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The Changing Landscape of Outdoor


For many years, the marketing of the “Great Outdoors” by industry brands focused on hardcore enthusiasts intent on climbing Everest or at least having the performance-features and fabrics in their garments and footwear to do so. In recent years, many brands shifted to a more inclusive message. Now that message is broadening even more thanks in part to consumer trends that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With 2020 seeing surging interest in individual or family pursuits such as biking, camping, hiking, kayaking, RV-ing and running — almost any outdoor endeavor that provides fresh air and exercise while maintaining a safe social distance from others — outdoor vendors and retailers are evaluating their approaches to the broadening marketplace to accommodate newcomers.

“REI is well-positioned to support these folks, it’s part of what we do every day,” says Ben Johns, general merchandising manager for action sports at the Seattle-based outdoor specialty chain. “I can’t speak for other retailers, but the co-op has always and will continue to view the outdoors as a place for everyone.”

The Big Dogs Are Here

This growing and diversified outdoor category isn’t lost on other retailers, many of whom are strategizing and scrambling to serve one or more segments within the expanding market. Great American Outdoor Group, which serves the fishing and hunting crowd through its Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s banners, will expand its geographic reach and topline later this year with a $785 million cash merger with publicly-traded Sportsman’s Warehouse that currently operates 112 stores across 12 Western states.

Dick’s Sporting Goods, meanwhile, intends to focus on an environmental message, when it tests a new outdoor concept, Public Lands, in Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio later this year in former Field & Stream locations. Being led by president Todd Spaletto, outdoor industry veteran and former president of The North Face, only approximately 20 percent of Public Lands’ merchandise assortment will overlap with what’s found in a typical Dick’s store as the fledgling specialty banner focuses on an “elevated assortment” of outdoor equipment, apparel and footwear. If the concept proves successful, Dick’s may convert all of its approximately two dozen Field & Stream doors to the Public Lands’ banner.

These stores “will be different than what you would see with REI and carve out a different niche,” CEO Ed Stack told analysts.

Last October, traditional Direct-to-Consumer brand and the 108-year-old pride of Freeport, ME,  L.L. Bean took another step to strengthen its reach with consumers by striking a distribution partnership with Amazon-owned Zappos for its iconic Bean boot and Wicked Good slipper. The wholesale distribution deal subsequently expanded to include Bean’s outerwear, flannel and fleece. Prior, L.L. Bean had already secured partnerships with family-owned, Upper Midwest-based Scheel’s, office supply chain Staples and Nordstrom to carry products from its brand.

Meanwhile, Western and workwear-focused Boot Barn, which intends to accelerate its new store growth beyond 10 percent annually and penetrate Northeast U.S. markets in the post-COVID-19 era, has identified a new outdoor customer segment to target within its 266 stores across 36 states. “Just Country” will focus on male and female Boot Barn customers who identify as rugged, outdoor adventure enthusiasts” or recreationalists with a curated product assortment of apparel, ball caps, hiking boots and outerwear.

Growing Categories

Interest in outdoor endeavors has grown during the pandemic as many team sports have been sidelined and housebound consumers have sought out activities that can provide a sense of adventure, opportunities for fresh air and exercise and maintain the social distancing required. Bikes, particularly lower- and mid-price models, and Recreational Vehicles (RVs) are but two examples.

Through the first nine months of 2020, new and used RV sales rose 16 percent. It was the highest annual growth rate for the category in four decades with the 2021 forecast calling for additional sales/rental expansion of 21 percent.

Citing 279 percent growth in Oct. 2020 sales for snowshoes and expanding consumer demand for dehydrated foods, The NPD Group said the outdoor product’s increase was largely related to consumers “investing in new ways to get outside during these socially distant times” with surging dehydrated food sales tied to consumers’ quest to assemble home emergency kits.

Due to global supply/demand challenges, REI expects to experience constrained supply in some outdoor categories this year, especially cycling.

With an emergence from the pandemic likely to begin showing promise for the third quarter of 2021, the challenge for outdoor vendors and retailers alike will be retaining and building on the space’s expanding flock of faithful who will once again be presented with other social and recreational options not tied to the Great Outdoors.

“There may be some attrition,” offers REI’s Johns, “but the length of the pandemic is certainly long enough for people to form new habits—and invest in gear to enjoy the outdoors.”