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OR Summer

Done over a lunch break

More Americans are shortening their outdoor adventures — and it’s changing the face of the industry. Read our O.R. Daily Day 4 feature story.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 2-5. 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.


This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Summer Market recap is brought to you by Cordura:


Not long ago, we admired the weekend warrior.

Hardworking Americans had little time to escape to the outdoors. But many strived to disconnect from work on Saturday and Sunday and fit in a two-day adventure, perhaps even an overnight camp.

Some lamented the decline of longer outdoor vacations — a week or more in the backcountry helped one connect with nature at an intense level. But before long, we’d come to think a weekend getaway as a great escape.

“Done in a day,” became the new slogan for many heading outdoors. Put in a full dawn-to-dusk day on the trail and that was sufficient and efficient. Without overnight gear weighing you down, you could tick off a marathon of miles.

But today, even day-long excursions seem lengthy. A trail run over one’s lunch break is the new schedule for the outdoors for many.

There’s no question that Americans are shortening their outdoor adventures. The debate is over why and how that’s changing the face industry for the better or worse. A walk across the Outdoor Retailer show floor tells the story better than anywhere else — pack sizes are smaller, electronics are increasing in prevalence and outdoor apparel is going urban.

Shifting sales

“If you can’t get on the trail, at least you can look like you were out on the trail,” said Scott Jaeger, senior retail analyst for Leisure Trends, who sees the trend in outdoor sales figures.

According to Leisure Trends data, for the rolling year, from May 2011 to May 2012, outdoor specialty retail unit sales of large packs (more than 65 liters) are down 10.3 percent. Mid-size packs (from 41 to 65 liters) are up 3.7 percent in unit sales, while smaller daypacks (40 liters or less) are up 7.6 percent.

During the same period, other signals of the trend show boot unit sales down 8 percent, while shoe unit sales are up 11.6 percent, primarily driven by a bump in trail running and casual footwear. Camera equipment is up more than 100 percent. Backpacking tents are down 7.2 percent.

Balancing time

Those figures came as no surprise to most specialty outdoor retailers we spoke to, who said several factors are at play.

“It’s a combination of lighter and smaller gear and people taking shorter trips,” said Paul Jensen, backpacking and camping specialist for Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis.

One might imagine that lighter gear would encourage consumers to push further and spend more time in the backcountry, and it has to a degree. Lightened loads and consequently smaller packs have made it easier to squeeze in more miles in less time. But consumers seem content in taking those time savings back home to fill with other activities and work.

The latter point is where Jensen really sees the shift: “People’s schedules today don’t allow for extended backpacking trips.”

It’s not all bad news for the industry. While long backpacking trips might be on the decline, consumers are still getting their outdoor fix from quicker adventures, such as climbing and paddlesports. “There’s a lot more diversification in people’s activities,” Jensen said. And that means, overall, they’re buying more gear.

In fact, just about everything in life, from meal preparation to newspaper articles, have become quicker and shorter to allow more time for different interests.

There are other factors at play. Baby boomers, who have been a key driver for outdoor industry’s success both in consumer demand and entrepreneurial spirit, are getting older. Their kids, the baby-boom echo and the second-largest generation, are having kids of their own, which is driving up children’s outdoor product sales, but shortening outdoor adventures.

Another theory is that more people are living closer to the outdoors. The majority of the country’s growth during the past decade has been out West, where wilderness areas, national forests and national parks dominate the landscape. When people live closer to the outdoors, they have the opportunity to take a greater number of short trips, rather than a single long one. “You can just run up the mountain and come back home,” said Jay Getzel, sales and marketing director for pack maker Mountainsmith in Golden, Colo.

Other trends leading to condensed time outdoors are a bit dicey for the industry.

“With the advent of email and smartphones, people feel in constant pressure to keep in contact with work, or in touch with friends through social media,” said Phyllis Grove, vice president of marketing at Keen.

So, outdoor adventures become a quick trail run, then back to work. Or perhaps a short hike, close enough to a cell tower where one can snap a photo and immediately post it to Facebook. “Hey! I’m doing something outdoors!”

A larger audience

Core outdoorsmen likely are cringing right about now, but the popularity of those quick outdoor trips, Facebook postings and all, are leading to more people getting outdoors.

