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Outdoor Industry Association

Outdoor evolution: How the industry can redefine itself for a better future

SNEWS talks to OIA's Christie Hickman on the association's project to help shepherd the future of outdoor retail.

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This is the first of three Q&As SNEWS will bring you, interviewing experts at Outdoor Industry Association, who are working to help shepherd the future of outdoor retail. It gets the conversation rolling. Next month, we’ll follow up with retailer reaction and reflections on the changing landscape.

“The outdoor industry isn’t what it used to be.”

Whether your business views this as a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty statement, the reality of a monumental generational shift — both in consumer habits and company leadership — is upon us with infinite ideas on how to adapt.

One of those areas of change involves the definition of the outdoors, and how it can move beyond the core camping and hiking categories into fields such as paddlesports, travel and even urban outdoor adventures, without losing its roots.

The expansion not only includes new products, but new customers with varied aspirations and values. All of a sudden, your brand or store is speaking to a much a wider audience and all their individual nuances.

To learn more about how the industry is tackling this growth, segmentation and synergy, we turned to OIA Vice President of Market & Consumer Insights Christie Hickman. She joined the association nearly a year ago to help gather, interpret and disseminate the flood of information cascading toward businesses every day.

There’s certainly no shortage of stats out there. But the more important takeaway, she tells us, is trying to make sense of everything and how it best applies to an individual business, whether you’re a ski shop in Montana, a climbing brand in Colorado or a surf store in Florida.

Some brands and retailers grumble when the industry talks about widening the scope of outdoor. How do you respond to that?
It is not for us to decide. The reality is emerging consumers perceive the outdoors differently from the industry’s historical customer and want to engage with it in far more diverse ways. Brands and retailers need to understand this and identify what it means for their business in the near and longer-term future.


Our role is not to dictate who our members should target, but rather make them aware of the full landscape of opportunity that exists in terms of target markets. This is about education on the broader market opportunity beyond the core enthusiast and providing data to make informed and strategic decisions. It is for brands and retailers to decide whether pursuing some of these new market opportunities makes sense for their particular business. 

There’s a call to put the consumer in the driver’s seat more often, versus just brands and retailers. Is that a tough message to take to the industry? Does it squash innovation if everyone is just chasing the pack?
I actually think it is just the opposite. This shift in power presents an exciting opportunity for heightened innovation, without having to make a large investment to identify where those opportunities exist.

The whole purpose of innovation is to fulfill new or untapped market needs. In today’s climate, due to advances in technology and the increasing desire for democratic consumerism, it is easier than ever to understand what consumers want. In fact, they are dying to tell you. Just look at the increasing growth in crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platforms.

Today’s innovative companies recognize that taking a defensive stance won’t work and are embracing the opportunity to leverage consumers to identify where new opportunities exist to meet their needs.

Are there disadvantages in putting too much faith in the consumer?
The real challenge, and where some fail, is in the translation of that consumer understanding to the business environment. You can’t rely on a single data point to deliver accurate consumer understanding. Consumers simply don’t always know what they want or do what they say.

Taking a more multi-faceted approach to understanding consumers — not only what they are saying and doing but, more importantly, the why — gives you the ability to more effectively translate that insight to successful business strategies.

How do you keep that information and interpretation up-to-date with consumers that seem to change their minds daily?
It is a constant process of mining and translating, both at a macro and micro level. First, you need an approach that provides a full spectrum of understanding—evaluating what’s already happened (historical), what’s happening now (real-time), and what might happen in the future (predictive). Then you need to have the tools and resources in place that can best deliver that information.

OIA has built its insights offering around this approach with a suite of products ranging from market sales data to social media listening to trends forecasting. The consumer segmentation study, which will provide understanding of the broader consumer market potential for outdoor, will serve as the foundation from which our future insights products will be built.

What are OIA’s first steps in this segmentation mission? What is the organization asking from brands and retailers to help?
We are in the final stages of identifying the strategic partner for this work and will be kicking off the project in early April. [Editor’s note: After working with consulting firm IDEO for its Outdoor Retail of the Future project, OIA came to the conclusion it needed to put that initial endeavor on hold, and first, better understand and define its customers with help from an additional partner.] 

In the meantime, we have reached out to members, asking what type of information would be most valuable to them and how they might apply the learning to their business, in order to ensure we are aligning the research with their needs.

Share your input with OIA here, with a short, two-question, survey. Also, feel free to comment below, or email SNEWS. And, for more information and questions, email

–David Clucas