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More People Than Ever Are Exploring the Outdoors. Here’s the Opportunity for Brands and Retailers

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While COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of many new shopping behaviors and expectations, there is another trend that the pandemic has pushed forward: interest in the outdoors.

Participation in outdoor activities increased by nearly 25 million people over the past decade, and nearly half that number visited the U.S.’s trails since lockdowns began in 2020 alone, according to the Returning to the Great Outdoors report by William Blair. This has created significant opportunity for outdoor and sporting goods brands alike.  

“I think that COVID has accelerated the [trend] over the last 18 months or so,” said Ryan Sundby, Research Analyst at William Blair in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Our guess is at least 10 million more people entered the outdoors, which results in over 11 billion outings to the outdoors in a year. I think that long term this has been great, because you’ve probably reached a new consumer that wasn’t really interacting with you in the past.”

These newcomers also are younger and more diverse than the traditional hiker:

  • 58% of new participants are female, compared to 49% of existing participants;
  • 70% of new participants are 18 to 49 years old, compared to 48% of existing participants; and
  • 66% of new participants are Caucasian, compared to 71% of existing participants.

Altogether, this gives any retailer that carries outdoor goods the power to reach a promising cohort of new customers. Moreover, it provides a golden opportunity to build brand loyalty for retailers that are willing to go the extra mile to meet their needs.

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Newcomers to the Outdoors Need an Education

The outdoors is a perfect place to escape from a cramped home while maintaining social distancing protocols, which has made mountains, forests and similarly remote getaways popular destinations. Campers and hikers need gear for their journeys, but newcomers won’t necessarily know what they need for their preferred adventures. Whether they plan to spend a few hours on a trail or rough it for a camping weekend, consumers need insight and advice — and retailers can provide it to ultimately build trust and loyalty.

“If you’re going to go skiing for the first time, there are about 20 different items that you need to make sure you have — skis, boots, poles, proper attire — to help you feel comfortable,” said Sundby. “No one wants to end up on a mountain unprepared. It’s a bad experience.”

Retailers have both the expertise to teach shoppers about what they’ll need and multiple methods of doing so. One simple yet effective tool is the associate. Shoppers who feel overwhelmed by all of the products in a store certainly appreciate a guide who knows the merchandise; and if associates are hobbyists themselves, they can further enhance the shopping experience with their knowledge of local areas.

When consumers are shopping online, however, retailers can embrace a different educational approach. Sundby noted that retailers can include features like checklists that help ensure shoppers have everything they need. They also can use personalization and curation features to suggest items that may complement a previous purchase, and even help them connect with like-minded adventurers interested in the same activities and experiences.

“The more retailers and manufacturers can prepare the consumer for that experience, educate them about what to expect, where they can go and what kind of gear they need, that makes the whole process easier for the consumer to understand,” said Sundby. “You can build community around that. Groups of people that are coming together to do these things, and that’s a pretty awesome experience.”

Collaborate with Manufacturers on Products and Conservancy

Retailers and suppliers are naturally intertwined, but the relationship becomes even more important when selling outdoor gear. Many companies on both sides of the divide are immensely passionate about the great outdoors, and they can combine their efforts to boost their message about anything and everything — from new gear to conservation efforts.

Outdoor gear is a category where brand is critical. A hiker out in the wilderness wants to be absolutely certain that their coat is warm enough, their thermos won’t leak and their boots are comfortable. This makes high-quality products especially important to outdoor retailers and incentivizes both parties to work together and let shoppers know what’s available.

“I think, ultimately, new products are one of the key purchase drivers for the consumer,” said Sundby. “The manufacturer’s role there is to continue to evolve the products advertised, advertise to drive traffic to the stores, and to ensure they do everything hand-in-hand with the retailers.”

Conservation efforts also are important, and shoppers are looking for sustainability everywhere from resale opportunities to fashion brands’ executive pay. Outdoor retailers and manufacturers are particularly well-positioned to take to the forefront in this effort due to their close connection to the environment. Those that truly take this opportunity seriously can reap significant benefits.

“Protecting the outdoors is near and dear to almost all outdoor companies,” said Sundby. “That’s become more clear and more evident in the last five years, and certainly as an investment firm we’re seeing our clients care a lot more about that as well.”

Expect Consolidation in a Fragmented Market

The growing popularity of the outdoor space means it could change a lot in the near future. William Blair believes mergers may become more common in the near future as larger brands seek to tap into the potential synergies of brands with similar or complementary products.

“Maybe you share your backends, finance and some sourcing, and maybe there’s some crossover R&D you can share across different brands, but by and large these brands live on their own,” said Sundby. “They maintain their authenticity with the consumer, maintain their entrepreneurial spirit. I think you’re going to see more of that structure going forward where you have this portfolio of brands with one central nervous system behind it.”

While the current explosive growth isn’t going to last forever, Sundby believes retailers can hang onto their new customers while still benefitting from the same slow and steady growth the outdoor space has experienced over the past decade. Earning customer trust through educational content and experiences, while investing heavily in manufacturer partnerships and acquisitions, will position smart retailers for success well into the future.

“The general consensus is that you’ve seen a fundamental change in consumer behavior,” said Sundby. “You’ve seen people interacting with the outdoors and the ways they haven’t before in the past. Certainly, you’ve seen a lot of sales of RVs, boats and bikes that are going to keep people involved in the outdoors. I think the consensus expectation is that there’s a couple steps up in demand during COVID, and then a return more towards historical growth.”

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