As the outdoor industry embraces non-traditional activities and more diverse consumer groups, brands are ushering in dynamic and versatile styles to meet the evolving demand.
Since the emergence of the modern outdoor industry in the ’70s, the market has been heavily influenced by its Baby Boomer creators and has largely been defined by the core activities of backpacking, hiking, paddling, camping and climbing. Along the way, classic hikers have become just that: classic. To say a chunk of the product evolution in this market segment has stagnated along the lines of the tastes and end uses of its older demographic would be an understatement. But now this foundation is shifting as many boomers age out of the category. In response, outdoor suppliers and retailers are ramping up efforts to attract new consumers—notably Millennials and women who are redefining outdoor recreation—with updated styling and hybrid performance features. It answers lifestyle pursuits such as action sports, urban outdoors and bike commuting. As such, products, stylistically and end use-wise, are stretching far beyond the wooded trail. The fact is younger participants view the outdoors—and their place in it—far differently than their elders and the industry is stepping up to meet those demands.
Samantha Searles, director of consumer insights, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), says understanding Millennial and women’s values, behaviors and preferences is an important part of defining the industry’s future. Women are a fast growing demographic in the category and, for the first time, Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers. (The demographic will account for one-third of total spending by 2020, according to a McKinsey study.) “Millennials and women are multifaceted and want products that are fashionable, versatile, functional and comfortable to complement their active lifestyle,” she says, noting that women’s-specific outdoor product sales are already a $5 billion industry and are expected to grow in the years ahead. Searles adds that as OIA is also working to connect with young Hispanic and African-American consumers as well as anyone who resides in urban areas. (Forty percent of Millennials are minorities, according to a report by Fiscal Times.)
In an effort to showcase this emerging market, Outdoor Retailer debuted its Venture Out segment at this month’s Summer Market that showcases more than 12 innovative urban and lifestyle brands (including SeaVees, Topo Designs and Zeal Optics) aimed at helping outdoor specialty retailers better understand, attract and engage a younger and more urban-influenced audience. It featured a mix of brand presentations, media, food and culture to help showcase the burgeoning outdoor trend. “As younger adventurers—often living in urban settings—engage the outdoors, their expectations of design, function and utility differ from how older generations view outdoor gear,” explains Scott McGuire, president of The Mountain Lab, developers of Venture Out. “[Young consumers] want urban-influenced design rooted in functionality. They don’t want the mass-produced fleece or heavy leather backpacking boots their parents wore.” McGuire notes how this consumer may go on a hike wearing board shorts, a yoga top and Nike skate shoes, and will take cell phone pictures of birds and flowers along the way and share them with friends through social media. “They want to have meaningful toes-in-the-dirt experiences, but in a different way than their parents had,” he says, adding, “they’re bringing more energy into the outdoor space.” McGuire also believes that many of these brands will not be vying for marketshare: Rather, they’ll be creating new avenues of growth. And that presents opportunities for new brands. “The younger consumer is going to find a way to the outdoor experience and the older, traditional brands may not be the ones delivering it to them,” he says.
The shift presents new growth opportunities, provided brands figure out what these consumers will want and need. It’s a tricky business since each demographic has particular tastes and demands, compounded by the fact that the lines between performance and lifestyle product continue to blur. “Many of us immersed in the outdoor world think of ourselves as ‘outdoorsmen,’ meaning there is no line separating lifestyle from performance,” says Carl Blakeslee, creative director of Portland Product Werks, makers of Woolrich Footwear. “And I believe that is good for the industry because it opens more doors for hybrid products and market stories.”
Natasha Petrovsky, Sanuk’s global marketing manager, agrees, noting the brand will introduce a new canvas vulcanized collection of sneakers and ballet flats in fresh materials for Spring ’15. “We are focusing on a younger, hipper customer that pays attention to fashion and wants his or her own identity,” she says. And while comfort and performance remain priorities, the fashion aspect can’t be overlooked. “Shoppers want a wardrobe that works seamlessly with their lifestyle, and we see this as a great opportunity to target the fashion-conscious,” Petrovsky adds.
Along similar hybrid lines, paddlesports equipment maker Astral, which jumped into footwear in 2012, is looking to serve younger consumers by offering styles suitable on the river and on the town. The new Aquanaut, for example, is a crossover water/trail shoe that’s lightweight, breathable and has an aggressive outsole. And the Brewer (Brewess for women) is a casual skate look but with performance features such as a fast-drying Cordura upper, drainage holes and a G.14 sticky rubber outsole for traction on wet rocks—and wet cobblestones. “Our target consumers are ages 18 to 35 and although we design for kayakers, rafters and paddlers, our shoes are also great for travel because they’re extremely lightweight,” notes Bryan Owen, brand manager. “Today’s outdoor consumers may not be hardcore paddlers, but they identify with the outdoor lifestyle,” he adds. To help spread the word, Astral’s marketing focuses on grassroots events and festivals that blend sports and music, and the company also recently hired a social media coordinator.
Jambu, a division of Vida Group, is also courting lifestyle consumers, but is not overly concerned with its actual age. It’s a general mindset the brand is targeting. “We view a consumer’s mindset and lifestyle over actual age as being far more important, and we offer designs that support that concept,” remarks David Jonah, general manager of Jambu. “We’ve always defined Jambu as a ‘hybrid’ footwear choice, fusing outdoor, sport and comfort fashion with technical performance elements for the consumer who wants a shoe that can easily traverse changing terrain and climates.” Jonah reports that women’s is the brand’s fastest-growing segment, currently comprising 80 percent of the business.
