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A Denver-based ecommerce startup that scored an early investment from one of the industry’s largest corporations wants to shift the way consumers buy and sell gear while increasing exposure for outdoor brands.
Out&Back Outdoor Inc. is an online secondary marketplace founded by Barruch Ben-Zekry. Its website, which went live last month, allows consumers to search for new and used outdoor apparel and equipment, as well as sell the gear they no longer want or need. Once it has acquired enough inventory, Out&Back will begin selling that used gear to consumers.
The company’s debut was helped, in part, by outdoor industry titan VF Corporation, the $9 billion parent company of such brands as The North Face, Timberland, Smartwool, and others. Out&Back didn’t disclose its other investors. And neither Out&Back nor VF would disclose the amount VF invested in the business.
But VF spokesman Craig Hodges sent a statement to Outside Business Journal confirming that the company is an early investor in Out&Back. “The secondary market is one of the fastest-growing sectors in our industry and this investment will give VF and our brands deeper insights into consumer behaviors in both primary and secondary markets,” he wrote. “To ensure the sustained growth of VF over time, it is imperative that we gain greater visibility into disruptive startups in our industry so that we can incubate and invest in new, leading-edge, consumer-led ideas.”
Ben-Zekry, who worked for VF before launching the website, said he started the business for a simple reason: People searching for outdoor gear with today’s online and in-person limitations are “missing out.”
“When [consumers] shop for new gear, most sites don’t show them used options that would actually meet their needs and save them money,” he said. “And people looking for used gear often have to deal with a less-than-ideal shopping experience that forces real tradeoffs. Out&Back Outdoor believes in a world where both new and used can live together, side by side, delivered in a single shopping experience. A place where consumers can focus on choosing the best gear for their needs versus which platform to use.”
“Kayak for outdoor gear”
Out&Back’s website bills itself as a search tool to help outdoor enthusiasts “find the best deals on new and used outdoor gear from sellers across the internet.” Or, as Out&Back’s head of growth, Kara Watada, told OBJ, gear seekers can “think of us as Kayak for outdoor gear.”
The site provides a one-stop shopping experience where consumers can search for, say, a new fleece pullover, and then get different results from multiple brands’ websites, all on the same page. If a user clicks on Patagonia’s Better Sweater Quarter Zip, for example, they will be directed to Patagonia’s website and can proceed with their purchase there. A new feature added this week allows customers to see a true side-by-side comparison of sellers and prices for a single product.
Ben-Zekry said Out&Back Outdoor has two purposes. The first is to help customers find outdoor gear. “We bring together new and used gear from across the internet so that customers can easily compare prices from various sellers to find the perfect gear at the right price,” he said. “More than that, we specifically merchandise featured gear so that users who aren’t even sure of what they’re looking for can still take advantage of our price comparison tools. In doing all this, we have the ability to tap into affiliate revenue as users navigate off-site to purchase their products.”
The second is to help customers feel good about buying outdoor gear. “We have primarily focused on enhancing the secondary market and used-goods buying experience by giving customers all the pertinent product details—such as images, descriptions, features, prices, and available colors and sizes—that make buying from secondary markets easy. In the future, we plan to offer additional services specifically aimed at building greater trust in the whole purchasing process. As part of that, we plan to directly sell used goods as well.”
Watada stressed that Out&Back is non-endemic and won’t favor one brand over another—including gear sold by VF’s brands. Also, brands and retailers don’t pay to have their goods show up in the search results. Right now, she said, Out&Back has goods from seven brands (VF’s The North Face is one of them) on its site with plans to grow that number substantially in the coming months.
“We are helping brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and REI acquire users because we’re driving them to their sites to buy the product,” she said. “Those brands may not be speaking to this particular user today, but that user is then exposed and introduced to that brand.”
A different way to shop
To begin, Out&Back will be simply a search engine that allows shoppers to better assess their purchasing options in the wider marketplace. But the company is buying used gear and will begin selling on its site later this year.
Out&Back’s revenue model hinges on the margin it will make when it buys apparel and gear from consumers and then sells it back online after cleaning and, if necessary, refurbishing it. Another revenue stream is affiliate sales. To keep its liquidity healthy, the company also plans to initiate another round of funding soon, Watada said.
Watada said Out&Back Outdoor believes it has found an untapped niche in the business of outdoor gear sales. There are currently three ways consumers shop for outdoor gear online, she said: directly through brands’ or retailers’ websites, through traditional online marketplaces, and through search engine tools like Google Shopping.
“Out&Back takes search information across multiple sellers and puts it side by side,” Watada said. “That’s why we’re in the sweet spot. We don’t have a direct competitor because we hit all those different areas. Users can search multiple brands on one platform.”
Out&Back’s timing also could be fortuitous since brands themselves are pushing consumers to consider used instead of new gear, as Patagonia has done with its “Buy Less, Demand More” initiative that promotes pre-owned outdoor products.
Out&Back is coming to market at a time when demand for gear is soaring, but the company sees its mission as greater than just profiting during an opportune time: Out&Back is committed to deep environmental goals as well. By its very nature, the business encourages reducing and reusing outdoor gear rather than sending it to the landfill. Ben-Zekry said the company was built on a sustainability ethos—a natural extension of the fact that so much outdoor apparel and equipment is built to last and could use a good second home.
“Sustainability is a core value of Out&Back and is a primary reason why we are focused on elevating secondhand buying and sell-back solutions,” Ben-Zekry said. “Out&Back Outdoor is driven by a passion for the outdoors. We love the products that allow us to get outside and are committed to protecting the great outdoors as much as we can.”
A threat to the specialty channel?
It’s easy to see that Out&Back’s arrival could be perceived as a threat to the specialty outdoor channel. By drawing outdoor consumers to its site and promoting brands’ direct channels, the company is asking consumers to forgo traditional retailers and go straight to the brands.
Rich Hill, president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, declined to comment on the arrival of Out&Back and its potential impact on his organization’s retail members. The threat (or lack thereof) that the new company poses to traditional retail is sure to become clear in the coming months, if Out&Back can gain traction and mindshare in a fiercely competitive space.
In the meantime, Out&Back said its goal is to grow the pie, not shrink it. Because the production and sale of outdoor gear isn’t a zero-sum game—especially with the addition of used items—the company believes it can add more consumers to the fold, which will benefit all stakeholders.
“Outdoor retailers are a critical part of the outdoor ecosystem,” Ben-Zekry said. “We want to create a world where we co-exist with them and mutually benefit one another. With our platform, we’re driving direct traffic to outdoor retailers, and through a shared product page we’re unlocking access to customers who are shopping secondhand as well—something they wouldn’t get otherwise.”