Outdoors equipment sales on the rise

Some people won’t put their passions on hold for anything. That starts with many of those who love the outdoors.

That attitude has rejuvenated business this winter for many of the more costly outdoors industries.

“If somebody loves something, it seems now they are going to figure out a way to do it,” said Karen Bell at Auburn Outboard Marine, a boat dealer and repair shop. She said her business just about went under a few years ago, but has stabilized with fresh sales of entry-level fishing boats and a busy shop with excellent service.

“It’s a big change,” Bell said. “What’s happened is people aren’t waiting anymore for things to get better. If they want to go fishing and boating, now they’re going, not waiting.”

According to the Outdoor Industry Association of America, 140 million Americans make outdoor recreation a priority in their daily lives, and they spent $646 billion last year and created 6.1 million jobs. Not everybody gets a piece of the pie.

The economic crash of the winter of 2007-08 plastered the boating industry, RV sales, tourism and, in some areas, entry-level bicycle sales.

According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry of America, attendance has been good at this winter’s shows and the organization projects a third straight year of growth. That’s even though the numbers don’t come close to the spendthrift era of 2003 to ’07, when homeowners used equity lines of credit on overvalued properties to buy expensive RVs and boats.

Yet it was worse for bike shops. In the Bay Area, about half the shops went out of business during the recession. The bicycle industry as a whole has survived by selling high-end bikes at significant profit to its most passionate riders, and the best shops by providing excellence in service and custom mods.

Tepid sales of entry-level bikes are also blamed on parents who might not let their kids ride bikes to school and events, as was commonplace a generation ago, according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods.

At outdoor shops, many store managers have increased profits by shifting floor space to clothing, which has the highest profit margin.

The best recession-proof outdoors industry has been firearms: The FBI reported 16.8 million background checks last year, an indicator of sales, and the highest in history.

Tom Stienstra is The San Francisco Chronicle’s outdoors writer. E-mail: tstienstra@sfchronicle.com. Daily twitter at: @StienstraTom

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