Outdoor Pressure
The outdoor industry is at a crossroad. While the overall economic impact in 2023 passed the trillion dollar mark for the first time, last year was also a tough year for outdoor retailers who saw widespread sales declines. On the horizon there are new challenges facing the industry. How it reacts to these issues will define its future and direction.

The loss of smaller, core outdoor shops. Independent outdoor retailers experienced a decline in sales last year with half of the shops experiencing a double digit decrease. The small outdoor shops in rural and resort locations are being hit the hardest as they face a diminishing local customer base due to a lack of affordable housing, and at the same time the big box, mid box and internet retailers are dumping brand name inventory by the truckload.  Although these little outdoor shops in little outdoor towns might represent a tiny portion of the trillion outdoor dollars, they do represent the heart and soul of the industry, and their loss will reshape the culture of the outdoor community.

Chemistry and performance textiles. People are asking questions. Consumer awareness of the dangers involved with exposure to PFAs, BPA and Phthalates is rapidly spreading. This is not good news for an industry built upon synthetic textiles and plastic hardware. Finding and eliminating the bad chemistry has so far been a game of whack-a-mole, with the toxic compounds proving difficult to find and remove. Bureaucrats are drafting regulations, companies are making promises, and testing labs are licking their chops, however, as long as products are made in unregulated countries there will be ongoing contamination. We are at the very beginning of this story and it will impact all aspects of the outdoor industry.

The long, slow and fragile supply chain. Like a car swerving down a dirt road, the outdoor industry has gone from too little inventory to too much inventory and back again as changes in supply and demand convulse up and down the supply chain. The pandemic forced a realignment of material suppliers in the faraway places where the outdoor industry sources its products. Consequentially, those distant industrial vendors and factories are experiencing the same ups and downs as everyone else. Timelines are increasing, raw materials are more difficult to find and orders are getting bigger. The brands are responding by taking the risk of making too much inventory, with the plan to sell what they can at full margin, and then blow the rest of it out at cost. The problem is that when everyone is playing the same game only the biggest retailers can keep up with the cycle and overall market credibility suffers.

The outdoor industry’s focus has been continually changing since it began. It used to be about backpacking, then it was climbing and big mountains, then it shifted to adventure travel and now the center of the industry lies with a group referred to as the casual outdoor participant. I think in the near future that demographic will be looking for cleaner, more sustainable products that have been made closer to home.

Disclaimer: When Mr. Gray swerves down dirt roads it is because his 4Runner hates anything other than clean, smooth asphalt. She is a pavement princess. The publisher may not share in his opinions or choice or off road vehicles.