January 27, 2014, 2:08 PM

What’s hot online? Cold-weather gear

The polar vortex that’s sent temperature plummeting across much of the country has sent sales soaring for web merchants of gloves, hats and other outerwear. Consumers are shifting their purchases online because it’s too cold to go into stores, some retailers say.

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Summit Sports Inc., a Michigan-based online and store-based retailer of sporting goods, is starting to run out of some of its cold weather gear, says vice president of operations Andy Schepper.

That’s because since wind chills in Michigan dipped to 40 to 50 degrees below zero in early January, traffic and sales for its e-commerce site, Skis.com, have skyrocketed. Revenue via online marketplace channels, such as Amazon.com, is also way up compared to last year at this time.

“Our apparel sales are through the roof on Amazon,” he says. “We’ve seen a 50% to 60% increase in sales on Amazon. And on Skis.com, we’re probably up 40% on apparel sales. Most of that is on the really warm stuff like crossover ski wear, down jackets, base layers and heated gloves.”

Summit Sports brought in $16.2 million in online sales in 2012, up 9.5% from $14.8 million in 2011, according to e-commerce stats on the Top 1000 e-retailers in North America available on Top500Guide.com.

Summit Sports is not alone in its benefiting from the recent severe cold.  Other e-retailers in the Top 1000 that sell mainly cold weather gear report similar results, especially from markets hardest hit by the cold, or so-called “polar vortex.” These include New York, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and Detroit. Not only is demand up in general for cold weather gear, they say, but in some regions it’s too cold to shop in stores, so store sales of outerwear are shifting online.

As a whole, traffic to the e-commerce sites of seven of the top online outdoor apparel retailers is up 22.3% in January, to 4.1 million site visitors from 3.3 million in January 2013, according to web traffic measurement firm Compete Inc.

VF Corp., which owns major outdoor apparel brands Timberland and The North Face, has experienced a boost in online sales since temperatures dropped across the country in early January. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in our business with the polar vortex and the other cold snaps we have been seeing,” says Cal Bouchard, director of e-commerce at The North Face. “These have been driving especially sales of heavy insulated jackets, boots, gloves and mitts.”

Sales on TheNorthFace.com from customers in the New York City area during the coldest seven-day period thus far were up 92.7% compared with the same period in 2013, Bouchard says. Chicago customers bought 100.1% more this January, and shoppers in Washington, D.C. spent 104.1% more than last year.

VF Corp. sold $215.0 million online in 2012, up 20.9% from $177.9 million in 2011, Top500Guide.com shows.

Sales also are heating up for Free Country, a consumer brand manufacturer of cold weather gear. Free Country reports 44% year-over-year growth in web traffic and a 93% increase in online orders from the New York market since temperatures dropped there in early January. In Chicago, traffic thus far in January is up 66% and orders are up 103% compared with last year. Similar numbers are coming from the Minneapolis, Detroit and Cleveland areas, according to executive vice president and founder Jody Schwartz.

Free Country sells its coats, snow pants, gloves and other outerwear through mid-tier department stores like Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, and as of 18 months ago, direct to consumers at FreeCountry.com.

The retailer credits the cold with much of the increase in web sales. “The cold weather trend has certainly helped us, and in particular the online business,” Schwartz says. “In those areas where they’ve been hit really hard with the weather, people are making their purchases online because it’s not safe to get out of their homes and into the stores.”

Other web merchants are seeing a similar impact on sales of the products they sell that keep shoppers warm. ScotteVest Inc., for example, is best known as a retailer of gadget- and travel-friendly apparel like vests with loads of pockets and light jackets wired for headphones. However, sales of two of its warmest products—the Penny Coat, a long soft-shell winter coat for women and the Lola puffer jacket—are up 90.0% and 266.7%, respectively, this January compared to the same period last year.

“We did not have any special sales on the Penny Coat, and we only had one recent sale on the Lola Jacket, so I would definitely put most of the uptick on the cold,” says Thom O’Leary, chief implementation officer.

ScotteVest brought in $8.0 million in online sales in 2012, down 7.9% from $8.7 million in 2011. In mid-April, Top500Guide.com will be updated with 2013 web sales figures for the 500 largest e-retailers in North America.

Ibex Outdoor Clothing LLC, which brought in $9.4 million in online sales in 2012, up 16.2% from $8.1 million, also reported an uptick in sales and online traffic thus far in January. Columbia Sportswear Co. and Eastern Mountain Sports Inc. declined to comment. Under Armour Inc., L.L Bean Inc., Eddie Bauer LLC and Rock/Creek Outfitters did not respond to a request for comment.

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