The final Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City is behind us. And while the attendees we spoke with felt that the aisles of the Salt Palace were less crowded that usual (no official numbers have been released by the show), energy was high around the industry coming together to support public lands. 

We prowled the show talking to everybody we could about the overall health, direction, and trends of the outdoor industry. Here are our top 10 takeaways.

The March for Public Lands galvanized close to 3,000 marchers and infused the show with positive energy and a common goal.

The March for Public Lands galvanized close to 3,000 marchers and infused the show with positive energy and a common goal.

1. The outdoor industry punches up.

Thanks to the Outdoor Industry Association, we know the American outdoor recreation economy accounts for $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs. At OR, the trade group provided more tools to influence policy: state-level economic impact reports were released on Day 1, and on Day 2 the OIA organized a march 3,000 people strong to the State Capital. The message to Utah’s politicans: Defend public lands. 

Gear manufacturers and retailers are stepping up, too. The Conservation Alliance has 29 new members already this year, which means more annual dues to fund conservation grants. Moosejaw Mountaineering signed on after Wal-Mart acquired the retailer in February. Why? “We've been discussing joining the Conservation Alliance for a number of years. The Walmart acquisition freed up the cash to make it happen. Walmart takes sustainability and its impact on the environment very seriously, so this was very much in line with overall corporate direction. And consumers—particularly younger ones—definitely want to buy from brands and retailers that align with their world view,” said Moosejaw CEO Eoin Comerford. “Younger consumers especially understand that they can vote with their wallet for brands and retailers that support the things they care about. It creates a deeper, more personal relationship, and a virtuous cycle.

2. Manufacturers meet consumers on their turf.

The old model: Brands push technical gear with aspirational marketing. Now? Outdoor companies want the market that recreates between their front door and the trailhead. Think gear for picnics, music festivals, beaches, and van dwellers. Rock gyms, too: The North Face releases their first collection of indoor-specific apparel in 2018. (Pro climber Sam Elias helped with product development during a summer 2016 internship.)

And insulated bottle makers Hydro Flask enters soft goods with the Unbound Series: a backpack and tote ($275 each) with built-in coolers. “Our original product combined a water bottle and a thermos to make occasional use items into something you carry every day,” said Jason Valdez, Hydro Flask’s soft goods category manager. “We went after what people use for trips to the park or a soccer game, and user needs in those cases let us think about design in a different way.” That means thermally mapped closed-cell insulation, or thicker cooler walls, where the gear touches body or ground.

Baby boomers benefit, too. Yakima’s ShowDown ($449) kayak and SUP roof rack tilts down two feet to make loading water craft easier. “It’s designed to help active people maintain their independence,” said Yakima’s Garrett Barnum.

3. Make new stuff, but make it useful.

Rather than just slap a logo on more sameness, established brands entering new categories focused on functional value. Exhibit A: NEMO’s Stargaze Recliner ($179) puts a swinging, breathable mesh seat that tips back into a relaxed position atop four points of ground contact. Meaning you get the freewheeling comfort of a tree swing, without being exiled from the campfire circle.

Leatherman keeps brand loyalists work-ready in knife-free zones with the Tread Tempo ($575) watch, which tucks drivers between wrist links. And rooftop tents and car accessories, like the Thule Omnistor Awning, help consumers get more out of what they already own. “We’ve been a leader in caravan accessories in the European market for decades, and now we’re helping outdoor consumers here in the U.S. tap into the utility side of their vehicle,” said Thule’s Chris Ritchie.

And multifunctional pieces that minimize gear closet clutter sell best, said Flylow co-founder Dan Abrams. Solely a winter apparel brand for 12 years, Flylow showed its third summer line at OR. “In a surf or skate shop, you can get away with cotton t-shirts. You’re just selling an image,” said Abrams. “Our customers don’t necessarily need more t-shirts. They want one shirt with performance and style that they can wear mountain biking, hiking, or to cook ribs.” Flylow added technical features to new pieces like the women’s Moonlight Shirt, a hoody cut from wicking, UPF 50 fabric. And orders are up 100 percent for spring 2018.

4. Innovation serves core users.

This just in: cotton tees and wispy nylon tipis look real neat at Bonnaroo, but they won’t hold up on backcountry missions. Thankfully, outdoor industry leaders still invest in performance gear. Salomon updates its signature trail running collection with the XA Elevate, a sleek, 10.4-ounce shoe with dual-density midsole, decoupled rock plate, and 8mm drop that makes short work of slick roots and wet rock.

