Ultra business: As consumers push themselves to the limit, outdoor retailers could see increase in bottom line

The increase in popularity of ultra marathons and stage races, and the trend of consumers pushing themselves to the limit, could lead to an increase in the bottom lines of outdoor retailers.
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Once upon a time, running a 5K was considered an accomplishment. Then it was a 10K. And then a half-marathon. These days, a marathon seems almost run of the mill. Over the past decade, the rise of ultramarathons and stage races is evidence of customers pushing themselves to their limits.

“People used to think the Western States 100 was absurd,” Trasie Phan, an avid ultrarunner and owner of the website UltraUniversity.com, said. “But the more people accomplished the marathon distance, the more people craved the next challenge.” The sport dates back to at least the 1970s, when Gordon “Gordy” Ainsleigh hopped off his injured horse at the Western States 100 (then only an equestrian event) and crossed the finish line on foot.

The natural settings of a growing number of these races are catching the attention of outdoor manufacturers and retailers. Many started as loops in urban environments, but the prominence of trail ultras is growing. Stage races take it a step further — usually lasting a week, with athletes carrying camping gear to get through.

The races are expensive, and the gear needed to train for and participate in them can cost thousands of dollars. While that may not be the best news for runners’ pocketbooks, it offers an opportunity for those in the outdoor industry.

“The hard-core marathoner wants a bigger challenge,” said Outdoor Retailer Show Director Kenji Haroutunian. “They’re putting themselves out in the elements, where they’re running in windy, variable conditions.”

Jogging to ultras
Speciality run and specialty outdoor: Where shall the twain meet? What were once two absolutely distinct categories are becoming increasingly intertwined.

 Figures from the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) show running and jogging participation has increased 23.3 percent in the past three years, while trail running has increased 15.5 percent. In the past four years, running has garnered as many participants as tennis, skiing and golf combined, according to Endurance Racing Magazine.

Running and jogging are gateway activities that lead people from the roads to the trails to discover trail running or hiking — even cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Marit Fischer, a spokesperson for Backcountry.com, noted that while trail running is popular in Europe, the U.S. market is larger and more geographically diverse.

“If you look at a pie chart of runners in the U.S., there’s a small wedge that is made up of trail runners,” Fischer said. “I think that is growing, and it has potential to grow a lot more in the U.S.”

Outdoor Industry Association figures show that running already has boosted sales of certain products from outdoor retailers. From 2010 to 2011, running footwear sales increased 14.6 percent in units and 18.9 percent in dollars sold; items like heart-rate monitors saw a 14.3 percent increase in units sold and a 23.2 percent dollar increase.

Ultra interest
People are tackling ultra distances for two primary reasons: to celebrate themselves and their abilities and to have an accomplishment that defines their success.

“Once you’ve achieved success on the road, trails are a great place to try something a little more advanced,” Haroutunian said. There are now 50K, 50-mile and 100-mile races all over the country. A majority of these, Phan said, take place on trails and in open spaces.

Most of the athletes who compete are shopping at a combination of run specialty and outdoor specialty retail shops, experts said.

“These types of events often require exposure to the elements for long durations,” said the OIA’s Avery Stonich. “Outdoor specialty retailers might carry a deeper offering of products that participants might need, like headlamps and technical gear to protect against the elements.” Haroutunian echoed that the ultra athlete needs exactly what the outdoor industry offers: tools like heart-rate monitors, specialized lightweight gear and sturdy footwear.

This is especially true for stage races like the Grand to Grand Ultra and the TransRockies Run. The Grand to Grand Ultra is a self-supported, six-stage, 167-mile race through the Grand Canyon that takes place in September, and the TransRockies Run is a six-stage, 120-mile race from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, Colo. Though both have six stages, the Grand to Grand, which costs $3,200 per person, requires athletes carry their own food, sleeping gear and clothing for the duration.

“The mandatory gear tends to be more specialized,” said Colin Geddes, business and event director for Ultra Challenge America, which organizes the Grand to Grand. “At the end of the day you’re looking for products and equipment that are ultralightweight and highly specialized. You wouldn’t go to a normal running retailer for these things.”

The TransRockies Run is a comparatively luxurious event in which athletes carry their hydration, space blanket, gloves, hat, light jacket and nutrition for the day. Volunteers set up a tent city each night and transport athletes’ duffels from campsite to campsite, and caterers feed the athletes gourmet meals twice a day.

But that doesn’t mean participants don’t have to make several trips to a specialty outdoor retailer prior to the event for the required sleeping bag, sleeping pad, baselayers, puffy coats and other gear.

