Connecting to communities of color: REI looks to understand, break down shopping barriers

OIA Rendezvous session to address barriers to diverse consumers shopping with outdoor specialty channels.
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This is part of a series of stories previewing Rendezvous, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) annual leadership forum, which will be held Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the Loews Coronado in San Diego, Calif. This year's line-up will feature three tracks to help you tackle your business challenges: Innovative Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion and The Consumer Revolution. Register for the event here.

Ethnic minorities might not participate in outdoor adventures in the same big numbers as their white counterparts but when they do, they do it with the same frequency and intensity.

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This is according to data from the Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Recreation Report 2013 for data collected for 2013.

That’s good news. The bad news for the industry is that they are not shopping at outdoor specialty retailers to gear up for trips, according to research by REI.

“There is a viable market of outdoor enthusiasts across racial groups,” said Laura Swapp, REI’s diversity and inclusion director. “We’re missing big market opportunities.”

Though REI is not sharing all of its findings with the outdoor industry masses, Swapp is giving a little taste of the research at an OIA Rendezvous breakout session during the leadership forum that takes place from Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

The research found a few key things Swapp wants to share: First, diverse people are recreating close to home and they’re shopping at non outdoor retailers to do so; second, when they shop they look for items that are fashionable and functional; and third, they’re looking for education and insight on outdoor activities.

Reaching out in an informed, meaningful way
REI has a lot of lessons to teach the industry — it's recently made strides in getting youth of color outdoors — but it also wants to target the more immediate market of adults of color already recreating outdoors.

“Diversity isn’t just about attracting youth but serving an existing marketplace that we don’t have in large mass at REI,” Swapp said.

Efforts to reach youth of color don't necessarily translate to adults of color.

“To some extent the industry has taken [the increasing childhood participation] model and tried to apply it to customer acquisition and that could come off as condescending and uninformed,” Swapp said.

REI has a long history of reaching out to diverse communities through grants and other programs, but two years ago it launched its pilot diversity program in San Diego and Atlanta to find organizations and events through which people of color were getting outdoors. Some of those included Outdoor Afro, Brotherhood of Skiers and Black Girls Run. “We found organizations that were already in motion with audiences that have been elusive to us,” Swapp said.

These organizations and some events like the now-defunct Adventures Denver (which Swapp said REI participated in to reach a broader Hispanic market in the city) are where its reaching to communicate with the diverse outdoor customer buying gear elsewhere. Hispanics tend to have more event-based participation, she said, whereas black communities tend to have more organizational-based participation)

The program is still in its infancy, Swapp said. It’s only a bit over two years old so REI can’t say that it’s generated any revenue or not. “But we feel confident that we’re creating brand ambassadors in places our brand has never been,” Swapp said. “We’re spreading the word about why REI is different and we feel good about the progress.”

Bright spots
While the Outdoor Foundation’s data has shown that the industry's participants are majority white (71 percent of participants) the number of ethnic participants has remained steady over the years.

“The one bright spot we have seen is once Hispanic Americans participate in an outdoor activity, they participate at the same level as Caucasians,” said Outdoor Foundation Executive Director Chris Fanning. She added that Hispanic participants had an average of 43 outings, which is exactly the same as the number of outings of their white counterparts. Plus, the Hispanic market — the fastest growing demographic group in the country — is one that seems to be warming up to outdoor specialty retailers, especially REI.

“We do better with the Hispanic market because we have stores in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California,” Swapp said, adding that the company is looking to open more stores where there are higher populations of black consumers such as the Southeast and East Coast. “Those are new areas we’re getting into.”

But until then there are many lessons to be learned from other industries that have done a good job of attracting the consumer the outdoor industry wants.

“General Mills, Coca-Cola — these are the folks who have really done well,” Swapp said. But the dark horses threatening the industry are stores like Target, which sits at No. 20 on Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

“Target has ads running during primetime that are in English and Spanish on English stations,” Swapp added. “We know they have an outdoor category and they’re serving a customer that is escaping this industry.”

Stay tuned to SNEWS for a general overview of diversity in the industry, and be sure to read our story on how creating a more diverse workplace could translate to attracting a more diverse consumer base

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