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Mellow the message: Should retailers start to emphasize the softer side of the outdoors?

It's a new era for specialty outdoor retailers, who, to survive, must increasingly respond to new consumer definitions of what outdoor means to them.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

We have seen the future customer, and it is not necessarily what we embody today.

At a packed Outdoor Industry Association breakfast at Summer Market, retailers got a glimpse of the changing definition of outdoor consumers as the Outdoor Retail of the Future Project was unveiled. Tomorrow’s customers are more likely to live in an urban area, and, while enjoying the outdoors in easily accessible ways, often feel intimidated and left out of today’s retail environment. But it’s critical for retailers to rally this new recreationist.

In market-research terms, this consumer is defined as more “outsidesy” than outdoorsy. “There’s been an absolute shift in the consumer-driven definition of what the outdoors is,” said OIA President and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer in an interview after the breakfast. The shift, he continued, is attributable to changing demographics and a move away from rural areas; 70 to 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a suburban/urban environment.

“The industry still has a valid position of creating an enthusiast environment, but the overwhelming market opportunity is in really understanding what this changing definition is,” Hugelmeyer said. “We need to be much more consumer-driven in terms of our marketing.”

To that end, following Winter Market 2013, OIA engaged Palo Alto, Calif.–based design and innovation firm IDEO to help frame and understand the emerging definition. At Wednesday’s breakfast, researchers introduced the first of a three-phase project on the evolution of outdoor retail.

“There’s a deep longing for connection that is going unfulfilled,” said Clark Scheffy, associate partner at IDEO (pictured, above). And the outdoor industry sometimes loses sight of presenting experiences as accessible to all. “We forget to see the people who haven’t been invited,” said Scheffy. “We’re talking to the public with imagery like this,” he added, showing a slide of BASE jumpers. “These kinds of images inspire the core, but they make others go, ‘Holy shit, that’s really scary.’”

But Scheffy isn’t urging retailers to leave their niche customers behind, either. “Engaging the core is a good strategy, it’s just not the only strategy,” he said. “We need to engage people all along the intensity spectrum.”

Researchers from IDEO identified several insights and retail opportunities based on the emerging outdoors customer, and showed video clips of people sharing their perceptions about the outdoors to underscore those points. “Our job was to go outside the core and talk to the people on the edges,” said researcher Tracy DeLuca.

The new outdoors is very inclusive. It starts right outside the front door, happens every day and involves everyone. Rather than driving a couple of hours to a state park, for example, someone might set up camp on their rooftop in the middle of the city.

DeLuca asked retailers to envision displays that would give customers a sense of the experience they might have and what rooftop camping might entail. She urged retailers to be where the action is, showing a concept slide of a mobile gear outlet (like a food truck) that could set up shop near city parks. She also suggested adding an in-store “skills space” that could host visits by a local surfboard shaper, for example, or classes in fundamentals like building a campfire. “It’s about getting back to basics,” said DeLuca, “and also learning skills to thrive, not just survive.”

The new consumer often uses the outdoors as a beautiful backdrop for social experiences, said IDEO Researcher Jill Levinsohn. She suggested retailers help new customers with logistics like booking a campsite online and sharing insider tips like what gear to bring on trips.

A final point is that the outdoors should be fun for everyone. “Fear kills fun,” said Levinsohn. “We need to include people who aren’t yet ready for the things we’re emphasizing now.” In other words, think flying kites versus flying off cliffs. She suggested creating new ways to focus on fun, like a loyalty program based on accumulating things like how many city parks one visits during the summer.

IDEO will facilitate sessions at the upcoming OIA Rendezvous in San Diego to gather more retailer input, and host an interactive booth at Winter Market that will showcase a variety of ideas retailers can immediately integrate into their stores.

–Cindy Hirschfeld