Mike Bryant said of this season: “It’s still early, but it’s looking like it’s going to be one of the best we’ve ever had.
“I think everyone’s basically resigned to having to do different things this year. People aren’t going for Christmas vacations and things like that.”
Polar Tech still has vehicles in stock – the company ordered a lot of merchandise early in the summer to meet demand – but the pandemic has affected the supply chain, Bryant said, citing shipping delays and challenges finding specialist parts.
He noted Polar Tech gets many of its products from the United States.
“It’s the same thing with anything from groceries to cars,” he said.
“There’s a bottleneck that wasn’t there before.”