Musings from Peter Sachs on the Future of Outdoor
LOWA general manager calls for brands to refocus on lifestyle products to expand the base, and for retailers to stay closed on Sundays to encourage outdoor activities
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For the past few seasons, I heard industry talk about what the difference is between an “Outdoors-person” vs an “Outside-person.” An Outdoors-person is whom we as an industry have catered to for generations. Outdoors-people hike and ski and climb and ride bikes. They paddle boats, adventure to faraway lands, and shun creature comforts for the benefit of the experience and adventure. As brands, we focus on them for aspirational reasons under the thought that if a certain jacket or pair of shoes or bag can work in the mountains or rainforests, then it’s probably pretty good for most consumers on their adventure during a weekend or summer vacation hiking or backpacking or participating in the myriad of other outdoor activities one does.
An Outside-person is more of an every-man or -woman. They go to school or work every day. They lead normal lives and maybe don’t consider themselves hikers or backpackers or skiers or paddlers. But they also like to stay dry when it rains or warm when it’s cold and snowy. Even if it’s just from the parking lot to the office door. They may want their feet to stay dry when they roam the side of their kid’s dew-soaked soccer field. They may also participate in outdoor activities, but at a much more recreational level than an Outdoors-person.
Now, our world has been upended with the COVID-19 virus. Schools and businesses of all sizes have shut from coast to coast. So have ski areas and many of the national parks and forests. We’ve been told to socially distance and, yet we can’t go far away to stay safe. The resources of search and rescue can’t be counted on to help us. We are stuck at home, working when we can, using technology and pacing in our living rooms. We are binge-watching Netflix series and yearning for the outdoors.
In fact, when you look outside in your neighborhood, you are likely to find the outside is actually full of people. But they aren’t climbing or paddling or backpacking. They’re walking. They’re bike-riding, wearing yoga pants and a helmet. They’re riding with their kids. They’re walking with their kids, while their kids are riding a scooter. They’re with their family or significant other. The neighborhoods are full of people of all ages and genders and colors, many whom you have never seen before.
Maybe in the dark clouds of COVID-19, there is a silver lining. Maybe we need to re-assort our brands and our shops to cater to walkers and bike riders who don’t need lots of Lycra. Maybe there is a new outdoors customer who largely comes from the Outsider group. In reality, after just a month of being locked down, there is some momentum, and for the balance of this year, this customer won’t go away. They are not going to get back on planes anytime soon and head for the big adventure. The planes won’t be there for them. They will be hesitant to travel far for fear of becoming sick and not being near a doctor or a hospital or a ventilator.
But they can take a walk or run through the neighborhood. They are teaching their kids how to ride a bike at the local school’s parking lot. I would venture to guess that kite-flying will come soon with summer.
As they do these new activities, which are really among the oldest of outdoor activities, they may become less stressed and more relaxed. They may shed a few pounds and become healthier just because they took a walk. Who knew it could be so simple? And probably a lot less expensive than seeing a medical or psychological professional!
How do we capitalize on this? We make sure to re-assort our stores with a different merchandise mix. At LOWA, we’re putting our low-cut shoes front and center. It’s an opportunity to showcase a part of the line that doesn’t get much attention. We are known for our hiking and backpacking and mountaineering boots. Right now, those activities are not possible. But walking is. We have walking shoes. And wearing a pair of sport shoes for playing in the parks with our kids. All made with the same comfort underfoot, traction, waterproofing when needed as the boots. When Outsiders can go back to work in cities, they will probably walk or ride a bike to work for a while before they climb onto a crowded city bus or subway.
This same thought can hold true for clothing and gear brands.
What do you have that doesn’t usually get sold and marketed with the same energy as your aspirational product? It’s time to put those things front and center.
Retailers need to buy these products and offer them to their customers. They need to train their staff that it’s OK to sell products that aren’t meant to climb mountains or go fast. The staff needs to be responsive to a customer who wants to stay comfortable and not look like they’re ready to climb up, ski down a mountain, or ride in the Tour de France. If retailers really wanted to push the envelope, they would have the courage REI had when it closed on Black Friday to #optoutside and stay closed on Sundays to encourage their customers to participate and enjoy the outdoors.
Right now, we are glad to be alive. We’re glad to be able to reopen our businesses in the next few weeks. We should be glad to welcome customers into our shops and we should try to sell them product they will and can use now. The adventurer will return when the anxiety over COVID-19 subsides. In the meantime, the base can grow.