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By adults, for kids: Figuring out what the little ones want

No one is pickier than a kid who can't explain what he or she wants. Here's how brands figure out kids' clothes and gear.

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Next year, 6-year-old Stone Suitt hones his backhand on Oahu’s North Shore.
Six-year-old Stone Suitt hones his backhand on Oahu’s North Shore. Photo courtesy of Patagonia.

IN THE WORLD OF DESIGNING AND SELLING OUTDOOR EQUIPMENT, there is perhaps no segment more confounding than that of kids’ gear. How does one accurately predict the ever-changing needs of small children in the wilderness? Can feedback from a kid ever be credible enough to justify significant investments of time and money? What qualities are found in great kids’ products, and what’s the best way to sell them?

Despite the entertaining images that might come to mind of little lemmings wandering the wilderness, being followed around by adults with notepads, scribbling down every ooh and aah, the most reliable intel and feedback for kids’ gear comes from the everyday family.

“We’re not necessarily driven by market trends,” said Katie Hughes, marketing manager of Big Agnes and mother of a 2-year-old.“Some of our greatest ideas are born out of our own needs when we’re out backpacking and camping.”

Though Big Agnes makes many different types of products for kids, Hughes said the underlying, connecting concept in catering to a young market is to add in “creature comforts” that aim to make the transition to the outdoors easier for kids. Its mtnGLO tent series, for example, incorporates easy-to-use lights that have turned out to be a favorite among young campers and parents alike for their “homelike” feeling.

“For kids, there’s something about that soft glow that’s really important to them,” Hughes said. “We’ve gotten so much feedback from people who have said that it’s the first time the kids have been comfortable camping. With the lights, they feel secure and safe. Just like at home, they can turn on a light with one click of a button.”

Lisa Huang, product line director of Patagonia, said her company designs kids’ gear on a function-first basis, just like it does with adult products. But, there’s a caveat in dealing with the special needs of small children, she said, that requires an extreme attention to detail.

“It’s important to think about all the ways a child would use a product,” said Huang. “They need to be able to get out (of a sleeping bag) easily and go to the bathroom without a fuss. You don’t want to have anything that can scratch them. Even small things, like a back label on a shirt, can bother them. We try to be conscientious of those design details that can make a child uncomfortable.”

To figure out what works for kids, both Patagonia and Big Agnes look to two sources: Test groups who try out the gear, and feedback on similar adult products. The companies organize weekend-long testing trips for participants, which range from “hardcore” ambassadors, like ski patrollers and guides, to everyday families within the community, to go camping with their kids and try out new products. Parents report back to the company about what worked or didn’t work for their kids. Parents are also asked to report back on the functionality of adult-sized gear, because the design of kids’ products is based, at least generally, on adult gear, and feedback can be translated down the line to a kid’s product of similar makeup, Hughes said.

“Feedback-wise, we know that what’s comfortable for 9 out of 10 adult sleepers is going to be comfortable for a kid,” said Hughes. “And it’s trial by error. You can’t get specific feedback from a kid, but they can certainly complain about things. You’ll know if they were comfortable or cold. Even though we might not get direct feedback, the kids can relay their experience and the parents can make a judgment on it.”

Room for mom, dad and the kids.
Big Agnes’ Tensleep Station 4 has enough room for the whole family. Photo courtesy of Big Agnes.

Selling it to Mom and Dad

For retailers, selling kids’ gear can be challenging, too. After all, how do you sell something to someone who’s too young to carry cash? Just as parents are imperative in helping manufacturers design efficient products, they are absolutely essential for retailers in choosing and selling kids’ gear.

Trailfitters in Duluth, Minnesota, is known locally for its large selection of kids’ gear. Store Manager & Buyer Kyler Anderson said that while they do not market specifically to children, there are several ways to improve sales for child-specific outdoor gear.

It starts with store layout. Trailfitters displays its kids gear in the middle of the store, between the women’s and men’s sections, so that whoever comes in to shop – mom or dad – will naturally migrate into it.

He said that the best-selling kids gear and apparel are footwear and specific necessities, like child carriers, and that in most cases, parents buy the same brand for their children that they purchase for themselves.

“I think that brand loyalty takes absolute precedence in terms of the kids’ gear we’re selling,” said Anderson. “Patagonia parents, they’re buying that Patagonia hat for their kid. If they’re buying their kids Keens, then they have Keens themselves. I’d say that 90 percent of what we see is based on what the parent likes. If mom and dad have it, the kids are going to match.”

For shops that are just beginning to develop a kids’ section, this copy-cat concept is a great starting point when deciding what types of brands to carry. Simply identify what brands your customers prefer, and go from there, tracking what sells best and picking out products that have sold well in the past, varying them by season, style, and color.

But Anderson said that Trailfitters also makes sure to balance its adult consumer preferences with industry-approved quality for kids. For example, while the store is happy to experiment with locally-made products, it only stocks Deuter and Osprey child carriers, because they have the best safety reputation in the industry.

“Our approach depends on the product,” Anderson said. “If it’s a more technical product, like shoes or a child carrier, we’re definitely buying stuff that’s more proven. If it’s not so technical, like shirts, we can have more flexibility and sell things that are more about the initial impression.”

While kids’ gear might be considered a spin-off and fall down from Big Agnes’ main sources of revenue (adult gear), the line’s evolution and development is an investment in the future.

“Kids’ gear completes our line,” said Hughes. “If we didn’t offer anything for kids, it would feel like we were missing something, because our core consumer is typically a very active family. We want to see kids out, because these are the people who are going to turn into adult users. We’re all better off if they grow up with these [outdoor] experiences, and in doing so we’re also trying to make good outdoor people for life.”

Want to sell more kids’ gear in your shop? Follow these guidelines:

-Place kids gear between men’s and women’s, so Mom and Dad can’t miss it.

-Pay attention to what parents buy for themselves, and stock kids gear and apparel from those brands whenever possible. 

-Follow trends. When Trailfitters noticed parents were buying trucker hats from The North Face, they stocked kids’ versions of trucker hats, too.

Will McGough is a freelance travel writer and the publisher/editor of Wake and Wander Hawaii. He is inspired by the spectrum of ways in which people live their lives in the different parts of the world, and enjoys the idea of waking up every day to new opportunities, new landscapes, and the new feelings that the former inevitably evoke. He lives in Waimanalo. You can learn more on his website, Wake and Wander.