How Crisis Will Force the Outdoor Industry Into Reinvention — Which it Has Long Needed

The outdoor industry is facing an uphill climb that has only gotten steeper in the past few months.

Navigating an ever-changing retail landscape has been difficult for many companies, made worse by the fact that they are missing out on the casual customer who is often priced out of adventuring. Meanwhile, the lack of gender and racial diversity in the executive suite continues to be alarming. And outdoor players haven’t been able to communicate sustainability effectively.

“Everything’s under the microscope now. Many companies have had to ask themselves, ‘Are we treating our employees right? Are we supporting our customers in the right way?’ It’s really amplified all of these issues for everybody,” explained Matt Powell, The NPD Group’s senior sports industry adviser. “This time of uncertainty is a great time for brands to sit down and say, ‘What do we want to look like on the other side of this? Who do we want our customer to be? What kind of company do we want to be?’”

After the coronavirus crisis stifled business in March, nationwide furor about racism erupted following the killing of George Floyd — an unarmed 46-year-old black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — making the calls for meaningful action much louder.

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“So many people are putting out public statements left and right, and they’re rushing to do this because they’re in panic mode. But they’ve had time to prepare for this,” said Teresa Baker, founder of African American Nature & Parks Experience. “They are addressing what they should have addressed years ago. And that’s a good thing, but I hate that it was built on the back of yet another black man being murdered in America.”

She continued, “Lack of diversity in the outdoors is not a new message. The industry has had comfort for far too long knowing people wouldn’t lash out against them. But the moment is here.”

And the industry has responded.

In July 2018, Baker launched the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge during Outdoor Retailer in Denver, asking execs to make their companies and marketing racially diverse. Over two years, 85 brands had signed. However, she said, within a week of the protests, 81 more companies asked to be included. (Brooks, Vasque and Oboz are some of the footwear-focused brands that have recently signed.)

As the diversity conversation dominates in the months ahead, outdoor companies will also be hammering out post-coronavirus recovery strategies.

One bright spot? With gyms closed across much of the country, more people have been exercising outside. According to a survey conducted in May by communications firm CGPR, 80.6% of Americans polled said they have spent time outdoors during the coronavirus crisis. And 82.4% of those individuals said they will continue to explore after forced isolation comes to an end.

Here, outdoor industry leaders explain how they are charting the way ahead.

DIVERSITY IS ESSENTIAL

WENDY YANG President of Deckersʼ Performance Lifestyle Group: “Working toward diversity, equity and inclusion in all forms of movement remains a consistent value of ours. If anything, we will be more determined to increase access to movement for everyone after stay-at-home measures are in the rearview mirror. Many of us found that the chance to get outside, work up a sweat and/or generally explore was a crucial outlet while we were working, parenting and living the entirety of our lives confined to our homes. We will continue to support partner organizations like Big City Mountaineers, consciously represent all types of athletes in our marketing and make sure our own workforce grows in diversity.”

JACK KNOLL Marketing director at Forsake: “We want to inspire all people to get out and explore, so by placing a focus on inclusion and diversity, we’re furthering our mission. We know there is room for us to do better in this area, and our team has used the past couple months to do a lot of learning, reading, listening. Now we must take action. For starters, we’ve joined In Solidarity’s Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge and are working on making our marketing and social media channels inclusive. Ultimately, our goal is to foster diversity and inclusion in every aspect of our business, from marketing and partnerships to hiring.”

CHRIS HUFNAGEL President of Merrell: “This will continue to have amplified importance and focus within our own business — and surely many others. In 2018, we committed to making justice, equity, diversity and inclusion a key strategic pillar within our business. We signed the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge in early 2019, we’ve continued to learn, grow and act, but know there’s much work to do. [Moving forward], we’re increasing our investment in education and formal training for our internal team indefinitely around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion and are continuing our journey to add more diversity to the team, to better reflect our diverse consumers and society. In the short-term, we’ve donated $25,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and are matching donations made by our associates to organizations that are black-led and that support the black community. We will match these donations through year-end, at minimum.”