“You didn’t hear as much about these short outdoor trips before social media,” Grove said. She’s right. The neighbors didn’t invite you over to see a slideshow of their two hours at a city park — it was the recap of the week’s vacation in Yellowstone.

But today, quick experiences matter. And they’re infectious.

It led Keen to develop its “Recess is Back” campaign, encouraging companies to allow employees to play outside for at least 15 minutes to break up the work day. “People really embrace and benefit from these short breaks,” Grove said.

The theory is that if a person starts small outdoors, maybe, just maybe, the pendulum can start to swing the other way — attracting people to spend substantial time outside.

It’s a strategy being employed particularly with youth, said Gareth Martins, director of marketing with Osprey Packs.

“I see more programs that are recognizing the power of these done-in-a-day tips — getting the kids out, even if it’s just outside the city, engaging them with the outdoors in these shorter trips, and hopefully, that eventually works out in getting them out for longer overnight trips.”

Getzel with Mountainsmith agreed, saying the same goes for adults. “The industry benefits if we as brands appropriately market ourselves — getting outdoors doesn’t mean you have to take a week off and carry an 80-liter pack,” he said. “It opens the outdoors to a larger audience.”

People highly value the ability to get outdoors, no matter what they’re doing, Getzel continued. “Look at the number of fitness/run specialty companies that have come to Summer Market. Their consumer is taking their run to the local trail rather than the street or gym. If we’re all smart, we’ll start providing products to them as well.”

New outdoor companies/categories

Indeed, the quick outdoor getaways and workouts are breeding new companies and categories of outdoor gear.

Newcomer Alite Designs was founded on the basis of getting city dwellers past the “lame excuses” of not venturing outdoors, said co-founder Tae Kim.

“The company makes stylish and colorful products from chairs to packs that are urban in style, but meant to convince people to stay outdoors longer. From its hometown store in San Francisco, it also provides outdoor education, promoting organic farms that will allow people to camp overnight, for example.

“It’s camping 101,” Kim said. “I think a lot of people enjoy roughing it on occasion, but they’re unsure of what to do or where to go. You have to explain to them why a yoga mat doesn’t work as a sleeping pad — getting a good night’s rest with a proper sleeping pad makes a big difference.”

The biggest fear for many, Kim said, is “going to the bathroom outdoors.” They’re not completely comfortable with that right off the bat.

For more established outdoor companies, the short-trip trend has led to new designs and categories.

At Mountainsmith, Getzel has seen his company shift focus from 80- to 100-liter packs, to 25- to 50-liter packs. The brand also has seen a revival in popularity of its lumbar packs.

Osprey has focused in recent years on expanding its product lines for those done-in-a-day adventures, including specialized packs for climbing, biking, skiing, hiking and carrying kids on the trail. Another trend is bringing all the feature sets found on larger packs, like suspension, torso sizing, gender options and adjustability, to smaller packs, Martins said.

The opposite strategy, toward do-it-all daypacks, has increased business for outdoor brands too, attracting all types of urban outdoor customers, said Dan Dalton, sales associate for The Wilderness Exchange in Denver.

“They’re coming in looking for one pack that’s very versatile, something for biking to work, or running to the grocery store to pick up a few items,” Dalton said. Those are outdoor excursions, too. And even though his store is core outdoor, Dalton said he’s happy to attract and serve that customer.

“If they get good advice and it’s the right product, and they’re satisfied, that’s a good thing,” he said. “They’ll come back when they need a larger pack for an overnight trip. There’s really something for everyone.”

Stay overnight

While the outdoor industry can capitalize on making products for daily adventures, there is a “duty of ethics,” Osprey’s Martins said, for companies to keep a focus on backpacking products, education and promotion.

“For our wild places to truly be conserved and respected, people have to experience the overnight in the backcountry,” he said.

With that in mind, we find a slice of hope from Kyle Phillips at Wild Iris Mountain Sports in Lander, Wyo.

“I am actually seeing more folks getting out for their first multi-day trips into the mountains,” he told us, bucking the trend we heard about from so many others. “It’s inspiring to see many bold families taking their kiddos out on their backs, and heading deep into the backcountry. They’re going for it!”

–David Clucas