Most of us in the UK live in cities and spend the best part of our day gazing into a screen whether at work or at home. Our lives are fast-paced, hyper-connected, and for the most part, removed from the natural world. So it’s no surprise Stylus reported that 63% of Millennials are bored with life, and want to disconnect from the urban grind and reconnect with nature and adventure.
This renewed interest in the outdoors is reflected in the sales of associated gear and clothing, which is now worth over £10 billion across Europe. The popularity of adventure sports is booming with activities such as mountain biking and fell running gaining popularity. Rock climbing, in particular, is one of the fastest growing adventure sports and is due to feature in the 2020 Olympics. This participation in the outdoors is only set to increase with more people choosing ‘staycations’ over an exotic getaway and the government trying to get people exercising by focusing on the outdoors.
Whilst online and social platforms are stoking the appetite for the outdoors (just type ‘adventure enthusiasts’ into Instagram and you’ll see that hiking is indeed the new yoga), the store experience on the high street is lagging behind. This is something I discovered first hand as I made my foray into the world of outdoor sports a couple of years ago. There are four main areas that retailers need to address: purpose, experience, inclusivity and product.
When choosing an outdoor retailer to visit in the UK it can be difficult to differentiate between them. Most offer the same products at similar prices and have outdated retail strategies. However, there are some modern trailblazers. American brand Patagonia is a great example of a company with a clear ethos that has gone from a functional brand to a lifestyle brand. It’s as well known for its environmental advocacy as for its products. Recent campaigns have seen it going head to head with Donald Trump in a fight to save public land (the president stole your land), and encouraging the repair and re-wear of outdoor gear (worn wear). In addition to this it’s just launched Patagonia action works, a campaign that connects individuals with opportunities to support and get involved with grassroots environmental groups. Initiatives such as these feed into the authenticity that consumers crave from brands. Activism is a risk but for Patagonia it’s paying off. “Any time that we do something good for the environment, we make more money” said CEO Rose Marcario – consumers are willing to invest in brands that align with their values.
Back when outdoor sports were new to me, a multi-brand store was my first port of call. These stores are particularly well placed to meet the needs of the newbie who’s yet to have developed any sense of brand loyalty or interest in the more technical aspects of apparel. Whilst the range of different brands is a clear advantage, one of biggest disappointments is how little of these store experiences reflect the outdoor lifestyle. A visit to a store is the first stop on your adventure, but instead of exciting VM that transports customers to the rugged beauty of the Peaks, they’re met with lacklustre mannequins and a pile it high approach to stocking. This not only fails to inspire but also cheapens the feel of what are actually expensive investment products.
There are a handful of stores in the UK that do feel more experiential, The North Face on Regent Street features huge tree trunks towering through the centre of the store while luxury outdoors brand Hunter utilises lightboxes with natural textures to bring the outdoors inside. Another great example is mountain specialists Ellis Brigham, which has kitted out its Covent Garden store with a ‘vertical chill – urban ice climbing’ zone. Not only do these features create more exciting environments to shop in they also engage the consumer by offering a taste of the challenge and exploration the products enable.
When it comes to experience, the global market really dwarfs anything the UK has to offer. Sporthaus Schuster in Munich has based the interior of their store on a mountain, with a huge ‘rock face’ soaring through its seven stories. You can navigate the store via wooden bridges or clip in and use the climbing holds to actually scale the summit. On top of this you can book adventure tours through their service desk.
Store experiences don’t have to be limited to the physical, Adidas Terrex is using virtual reality in its China stores that allows customers to experience one of the hardest climbs in Corsica. Gripping 360 footage of the climb has been used to transport you to the rock face. If that doesn’t get you excited for your next trip, I’m not sure what will.
Historically the outdoor adventure industry has had a bit of an image problem. The prevailing perception of it is white, male-dominated, and niche (think lone male explorer achieving greatness in the face of adversity). Women have suffered from poor representation; it’s men who are photographed and filmed exploring new terrain, testing out the latest equipment and writing guides and information.
Luckily this out-dated stereotype is being rewritten thanks in part to more enlightened brand campaigns which celebrate and normalise women’s achievements in outdoor sports. The North Face’s ‘She moves mountains’ campaign is one of the latest examples of this, where the brand has partnered with American Girl Scouts in an effort to inspire girls to seek new challenges in the outdoors. Its online mission is to “canvas the world with stories of female explorers to ignite more” and it does this by profiling some of the most inspiring female athletes and explorers.
Even if women have been inspired to take up outdoor sports by the recent media drives, they may well fall at the next hurdle when they visit a store; the women’s range is often a fraction of the men’s. On one visit to a high street outdoors chain I was disappointed to realise that within a whole department of cycling gear only two of the rails were dedicated to women’s product… and that product was also predominantly pink.
Thankfully it’s relatively easy to remedy some of these issues and create a store environment that’s inclusive and inspiring. Lululemon’s Regent street store champions its brand ambassadors who are often women but also provides a space for women to meet and take part in classes. This social aspect of a store space helps break down some of the barriers associated with sports. The store also helps create a sense of community where you can share your goals as well as connects to the local area with other fitness events.
The fashionability of outdoor gear has traditionally been pretty low and conjures images of anorak-clad walkers on a weekend ramble. But the need for technical gear that fits into a fashionable everyday wardrobe is on the increase. There’s a huge demand for outdoor adventure products from urban customers who lead relatively unadventurous lives. This can be seen in particular with the increased sale of backpacks directly driven by commuters. As Dean Karnazes, Brand ambassador of The North Face puts it:
As more fashion and activewear brands adopt outdoor garment technology, traditional outdoor retailers need to go the extra mile to offer something more. Uniqlo offers well-made technically advanced products that look like they belong in a city rather than on a mountain and The North Face continues its successful collaboration with cult skate clothing brand Supreme. Competition also comes from athleisure brands such as Lululemon whose customers demand high technical spec along with fashionability. This doesn’t seem to have filtered down to the mainstream outdoors stores, where product range remains specialist and impenetrable. Unfortunately, brands that offer the holy trinity of fashionability, affordability and performance are scarce.
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