Back on the Trail: Four Trends From The Outdoor Retailer Winter Show 2017

A few weeks back, I attended the annual Outdoor Retailer Winter Show in Salt Lake City. It’s an intense show, and for first time attendees it can often be overwhelming. Hosted by the Salt Palace Convention Center the show attracts roughly 1,500 exhibitors and 60,000 attendees, with the summer iteration being even larger. I spent two days walking the show, meeting up with contacts, brands, and friends—both new and old— while keeping a sharp eye out for what’s new and trending in the industry as brands debut their lines for next year. After reflecting on all that we saw, four trends stuck out.

More Focus on the “Outdoor” in the Outdoor Industry,

The paradox for the outdoor industry has always been that on the one hand it’s the outgrowth of a passion for the outdoors and outdoor pursuits. But with any industry, it relies on continuing to sell more product each year, season and line launch—regardless of whether consumers really need the latest and greatest or whether or not it’s best for the environment. This inconvenient dichotomy has historically been an undercurrent, but not amplified by some of the largest industry players. But it seems like that is finally changing. Brands like Patagonia continue to push consumers to buy less of its products and reuse or repurpose more with their Worn Wear initiative. Patagonia is also taking a stand with the state of Utah, which is trying to privatize public lands to then open them up to mining, drilling, and more. Patagonia is not alone in opposing these issues either. Black Diamond has taken a similar stance against Utah’s public lands policies. REI closed on Black Friday and pushed people to #optoutside instead of shopping and Mountain Hardware has begun an Impact Initiative to amplify their message and draw attention to conservation efforts around the world. It will be interesting to see how this shift continues to evolve and coexist with the need to please board members and shareholders in the long term.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

As in many industries, the outdoor industry’s track record of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) isn’t exemplary and is a complex problem to address. But, the conversation is getting a lot louder as is it grows apparent that businesses need to respond to the demographic shift in its consumer base that is rightfully clamoring to be represented. There were multiple panels at the show discussing what brands could do both internally and externally to make progress with DEI and both the ethical and business case for doing so. Given that the marketing, advertising, and product is usually developed a year or more in advance, there can be a lag between these discussions and seeing an impact in the mainstream. But, it’s exciting to see desire for things to change and the respect people at the show had in discussing challenging topics.

Faltering Lifestyle Outdoors

One of the biggest trends in the outdoor industry over the last 3 years has been that of “Lifestyle Outdoors.” Driven by smaller disruptor brands, big brands had started to try and jump on. With a “from the bar to the trail and back” ethos, brands were developing clothes that could supposedly be worn in everyday life and while getting after it in the outdoors. In response to this trend, lines from many major brands started to look much the same and divert from performance roots. This year, there was a palpable return to high performance with brands like Mountain Hardware leading the way. Last year, Mountain Hardware’s line looked more like “dad date night clothes” than anything, to this year being very mountain athlete-focused. It seems as though there’s a return to core competencies and brand history driving this. Outdoor brands are now trying to find the right overlap between the “athleisure” trend and fully catering to the four season “mountain athlete.” This makes way more sense and hopefully takes hold for more than one season.

A Focus on Print

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While legacy subscription print continues to flounder, there’s a growing trend of art magazines focused on outdoor lifestyle and pursuits. Produced less frequently with evergreen content, and high quality visuals these are keepsake-level pieces. Outdoor industry brands are lending their support to this trend and even using it in their own catalogs where, instead of traditional product flipbook, they’re merging content and product in beautiful designs. Yeti, Mountain Hardware, Best Made Co, Patagonia, to name a few, are doing this at a high level. It’s a great way to show the lifestyle around their brand, increase engagement, and highlight the work of brand ambassadors. As publishing continues to search for a new model, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this trend continue.

Jon Gaffney is a Senior Brand Strategist for GYK Antler. In his free-time he gets out on the trail and the water as much as life allows, usually with a camera and some new gear to review for his freelance writing assignments.

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