For Ahnu, which began as a lifestyle brand primarily for women, performance products that incorporate aesthetics and fashion continue to be the premise. “We package our technology in products that women feel good about wearing both on and off the trail,” notes Jacqueline Van Dine, brand director and co-founder. As for appealing specifically to younger consumers, Van Dine says it’s as much about the product as it is in how you communicate with that audience. “Reaching them through their handhelds is as critical as how the products perform,” she says, adding the message differs by gender. “I have a saying: ‘Women like to plant trees and men like to climb them.’ So you need to speak to them differently.” Similarly, Ahnu continues to build product using gender-appropriate lasts, thereby creating a distinct aesthetic for each segment. It’s not the “shrink and pink” approach so commonly used in the outdoor space. “Our women’s products feels and looks more feminine and the men’s products a bit more burly,” Van Dine offers.
Even traditional outdoor brands—like Asolo, Lowa, Vasque and La Sportiva—are developing new technologies and silhouettes geared toward active consumers for beyond the trails. “Five years ago, 40 percent of our sales were to women, and it’s coming back to that level now,” says Henry Barber, Asolo USA sales director. “We’re also seeing more sales in metro areas, and we believe that urban outdoor is where the growth is.” Barber cites the Italian brand’s rich color palette, Natural Shape comfort technology, wide width program and women’s-specific offerings as all growth drivers. A standout model for the Spring ’15 line is the Magix, which is designed for mountain lifestyle consumers. It’s a durable, lightweight hiker that can be used for multiple activities.
Peter Sachs, general manager of Lowa Boots, views females as the holy grail of the outdoor market. “Women are the missing segment everyone is in search of,” he says, noting that several studies estimate the demographic accounts for one-third of the market’s sales. Lowa offers women’s specific styles regarding fit, design, colorations and materials. Beyond that Sachs says the brand aims to get younger, too. “Our goal has been to drop our average age by introducing more athletic-inspired product,” he says. An example this spring will be the Ferrox GTX Lo shoe that offers lightweight synthetic uppers, Gore-Tex linings, construction for support and stability and athletic and youthful colors.
For Vasque, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it has made a living catering to baby boomers. But now the brand is entering emerging categories in an effort to grow young again. “We’re approaching the younger market in two ways,” explains Brian Hall, director of product development. “We’re offering performance hiking product that’s more colorful and has a lightweight silhouette, such as our Inhaler model. We’re also focusing on trail running, a broad category that touches a lot of participants, and is definitely a more active, younger-oriented category based on color and design.” Hall adds, “The emergence of athletic brands into trail product is attracting younger consumers.”
Greg Thomsen, managing director of Adidas Outdoor, doesn’t mince words on its targeting of both a younger and a female demographic: “One hundred percent of our footwear line is youth-driven, with about 40 percent created specifically for women.” In order to attract these 18- to 30-year-old outdoor athletes, Thomsen says the styles are “lighter, faster and more technical with a ‘next generation’ aesthetic.” It’s a must, he notes. “The next generation of outdoor athletes is doing things faster and bolder than previous generations and our products are designed to enhance their abilities,” he says. “Our fastest-growing categories are lightweight, fast hikers and water sports.”
From a retail perspective, this macro category shift toward younger and more feminine silhouettes presents exciting opportunities, but also daunting buying decisions. Choosing the right brands and styles for a far more volatile and fast-moving audience is no easy task, especially when it’s been a far more consistent buy in the past. Hilary Mitchell, footwear buyer and assistant store manager at The Base Camp, which operates two stores in Montana, confirms that there’s growing consumer demand for more versatile footwear and they have to get up to speed. “The outdoor industry is now reaching more people who weren’t previously very interested,” she says, “For example, we’re selling lots of climbing approach shoes for fashion because they have the look and color that customers want.” Mitchell’s current buying strategy is to look at product from functional and fashion/casual perspectives, and to figure out how the consumer will actually use the product. It has resulted in a greater selection of styles for women, with Oboz, Salomon and La Sportiva being recent strong sellers. She notes that younger consumers gravitate toward Salomon and La Sportiva for the color, and Chaco and Birkenstock are also doing well. “Traditional brands are now trending toward younger consumers—Birkenstock is back full-force,” Mitchell says.
San Diego-based Adventure 16, which operates four stores in Southern California, is faced with the challenge of its location in the effort to reach a younger audience. President John Mead cites the numerous action sports and surf shops in the area as making it a tough battle. “Our stores are located along the Pacific Crest Trail and we’re a more traditional mountain shop that has been in San Diego since the ’60s,” he says. “This isn’t to say that we’re not looking to get traction with younger consumers, but it’s tough.” Adventure 16 plans to bring in a couple of younger, more colorful lines such as Topo Designs. “The good news is that when you promote to a younger audience, it resonates with older consumers,” Mead says.
New York-based Tent & Trails is taking full advantage of its urban locale and is keen on connecting with Millennials and women. “It’s about money and everybody wants a bite of the pie,” offers Jamie Lipman, manager and COO. “The Baby Boomers are starting to age out, and it’s important to make sure the next generations get interested in outdoor recreation in whatever forms it takes.” The store has widened its focus to allow for more types of footwear, and while hiking remains a key category, trail running and ultra-light hybrid styles are also trending well. “The challenge is to keep up with consumers by stocking the right brands and a range of sizes,” says Lipman. “I also think that consumers are finding that buying shoes online isn’t the panacea they thought it would be. Regardless of age or gender, they still need to try them on.”