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The Outdoor Apparel Consumer Has a New Face and Some Brands Aren’t Yet Up to Speed

As the nation becomes increasingly urban and remaining green spaces shrink, the meaning of “outdoor” has shifted.

For some urban outdoor enthusiasts, it can simply mean a trip to the local park—for ultramarathon trail runners, it can mean a way of life. Retailers and brands hoping to capture the outdoor consumer must now understand what the word means to a wide variety of ethnic, economic and age-based groups as the outdoor industry continues to expand.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the GDP of the outdoor recreation economy (which includes gear, lodgings and other expenditures) outpaced the growth of the U.S. economy in 2016, per the most recent data available. Gross output, compensation and employment for all industries related to outdoor recreation were also higher than the overall economy.

In total, the outdoor economy makes up around 2.2 percent of the total GDP, valued at roughly $412 billion dollars.

However, of the money spent in that economy, only about 32.7 percent went to what the BEA considers “core” outdoor activities—including interests like boating, fishing and ATV-riding. Activities that are merely outdoor-related, like travel and tourism, make up the largest portion of the value of the outdoor industry at 47.9 percent.

Samantha Searles, the director of the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) market and consumer insights research team, told Sourcing Journal the current state of the outdoor industry reflects a change in consumer behaviors that the industry has sometimes struggled to understand.

“We try really hard not to lump (outdoor consumers) together because we know there are different kinds of outdoor consumers that have different levels of engagement, different levels of spending—their behaviors, their motivators, their barriers, they’re all different,” Searles said.

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In the past, OIA has conducted research that worked to define outdoor consumers among seven segments. However, Searles said the cohort, overall, could be defined by the three most common: the Achiever, the Outdoor Native and the Urban Athlete. The other four groups could be described as sub-segments of those three categories and include such consumers as the Aspirational Core consumer, the Athleisurist, the Sideliner and the Complacent.

In recent years, OIA has urged its members to adopt this terminology in order to standardize the industry’s approach and further clarify consumer interests. For example, it is useful to understand that, while the Achiever and Urban Athlete categories share many of the same interests, the Urban Athlete prefers social competitions—like triathlons and city marathons—and is much less likely to go on a solo adventure.

While both the Achiever and the Urban Athlete are more likely to associate Nike with outdoor activities than any other brand, the Outdoor Native sees Dick’s Sporting Goods, the North Face and Coleman to as their top outdoor brands. Some of this can be explained by the fact that the Outdoor Native has a median age of 40, while the Achiever has a median age of 34 and the Urban Athlete skews even younger at 32 years of age.

Above all, the Achiever represents a consumer that is willing to do anything to conquer that next mountain, sometimes in a literal sense, and regularly competes with themselves to become faster and endure further. It is this consumer that represents the ideal outdoor cohort. However, as Searles explained, the category looks a lot different than it did 15 or 20 years ago.

“Their demographics skew ethnic and skew urban. These are not the white, affluent people that the industry seems to perceive the outdoor consumer to be,” she said. “There’s a lot more diversity coming into the outdoor space than the industry has been willing to accept and support. There’s a big equity and inclusion effort that’s happening in the outdoor space to better adapt to the changing outdoor consumer landscape and to be more open and inclusive to drawing those people in.”

She offered an example of this trend in the form of a city-born, possibly lower income youth who likes to scale walls at the nearby recreation center. Unfortunately, Searles said OIA believes this new kind of consumer is one that the outdoor community may not currently be set up to serve.

Instead, brands they have more experience with—like Nike and Adidas, for example—have had an inside edge with the new “achiever.” Still, outdoor brands that are able to compete in this category could gain access to a consumer cohort that spends more on gear than any other group and which makes up 34 percent of the entire outdoor consumer base.

As OIA explained, understanding these specific “modes” can be the key to offering a “consumer-led journey” that focuses more on what the outdoor consumer actually wants to do than who they are, demographically. This allows brands to react to behaviors, rather than individuals, as a single consumer can occupy many different modes over a lifetime.

“Consumers are more educated than ever and are well aware of the myriad of options available. They actively guide their own purchase journey and “pull” in information. Brands will succeed by providing useful, timely information at every step of the purchase journey across retail channels and marketing mediums,” OIA’s most recent “Path to Purchase” report recommends. “Follow the lead of brands like REI and online retailers like Amazon. REI understands that consumers can be in researching, playing and socializing modes so they provide tools that support those modes and help consumers get jobs done.”

Regardless, understanding changing demographics can still play a big role in explaining shifts in consumer behavior that may ultimately inform OIA’s modes. According to a 2018 outdoor participation report conducted by the Outdoor Foundation and the Physical Activity Council, age, race and income level all play a role in determining how brands should react to new behaviors.

“Outdoor participation skews slightly male. Participants also tended to have higher household incomes and have some college experience,” the Outdoor Foundation’s report read. “Almost three-quarters of participants were white Americans, and 65 percent were age 25 and older.”

However, while outdoor participants were largely white, male and older in 2018, participation among minority groups rose the fastest. Outdoor participation among Hispanics grew by 1 percent year-over-year, followed by Asians at 0.9 percent. Hispanic consumers now account for 17 percent of the outdoor cohort while participation among black and white populations both declined by 0.4 percent.

Notably, Black and Hispanic participants exhibited a higher rate of participation than any other groups. Meanwhile, white outdoor participants were the only group to prefer hiking over running.

With so many streams of information, it can be difficult for larger brands to maneuver in a way that catches every new demographic surge in the outdoor industry. However, the Outdoor foundation contends that the most common motivator for all of these groups is the urge to simply get more exercise.

“Outreach efforts that address universal needs such as sunshine/fresh air and social engagement will resonate with nearly all outdoor consumers,” the foundation explained.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the typical outdoor consumer, OIA’s data on consumer spending also reveals a trend similar to what has been seen in performance apparel. Either due to an inability to connect with certain consumers or the lack of a “wow” product, spending on outdoor apparel and footwear has fallen.

According to the Outdoor Foundation, only 9 percent of outdoor consumers surveyed said that they had spent more money on recreational footwear in 2018, while 11 percent said they had spent less. When it came to clothing, it was much the same. Only 9 percent responded that they had spent more on outdoor apparel in 2018, while 13 percent said they had spent less. 18 percent of the participants in the survey said that they had declined to participate in outdoor activities due to high costs.

According to Searles and the OIA, it’s up to brands to understand these new barriers and trends and try to come at the outdoor consumer in a different way than ever before.

“We work really hard to help move the needle so that the way we define outdoor activity isn’t limited to core outdoor recreation. There’s a lot of non-traditional recreation out there that’s impacting the space,” Searles concluded. “We’ve seen it with a lot of our members. Kelty did an entire outdoor line of festival gear with the sole purpose of targeting the urban athlete because they used our research to develop a line of product that is specific to a segment that’s undervalued within the industry—and it did great. It was different and served a purpose that hadn’t been met before.”