THE FUTURE IS GREEN

PETER SACHS GM of Lowa: “We’ve always believed in making longer-lasting products where the consumer gets longer life out of our shoes — and over time, they buy less. That mindset is deep in the Lowa DNA and won’t change. What maybe does change is that more suppliers have materials available that are made of recycled content or are less toxic. And more brands will use those materials and then the price becomes more competitive and comes down.”

BRANDY McCARTY Chief marketing officer at Eastman Group: “Manufacturing responsible, sustainable product continues to be a goal — and each season we make progress. Our hope is that as demand grows, the supply market will continue to expand, allowing for more affordable and a wider diversity of sustainable components.”

WY: “I would argue the cost of maintaining unsustainable practices is much higher in the long run. Younger consumers, millennials and those in Generation Z, in particular, have made it clear they want the brands they support to stand for something and to be a force for good. Given that, [we are] fine-tuning our product and process to be more sustainable. So far, we have been able to do it with no change in the prices. For Teva, as a brand rooted in the outdoors, it’s our responsibility to foster a business that reduces our footprint so future generations have a planet worth exploring.”

CH: “We’re currently looking into more sustainable materials and processes, whenever possible, and developing our own as well — we have a new, proprietary sustainable midsole material launching in first-half 2021.”

JK: “Forsake recently became one of the inaugural brands to receive Climate Neutral Certification. Our commitment to reducing our environmental impact takes several forms, including minimizing last-mile delivery footprints for DTC shipments and working with leather suppliers that are entirely gold-certified with the Leather Working Group.”

Khombu Marcus
The Khombu Marcus, one of the Eastman-owned brand’s fall ’20 silhouettes that will retail for less than $80.
CREDIT: Peter Verry

PRICES MUST CHANGE

PS: “In Lowa’s current 2020 assortment, light hikers start at $200. I’ll have one next year at $180, and I’ll have a low-cut style at $160. Those are price points we haven’t seen in 10 years from this brand. In our sport category, where my No. 1 right now is $235, I’ll have a $200 shoe next year and I’ll have a low cut at $150. We’re introducing some products at price points that we have not had in a very long time, and a large part of that is to attract the customer that’s entering the market that says, ‘I don’t backpack, I don’t need a big, heavy boot. I just want to go for a walk in my local park or do a day trip.”

BM: “Everyone who goes outside is a potential outdoor consumer. Our goal is to develop product that is not only brand right, but also strategically tiered in price and functionality to meet the needs of consumers regardless of income level.”

CH: “Merrell makes sure that there’s a democratization of the outdoors where everyone can actually get outside. We spend a lot of time — as all good brands do — thinking about pricing hierarchy, so all people have access to the products. We’ve got products at price points that are accessible and we’ll continue to make sure we do that in the future.”

JK: “Because Forsake footwear is both a casual and outdoor product, our hope is that we can replace customers’ needs for multiple products with just one pair of versatile boots.”

Merrell Moab Olive Blue
The classic Merrell Moab hiker executed with a blue upper.
CREDIT: Courtesy

THE LANDSCAPE WILL BE SMALLER

WY: “We have always been selective about which retailers we’ll work with, opting for those who are going to give consumers the best possible experience and offer the most expertise. These retailers are the ones most likely to withstand the winds of change. That said, some of our partners will not be immune. We have built a robust e-commerce business via our own website that has been performing exceptionally well during stay-at-home measures. We are likewise selective with whom we let sell our shoes via their e-commerce platforms. Our overall strategy was designed to adapt and cope because the landscape is never going to look the same decade-to-decade.”

BM: “We are all learning during this time of retail rationalization. The strongest brands will be those who remain true to their customers and retail partners, providing them with not only exceptional products they desire, but also becoming more efficient in the development and delivery of those products.”

JK: “Our approach involves finding ways to support our wholesale partners that are unique and specific. Many need to do more with less, and our hope is that we can offer marketing support to those that are evolving to embrace a new retail landscape. Secondly, we acknowledge that online shopping will play a vital role, now even more than before, and by investing in our brand and online presence, we hope to provide educational and virtual shopping experiences using channels most relevant to our customers.”

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