From the home front: What consumers think about the outdoor industry

In an industry full of insiders, we flip the coin to learn what four outdoor consumers think of brands, retailers, social media and more.
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At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014, we worked with our sister publication Backpacker to bring in four of the magazine’s readers to help us cover the event from the consumer perspective.

At a show full of industry insiders, jargon and trade, it can be easy at times to lose sight of the ultimate end game — serving the customer back home. We wanted to know their view of the outdoor industry including what activities they're pursuing, if brands are meeting their needs, and where and how they shop for outdoor gear.

Below is our discussion with Eric Hanson from St. George, Utah, Kristin McLane from Sewell, N.J., Saveria Tilden from Pasadena, Cailf. and Joel Nyquist from South Riding, Va.

Tell us a little about yourself and where your passion for the outdoors began?
Eric Hanson: My dad would take my brother and me out on hikes and campouts. I have vivid memories from my early years of camping in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, hiking in the Grand Canyon and backpacking Chicago Basin in Colorado. These experiences instilled in me a love of nature, lonely landscapes and the physical exertion of exploring these places.

 Eric Hanson

Eric Hanson

Kristin McLane: I grew up in and around Philadelphia, and my family has always spent a ton of time outside. We were never really out in the wilderness, just car camping and day hiking, but it whet my appetite for more and I started backpacking in college.

Saveria Tilden: I grew up riding horses and exploring the local woods in Woodinville, Wash. Despite growing up in the shadow of the Cascades, traveling all over the world and working with state parks across the nation, I only truly “found” the outdoors a few years ago through the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course.

Joel Nyquist: I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo., and was part of an active Boy Scout troop, which provided exposure to ice climbing, mountain biking, spelunking, windsurfing, camping and climbing. After a family trip to Seattle I laid eyes on Mount Rainier and thought, “I’ve got to climb that.” After the Rainier trip, the mountaineering bug bit full force, and then a move to the United Kingdom provided many trips to the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.

Which outdoor activities are most popular with you and your peers these days?
Kristin: Lately, I have been into backpacking and rock climbing. It seems like everyone is trying something new though, with mountain biking, backcountry skiing, kayaking and caving making their way into the mix. Some activities I want to try soon are canyoneering and packrafting.

 Kristin McLane

Kristin McLane

Joel: My interests have migrated from pure backpacking with a focus on mileage and wilderness, into more vertical pursuits like mountaineering and climbing. The lessons from alpine climbing, with its emphasis on saving weight, minimizing size and high efficiency, have paid dividends on his backpacking trips, as well.

Eric: I have a hard time choosing between rock climbing, mountain biking and canyoneering. Although I must say I have been choosing canyoneering more and more. I find exploring slot canyons to be one of the most invigorating and awe-inspiring experiences, you never know what hidden places you might find.

Tell us about your favorite outdoor store. What does it do well, what can it do better?
Saveria: Honestly, I find myself shopping for most of my gear online these days. TheClymb.com is my favorite place to look for great deals. My favorite “brick and mortar” store is REI. Their customer service is great, the staff is always knowledgeable and helpful and they offer great learning opportunities through their classes. Due to its urban location, our local REI does not have a very deep selection of the more technical clothes and gear we would like to see and try on.

 Saveria Tilden

Saveria Tilden

Eric: Ilove the store experience at REI. They have always taken care of me as a customer. But my favorite place to buy gear these days is through Geartrade.com. To me, it’s simply the best value. I can buy big-ticket items that have been used, returned to vendors and resold at steep discounts. It’s how I was able to afford all my expensive winter gear. The only thing they could do better is take `better pictures of the gear as it sits in the warehouse. Ugly lighting makes for bad looking gear.

Joel: I end up buying most things online, and searching for the best deal. But after a number of boot returns, I never buy any footwear online! Those have to be tried on in person.

Where do you go for advice on what outdoor gear to buy?
Joel: Online reviews are quite useful, although you don’t know if the person writing the review has any idea what they’re talking about. So sources like Backpacker.com are great. I don’t walk into a store without a good idea of what I want. I do the online research and find the top-rated items. Then, if possible, I head to a store to try it out. I might pay a bit more (sometimes) in stores, but I’ll know what I’m getting and I don’t run the risk of having to return everything.

Joel Nyquist

Joel Nyquist

Kristin: If I am interested in a specific item, I will go right to online reviews of it. Many such reviews will compare it to similar items so I can go and check out reviews and specs of the competition to see if there is something better suited to my needs. If I’m looking for something more general, but don’t have any idea where to start, I search online to see what people are mentioning in backpacking forums and other outdoor resources, and then go to reviews from there. I almost never buy an item in store without any prior knowledge of it.

Saveria: ‘I often look to the recommendations and testimonials of guides and the pros that are in the field using the gear regularly and really putting it through the paces. If I want more info, then I do a general search on the Internet for both reviews and competitive pricing.

How can outdoor brands better serve your needs?
Eric: I love outdoor gear, but I hate that I can’t afford it all. But really I think my biggest complaint is that I find some companies sacrificing durability and quality in exchange for more mainstream appeal, and a lot of that gear just doesn’t hold up under hard use.

Kristin: Outdoor brands are definitely not meeting my needs in the women’s sizing department. I personally need a tall size and I have many friends that need petite or plus sizes. It’s important to have well-fitting clothing when being active, and I’m just not finding much.

Saveria: ‘My biggest challenge is finding pants. Topping out at 5 feet, 2 inches with my boots on, finding a good selection of technical pants with short inseams is really hard. Mountain Hardwear has been my best bet to date.

Joel: Modification and size selection for tall, skinny dudes. I love packs with detachable top lids, removable stays and multiple access points. Jackets with pit zips and removable hoods. Tents with an option for one, two or no vestibules. I want to be able to select my gear based on the trip, without having to carry things I don’t need. Many brands also don’t provide enough sizing options. A large is often too baggy for me, but a medium doesn’t cover my ankles or wrists.

What are brands doing right with social media to attract you? What social media methods turn you off?
Joel: Honesty in reviews and reports goes a long way with me for brand loyalty. Endless posts and spam (email or otherwise) make me quickly search for the “unsubscribe” button. And I genuinely like it when a sponsored athlete doesn’t have glowing praise for everything they use.

Saveria: ‘I am currently a big fan of Instagram and the way consumers, brand ambassadors and sponsored athletes are connecting the brands to real life use through capturing and sharing their adventures. There are great opportunities through social media channels for brands to make an authentic connection with their audience. When it feels like a constant sales pitch or an onslaught of spam, it turns me off. I would rather have fewer high-quality posts than many without depth or value.

Eric: I really like social media. I find it to be a great source of information. That being said, I often ignore a brand’s use of social media because I’m not usually interested in a tweet about a sale. To me, the most effective use of social media has been through the use of video. The most notable to me was a piece Patagonia created called “Worn Wear.” It spoke to me because it told a story.

Kristin: I’m a sucker for sweepstakes and giveaways and will join every one I see on social media, which then usually gets me on the brand’s mailing list. Boom — new customer. What I don’t like is when brands consistently post many updates each day. It clogs up my feeds and just becomes noise that I scroll right by.

--David Clucas

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