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Don’t Be Afraid to Be Basic + More Big Lessons From Top Outdoor Execs

The past year has been filled with seemingly endless hardships, for both individuals and businesses. However, the outdoors provided many people with a respite from the chaos, attracting a new wave of nature lovers.

Heading into 2021, experts predict consumers will continue to embrace fitness and the outdoors to stay healthy. So with momentum on their side, outdoor brands are now positioned well to grow their consumer bases. But to truly capitalize on this moment, they must also finally embrace real evolution.

Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser at The NPD Group Inc., told FN that outdoor brands need to be smart in the footwear selection they bring to the market. “It comes down to the product for the entry-level consumer,” he said. “This industry has always looked down their nose at basic, entry-level products, but that’s where the greatest opportunity lies in 2021.”

This potential comes at a crucial time for the wider industry, which was decimated by the coronavirus shutdowns last spring and has struggled to make up lost ground. According to NPD, for 2020, hiking and trekking footwear was down by low single digits year-over-year, and cold-weather and all-weather boots suffered high single-digit declines. Outdoor and water sandals fell more than 25%. (However, Powell has predicted that athletic footwear will see moderate growth in 2021, with performance running and hiking leading the way.)

Meanwhile, outdoor companies — like others — are encountering increasing demand from consumers to be transparent in their efforts around diversity and inclusion. The issue has long been a thorn in the industry’s side and is now more critical than ever.

This month, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, a Wisconsin native and the incoming editor-in-chief of The Cut, spoke at Outdoor Retailer’s online summit and addressed the industry’s inclusivity shortcomings.

“When you talk about inclusivity, at the root is representation — to make people feel seen and heard and say, ‘They may not understand my whole entire life and everything that I’m going through, but they see me, they hear my problems, they understand who I am and what I’m looking for,’” she said. “That’s something that all brands can pay attention and adhere to, because it really expands your audience and expands who is welcome and invited to your brand.”

Below, outdoor executives discuss the takeaways from an unprecedented year and offer insights on how they will persevere and emerge stronger than ever.

THE BIGGEST LESSONS OF 2020:

GALAHAD CLARK (CO-FOUNDER & CEO, VIVOBAREFOOT): “Turns out, you don’t need a big office in a big city. We have an office in London that we were all commuting into, and then during lockdown we stopped commuting into a big office in a big city, and the organization, in many ways, functioned better than ever.”

ERIK BURBANK (VP OF THE KEEN EFFECT, KEEN): “Nature is a force — both destructive and healing. Without discounting the hardships, it was good to see growing numbers of people rediscovering the mental and physical benefits of life outside, whether walking the neighborhood, hiking the nearest trail or simply being outside and soaking it all in.”

BRANDY MCCARTY (CMO & SVP OF GLOBAL SALES & STRATEGY, THE EASTMAN GROUP): “The pandemic pushed us to be hyper-focused on the basics: listening to our consumers, creating relevant product with increased value to meet the needs of the day, expediting and making more efficient the whole go-to-market process. Finally, and most importantly, [the importance of] streamlining the timeline of getting the right goods in the right amounts to the market in the quickest, most-efficient manner.”

STEVE LESNARD (GLOBAL VP OF MARKETING & PRODUCT, THE NORTH FACE): “I learned how agile and creative our team can be, even under the most difficult circumstances. I’m proud of how the team was able to quickly identify ways we could pivot our existing programs and supply chain to support immediate COVID-19 relief, both through donations to outdoor communities hit hardest and by leveraging our supply chain to help with product donations and PPE. The team was also able to shift our social and digital content, which often focuses on wild expeditions and athlete excursions, to lighthearted at-home athlete videos — even creating a digital summer camp for parents who were working while at home with their kids.”

HOW TO KEEP NEW OUTDOOR FANS COMING BACK:

PETER SACHS (GM, LOWA): “The outdoors has to be achievable and relatable, not just aspirational. People flooded local parks and forests, and we should keep reminding them of the fun and great experiences they had. The aspirational mountain-top imagery is not always relatable. Society also pushed the mental and physical health benefits of being outside — even for a walk around the block or a neighborhood bike ride. We should remember that for many people, this is their outdoor experience. They also need shoes and jackets and hats and other things that can be bought from outdoor brands.”

GC: “You’ve got to raise your game, keep making unique products and obviously wonderful service. [Vivobarefoot] is offering more and more take- back schemes, repair services and rental programs. And ultimately, we’re a company offering a transformative health experience — by wearing our shoes, your feet get stronger, healthier and happier. We’re fairly unique in terms of offering barefoot outdoor shoes and hiking boots and shoes, so we have a unique proposition.”

EB: “As a community of outdoor brands, we have to focus on being truly inclusive, not just in terms of the people themselves but also the types of activities. We have to understand that for some of us, the outdoor experience is going on a 15- or 20-mile hike. But that may not be the accessible experience for a lot of these newcomers. We have to understand and be supportive of how people are engaging in the outdoors today.”

BM: “Retaining customers goes back to the lessons [of 2020]: listen to our customers and retail partners and how they react to current product, pricing and value of the assortment we provided them. If we follow those lessons and continue to adapt and develop products thoughtfully, we will continue to build a loyal customer base.”

