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Outdoor Winter Wear Next in Line for Pandemic Lift

As they have throughout the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor footwear and active apparel seem primed to be one of retail’s brighter spots going into winter.

In March, as gyms closed and states passed stay-at-home orders, consumers turned to running and home exercise equipment to stay healthy and active. Then, as those orders lifted and people began traveling a little further from home, hiking and trail footwear saw its own bump.

According to Beth Goldstein, executive director, industry analyst, accessories and footwear at NPD Group, hiking and outdoor footwear gained momentum during the summer starting in June and really picked up in July, growing more than 15 percent.

Footwear behemoths Nike and Reebok have already debuted new models to meet this demand, the first with the winterized Jordan Spizike 270 Boot and the latter with the “mountain-inspired” Zig Kinetica Edge.

Looking ahead, it appears consumers still see outdoor recreation as their best escape from modern stresses, and companies selling outdoor winter gear stand to reap the benefits.

According to outdoor retail giant REI, early sales trends indicate it will experience “an unprecedented year with sales of winter gear at an all-time high.” Snow-ready products like cross-country skis and snowshoes, it noted, are already up more than three and four times, respectively, over last year. The Kent, Wash.-based co-op also highlighted upward trends for insulated boots and winter hiking gear and increased interest in items like next-to-skin base layers, mid-layers and outerwear.

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“Getting out into nature is one of the best ways to stay balanced during this stressful time, and our numbers are showing more Americans are doing just that,” said Ben Johns, REI general merchandising manager for action sports. “We’ve expanded inventory and continue to pivot however we can, to help more people get outside.”

Though he predicts “a challenged holiday season for the sports retail business,” Matt Powell, vice president, senior industry advisor, sports at NPD, said running shoes, hiking and weather-ready boots and outerwear should fare well in the months ahead.

Both Powell and REI noted much of the increased interest has come from entry-level gear categories. Speaking to running shoes specifically, Powell said, “Brands and retailers must remember that many of these new runners are beginners, not elites, and will therefore be seeking more mainstream product rather than higher-priced running shoes.”

Despite winter and outer gear’s upward lift, Powell said he expects to see low single-digit declines in athletic footwear sales in Q4. Attributing this predicted downward trend to a lack of new products, he added the cancellation or postponement of winter sports seasons do not bode well for basketball sneakers, and the overall softness of the apparel market will check growth in activewear.

Though activewear has flourished since March and REI is now reporting high demand for winter gear, it hasn’t come out of the pandemic unscathed. In April, the company laid off nearly 300 employees at headquarters and furloughed about 90 percent of its store staff, notifying about 400 retail workers in July that they would not be coming back.