By David Clucas
SGB is live at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City talking to brand executives across the show floor for their perspective on the latest trends and industry news. Here’s just some of what we’re following, with more to come throughout the week.
Stay In Your Lane
If there was a catchphrase from executives at the show, it was this: “Stay in your lane,” or said another way: “You can’t be everything to everyone.”
Outdoor brands large and small acknowledged that the market has become over-saturated with a lot of me-too product. The escape plan for many involves not only innovating but also hyper-focusing their business by becoming the best in certain niches, rather than casting wide nets.
“If you give someone a 14-page menu at a restaurant, they won’t know what to pick, or understand what you do that is really the best,” said Dennis Randall, interim general manager and vice president of marketing at Mountain Hardwear. The brand is in the midst of rebooting itself, attempting to regain past glory. “The original story of Mountain Hardwear was the right story,” Randall said. “As a whole, the industry needs to stay focused and stop wasting people’s time … if you’re not making the best of a certain product then why are you showing it?”
And there are plenty of niches to chase, said Jon Rockefeller, senior product line manager at Arc’teryx. “What I see is less over-arching trends and more micro trends,” he said. “It’s not just backpacking — but now there’s fast-packing, or urban adventures, or are you going to be connected or disconnected. Every niche idea can be fulfilled and every consumer can find exactly what they are looking for.”
“I see the trend of companies making ‘everyday’ gear, but really its just mediocre gear,” said Dana Gleason, principal/designer at pack company Mystery Ranch. “We want to make great gear.” He said part of that involves “getting some ego knocked out of me,” realizing that not everyone will study to use the gear properly or for the specific end use, so products need to be designed to work in a variety of cases, even if used improperly. “Most people have better things to do than read instructions,” he said.
‘Tis The Season
There was plenty of winter cheer in Salt Lake City as fresh powder in the mountains made for a great Demo Day on Monday, plus cold snaps throughout much of the country keeping retailers busy. It’s welcome relief for the market, which still has a lot of inventory to burn through from last year’s weak winter on the East Coast, plus extra goods that had been destined for now defunct retailers in the space.
Still, snow or not, there’s a larger discussion within the industry about evolving the traditional seasonal calendar — mainly away from a fall/winter and spring/summer mentality — replacing it with more of an annual production cycle that can more quickly meet consumer “buy-now, wear-now” habits.
“We’re defining it as a year with more seasons,” said Brian Thompson, general manager at ExOfficio. “The fact that fall seems to start in July for the industry makes no sense to us. Going off price in the middle of the summer, when there is still high demand for those items … you’re just leaving money on the table.” To that end, starting in fall 2018, ExOfficio will have an actual fall season of apparel (not to bring out winter too soon), which will represent a transitional line from late summer into September and October.
At Ruffwear, the pet-gear brand has abandoned the traditional preseason ordering cycle entirely. Everything in its booth represented items coming out to retail February 1 or April 1.
“We want to be as close to the market as we can,” said Susan Strible, director of marketing. “It’s a mind shift for retailers, but we can’t expect them to keep guessing what their consumers will want a year from now.” To replace preseason ordering, Ruffwear Director of Sales Dove Gibson came up with the Latitude member program — think Amazon Prime for retail buyers — in which retailers can order as many times as they need throughout the year to meet current demand.
There’s a similar shake-up at sock maker Farm to Feet, said CEO Kelly Nester. “Made in the USA has allowed us much more supply-chain transparency and we’re working more toward a development cycle that doesn’t follow the traditional seasonal cadence.” Data plays a big role in those decisions, Nester said, noting that the company is using the latest sell-through data from its largest clients to concurrently adjust its production schedule. “The trend is businesses want to be leaner,” he said.
Gather ‘Round For A Story
The industry’s iconic brands are also doubling down on their history and storytelling. “It’s important to have a connection to the past,” said Michael Millenacker, CEO at Royal Robbins. “It’s a very cluttered market, including dozens, if not hundreds of Kickstarter brands that are one [product] and done,” he said. The brand has brought back Liz Robbins to its board and plans to highlight the 50th anniversary of her ascent of Half Dome (the first woman to do so) as a bridge to the past, but also as a connection to the present with a strong story of woman empowerment.
Cordura, also celebrating 50 years supplying durable fabric technology for many outdoor brands, is similarly looking back at its greatest partnerships over the years, bringing back new versions of past innovations including collaborations with Woolrich, The North Face and hundred-year-old U.S. mills. Themes to watch for in heritage styling: the Space Age, said Cindy McNaull, director of brand and marketing.
Content marketing is exploding, said Molly Cuffe, global brand marketing director at Smartwool. The trick has been finding the right audiences and seeing what works, she said. “I tell my team that it’s about testing, learning and evolving.”
Photos by David Clucas