Khombu Abby
Khombu’s athletic-influenced Abby style for fall ’21
CREDIT: Courtesy of Khombu

HOW TO ENSURE DIVERSITY & INCLUSION REMAINS A PRIORITY:

JENNY TAYLOR (VP OF MARKETING, SALOMON AMERICAS): “We are implementing a mix of internal and external actions. Internally, we have started new diversity training for our leadership team and hiring managers. We have also expanded our recruiting process to specifically address a more diverse candidate pool. We have formed a regional committee to provide feedback, recommendations and best practices to our global teams. Externally, we continue to make progress on representation in our marketing materials, ensuring a diverse ratio of ambassadors on our teams and have confirmed plans for race director DEI training. We have a new partnership with the Running Diversity Industry Coalition, provide grants to She Jumps and Share Winter, and continue to work with Trail Sisters. We have also updated our photo and video partnership agreement to include a mandatory briefing on content expectations for this topic.”

TRACY SMITH (GM & VP, TIMBERLAND AMERICAS): “Internally, we will increase diversity through recruiting, hiring, retaining and advancing BIPOC talent. From our retail stores to our corporate offices, we will work to ensure all of our teams — including leadership — represent the communities we serve. Externally, we are investing in programs to provide opportunities for Black designers to develop their talents, including a partnership with Pensole Design Academy that will launch shortly. We will continue to give back to the communities that have supported our brand journey, working together to create a more equitable future.”

SL: “In October, [The North Face] announced the launch of the latest Explore Fund initiative: Explore Fun Council. This fellowship program will bring together passionate experts across culture, entertainment, academia and the outdoors. In its first year, it will focus on how to create more culturally relevant exploration opportunities and connect communities of color to the benefits of exploration. We have already enlisted Lena Waithe and [professional climber and skier] Jimmy Chin as partners. In June, we responded to the racial injustice sweeping our country by donating $50,000 to the ACLU to support their work on police accountability, racial justice and defending the right to protest, as well as supporting our long-term outdoor partners who are committed to social justice in the outdoors by donating $25,000 to Outdoor Afro and $25,000 to PGM ONE. [And] our parent company, VF Corp., has also established an Executive Inclusion & Diversity Council, led by a group of leaders from across the organization who set our priorities and direct our actions.”

GC: “We hired more diverse people — and are hiring more diverse people. [Vivobarefoot] also has done collaborations with the Basquiat Foundation and expanded our projects in Africa. We’ve also set up the Live Barefoot Foundation where a percentage of all our sales goes to a charitable fund. One of the projects we’ve been funding in England supports minority female entrepreneurs. People in the [footwear] business have been mentoring those people and we’ve been supporting them with cash as well. And we’ve done a lot of diversity and inclusion training. But it’s obviously a lot more sophisticated than just the color of your skin or gender — there is neurological diversity and social diversity. We’re trying to educate ourselves about that. We were very transparent in our annual report about where we stood, and we wrote policies around it and improved hiring practices around it. But we’re far from perfect. I think to be neutral is to be [anti]-diverse. You have to be positively trying to change it rather than be completely neutral about it, because it’s institutionalized, so to do nothing, you are inherently being racist and sexist and discriminatory.”

NORMAL: WHEN WILL IT RETURN & WHAT WILL IT LOOK LIKE?

TS: “From conversations I’ve had with partners, most are expecting business to normalize with back-to-school 2021. A true view of ‘the new normal’ remains to be seen and will certainly include many factors related to digital platforms and physical store locations — underscoring the importance of being agile.”

BM: “Our mission and focus [at The Eastman Group] remains to continually adapt, to deliver the right product and value mix for our partners, regardless of circumstances. When business will transition to a post-pandemic economy remains to be seen. We hope ASAP, but the general consensus seems to be late Q2/Q3 2021 at the earliest. Regarding how post-pandemic business looks, I wish I had a crystal ball, but it seems pretty safe to say that the market will remain competitive and that successful brands must continue to be nimble in terms of product and go-to-market efficiencies.”

PS: “I don’t think we will see some semblance of normal until well into 2022. Unfortunately, we can’t all get vaccinated at once, so people will continue to get sick and caution will still be needed. Travel will slowly resume, but maybe not to all parts of the world for another one or two years, and that will keep certain adventures on hold. But [the new] normal will be the adventurous stepping back in slowly and with caution, and normal can be the local activities that kept us going in 2020.”

Timberland Solar Wave Low
A model in the Timberland Solar Wave Low for spring ’21.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Timberland

THE BEST DECISIONS MADE AMID COVID-19:

JORDAN JUDD (GM, SALOMON AMERICAS): “Focusing our energy on channels and partners that continued to provide connection to community and solutions for consumers. We saw our retailer partners getting creative by offering curbside pickup, local delivery and online shop- ping consultations. We collaborated with these partners to support virtual events, book clubs, athlete webinars and more.”

SL: “We felt [at The North Face] we could make the most impact within the outdoor industry by working closely with state governments and outdoor officials to identify and fund the most pressing emergency relief for outdoor communities hit hardest by COVID-19. These donations — totaling $1 million — are now benefiting food banks, search and rescue organizations, relief funds and more across the U.S.”

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN DONE DIFFERENTLY:

PS: “In the spring, when dealers were cutting back and canceling orders for fall, [Lowa] followed suit and reduced our factory orders. As the business has come back, we have severely cut into our base stocks and probably missed some sales in the fourth quarter, which will continue into Q1 2021. In the end, we probably cut back too much, so both our dealers and ourselves are leaving business on the table.”

EB: “Like many companies, we wished we had more inventory in Q4 [at Keen]. By owning our own factories, we were able to make some in- season adjustments, but still fell short of having enough product to meet all our fans’ demands.”

GC: “[At Vivobarefoot], we reduced our orders to fall ’21 and I wish we had ordered more. We expected our business to stall, but if anything, we went forward almost faster than expected.”

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