This was the first year for the Grand to Grand Ultra, Geddes said, so it’s hard to gauge its future growth. The event did attract 74 sign-ups, 60 of whom started and 48 of whom finished.

The three-day TransRockies Run, which was established in 2007 and costs $3,000 per team and $900 per individual, was modeled after Gore-Tex’s European TransAlpine Run. In 2007, there were 120 participants in the TransRockies Run. This year, there were 360 and TransRockies Events President Aaron McConnell said he anticipates 30 percent growth for 2013 entries.

The dream consumer
Phan admits she spends upward of $1,500 on gear to train for an ultra event. This does not include the hefty price tag of the event itself.

“The amount of gear you’re using is insane,” said Backcountry.com’s Fischer, a former Iron Man who turned to ultras after having her daughter. Last August, Fischer competed in the TransRockies Run, previously sponsored by Gore-Tex, as part of one of the Backcountry.com teams.

According to Endurance Racing Magazine, which specializes in endurance events like ultra running, cycling triathlons, skiing and snowshoeing, its readers have an average household income of $111,312 and an average age of 43. About 48 percent of them spend $100 to $500 on gear; 32 percent spend $500 to $1,000; and 20 percent spend more than $1,000. The average TransRockies Run participant household income was slightly higher, coming in at $120,000.

Plus, added Skirt Sports CEO Nicole DeBoom, these participants aren’t just runners. Their interests cross over into other outdoor sports, so when they’re gearing up for an event, they might be inspired to purchase other items.

“The consumer, particularly the female, isn’t just a runner anymore,” DeBoom said. “She’s learning how to diversify her fitness and her experience as a healthy woman.”

Perks and pointers for sponsorship
There are opportunities in these ultra and stage races for both manufacturers and retailers. For manufacturers, the opportunity lies in sponsorship, giving them a chance to forge one-on-one relationships with customers.

That said, Gore-Tex will not sponsor the TransRockies this year. Gore-Tex’s Cynthia Amon, who initially brought the event to the United States, declined to say why the company dropped the sponsorship.

And Backcountry.com, which sponsored the TransRockies Run last year, also is stepping aside. Still, Fischer said she’d recommend it to other businesses as a way to connect with participants “if the event is core to your brand, and if you can really authentically engage with the customers.

“From a retailer perspective we could have done a better job making sure trail-running gear was front and center on our site, getting ready for the influx of people driving to the site,” she said.

“You’re there for six days so participants are sort of a captive audience,” to which you can communicate your brand’s message, said TransRockies’ McConnell. “But also there’s a lot of time to have a lot of one-on-one interaction and develop relationships with people.”

The benefits extend to brick-and-mortar retailers. Keith and Evelyn Baker, owners of the Trail Head and Mountain Bohemian in Buena Vista, Colo., said the race helps both their business and the town’s economy. The influx of visitors staying in hotels and shopping for last-minute necessities and lifestyle apparel helps keep them afloat, Evelyn Baker said. 

“It’s a pretty expensive race and the people who run it tend to be more affluent and have the money to spend,” she added. When they come into the store looking for last-minute items, they shop around. “They are buying other things that we just happen to have, like they find a cute top or they think, ‘Yeah, I can stand to replace these shorts.’”

Haroutunian encourages specialty outdoor retailers to seek out ultra trail races or stage races in their area and become a hub of education and information.

“Reach out, get some brochures, make your store a resource, not just for equipment but for local events,” Haroutunian said. “Capture the imagination of the customers coming in.”

A natural fit
At Outdoor Retailer, the running and outdoor communities are a natural fit for one another, Haroutunian said. The growing presence of brands in the Endurance Zone is a perfect place for attendees from running stores to make themselves comfortable.

“One thing you’ll see from Outdoor Retailer is a focus on drawing more of those running shops and getting that core running story engaged in the outdoor industry,” Haroutunian said. “Running has its own retail landscape, but we have a lot of them engaged in the show, as it’s a natural place for the running industry to come to grow, influence and be influenced by other market segments.”

Haroutunian said this interest in the outdoor community from the running industry hatched 10 years ago when gear began to take on more multisport, ultralight characteristics. Since its inception in 2009, the Endurance Zone has grown between 9 and 14 percent at Outdoor Retailer. This Winter Market, 73 companies are showcasing multisport endurance apparel; 42 companies are showcasing multisport footwear; and 119 companies are showcasing triathlon, multisport and endurance accessories.

Outdoor Retailer is the place to be if they want to be the category, Haroutunian said. “It’s just a natural fit.”

--Ana Trujillo

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