How Changes in People’s Spending Habits Are Affecting the Outdoor Industry

The outdoor industry isn’t as healthy as it has been in the past.

Part of the recent struggles can be attributed to lackluster footwear sales, which, according to The NPD Group, dipped 4.9 percent for the 12-month period ending in May 2017. Outdoor-specific retail is experiencing difficulties as well, with sales trending downward for the past six quarters.

Matt Powell, VP and sports industry analyst with NPD, recently spoke with Footwear News about consumers’ shifting spending habits and how outdoor retailers can adapt to the changes.

Who is today’s outdoor consumer? How would you identify who is buying footwear specific to outdoor activities?

“You’ve got several different customers. You’ve got the hardcore enthusiast of every age, and that’s always been the core of the business — but I would argue there are fewer of them today than there have been. You have the millennial, who is distracted by other activities and doing multiple activities. You’ve got the older [baby] boomer travel customer, who is going on a trip to a state park or a foreign country. And you’ve got the consumer who identifies with the environment and being outside, which gives you the ability to sell them products that are more green and that connote an outdoor lifestyle.”

What brands are best identifying with these consumers?

“Patagonia really comes top-of-mind; Arc’teryx is another. I think Keen is doing some interesting work, and Chaco obviously is a relatively hot brand.”

Chaco Z Sandal Bears Ears National Monument
Chaco’s limited-edition Z sandal, inspired by Bears Ears National Monument.

Outdoor specialty footwear sales were down nearly 5 percent for the year, but sales of hikers increased 2 percent. Why are more people buying hiking boots?

“Hiking up 2 percent is a 12-month number, not a nearby number. That was going back from June 2016 to May 2017. While hiking shoes aren’t really a cold-weather product, a lot of people buy them as cold-weather boots. The near-term business is not nearly as good; the footwear business in outdoor specialty was down 10 percent in May. It’s a late-2016 effect that drove the business upward, not a current trend.”

What do you think the next hot outdoor footwear category will be?

“The sandal business continues to be one story that’s good out there. We’re a sandal nation today. I spend a lot of time in airports, and everybody is wearing flip-flops or slides or some sort of water sandal. The sandal business can be a strong driver 12 months out of the year. Retailers should have some sort of a sandal assortment every day, regardless of the weather. People traveling and looking to buy sandals to go somewhere warm might buy the pair in November or December.”

You shared at Outdoor Retailer in July how important traveling is to younger consumers. How can retailers and brands capitalize on this? 

“You want to have light, packable shoes that are sturdy and comfortable. It’s OK if they’re athletic. The stigma in Europe of the American [tourist] who always has on a pair of sneakers has passed; Europeans are wearing sneakers as frequently as Americans. You want to think about lightweight, packable, versatile shoes that someone can put in a bag and use multiple times on their trip.”

You also discussed how outdoor retail growth is slowing. What’s driving the downturn, and how can retailers best react to this?

“A significant portion of the slowdown is the lack of Sports Authority and Sport Chalet. Those bankruptcies have dragged down the athletic specialty sporting goods section pretty dramatically, and it’s the largest section. The interesting thing that happened, though, is that that business did not get picked up by outdoor specialists. On the more athletic side, we saw other big-box retailers pick up some of the business that was lost by Sports Authority and Sport Chalet. We did not see the outdoor specialty categories pick that up — and that’s a little disconcerting. If you’re [a retailer] in a marketplace where there used to be a Sports Authority or a Sport Chalet and there is nobody to replace them as a specialist, you’ve got to let people know you’re in the market and you’re the best place to buy packs and bags and apparel. Retailers also have got to stay on point with fashion, they’ve got to keep updating their assortments, they’ve got to exploit opportunities that come along that may seem somewhat tangential to their business but really are an opportunity to add another five points in sales. They’ve also got to be very creative and very entrepreneurial.”

Sports Authority
A Sports Authority location.
CREDIT: REX Shutterstock.

What practices would you suggest retailers implement to attract today’s consumer?

“The easiest are the ones that affect the selling floor. That would mean bringing the internet into the store and having computers and tablets available, both to demonstrate products to consumers and to educate sales associates on leveraging the internet’s knowledge to make a sale. The second one revolves around minimum wage and retailers having to pay more for employees. Retailers need to pay a better wage and ask their employees to do more, to be better trained, to offer better services. Then there is the personalization piece: Know who your customers are, recognize them when they come into the store, remember what they bought the last time, ask about the trip they were going on and what could have made it better. Figure out ways to engage them personally so that they feel special in the store and treated well. It’s all about interfacing with the customer.”

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