Osprey introduces ultralight packs in 2018: The men’s Levity and women’s Lumina tip the scales at 1.83 pounds for the 60-liter model and 1.76 pounds for 45 liters. Better yet, these aren’t just sacks with straps but fully featured top-loaders with Airspeed suspension. We have tested the Lumina and can confirm: Loaded with 20 pounds, it sat lightly on our hips and shoulders.

Other highlights: Black Diamond’s new rock shoe line, anchored by the men’s and women’s Momentum ($89) with breathable mesh uppers—a new (and machine-washable) material application for vertically inclined footwear. Chaco’s Z Canyon reimagines the company’s original river shoe with a molded TPU heel holster, which locks the foot atop a midsole rebound plate to improve land travel. The idea: If Chaco inventor Mark Paigen had access to modern materials and technology, what could he have made? Why these innovations matter: Top-shelf innovation inevitably trickles down to lower price-point products, improving outdoor experience for users across the spectrum.

5. Sustainability still trends.

Hemp rules, jackets are going PFC-free, and Jack Wolfskin debuted the first fully recycled waterproof-breathable membrane. The brand collects remnants to make Texapore Ecosphere, and pairs this with face fabrics made from plastic bottles in the ECO series.

reDEW jeans are insanely comfortable, and better for the planet than typical denim.

reDEW jeans are insanely comfortable, and better for the planet than typical denim.

Others cleaned up manufacturing: reDEW, which launches jeans made from organic cotton with 4-way stretch this fall, uses less water, chemicals, and electricity than traditional denim makers. They also pledge to donate 25 percent of their profits to wildlife conservation efforts each year—and gave away $25,000 last year, before they sold a single pair. “The world is not waiting, and we wanted to prove we’re serious,” said co-founder Anders Haglund.

On the ingredient side, Polygiene’s silver salt treatment stops odor-causing bacteria from growing on layers. Their research says that results in less laundry—and massive savings on water and energy use, plus consumer time and money. 

6. Speciality retail streamlines.

Retailers order gear 90 to 120 days out because that’s how long manufacturing and delivery takes. What if that timeline shrank to 30 days? Ruffwear achieved just that in April 2017 with their best-selling Front Range harness. “Our factories in Vietnam were resistant to the idea—they didn’t think it was possible,” said Director of Marketing Susan Strible. “Now that it is working, it’s getting attention.”

From who? Strible won’t name the brand, but a major name in outdoor apparel and footwear is studying Ruffwear’s process. And the dog outfitter is also reimagining order fulfillment. Instead of asking retailers for two big orders each year, the Latitude Program encourages small, frequent orders. It’s similar to Amazon Prime: Retailers pay a $99 fee, which gets them free shipping on orders over $100 for 12 months. “It’s not the model that surrounds us,” said Strible. “You go to Costco and pay $3 for a big tub of lettuce you know you won’t eat rather than $5 for less lettuce at the grocery store.” But, she says, this approach reduces storage and inventory for Ruffwear and retailers, which cuts costs and waste.

That’s worked for Jax Mercantile, a retailer that operates five stores in Colorado without any off-site storage or warehouses. “One way we keep costs down is to say, We don’t need this now,” said Jen Scanlon, Jax’s camping buyer. “Ruffwear orders take a couple days, it’s always in stock, and they have a high fulfillment rate.” She also says business is up for Jax this year—which surprised vendors at the show, but has become a common refrain from specialty shops that survived the recent closures of overextended retail operations. And while e-commerce and direct-to-consumer trends worry Scanlon, she’s confident brick-and-mortar outfits can survive. “If you no longer support retail, the brand will die—we saw that with GoLite,” she said. “People need somewhere to go for a sense of community, to touch and feel gear, or just to talk to a human who was just on the hike you’re doing.”

7. Trade show heat check.

Without Patagonia and Arc’teryx in attendance, who generated the most buzz on the floor? YETI’s fully submersible, waterproof Panga duffel was a Salt Palace darling. A waterproof zipper—strong enough it’s also used on hazmat suits—seals TPU walls reinforced with an EVA bottom in 50-, 75-, and 100-liter models (from $300). Of course, burly duffels aren’t new. (See Patagonia’s Black Hole line, plus offerings from Sea to Summit, Big Agnes, Gregory, and more.)

But YETI’s marketing muscle only helps draws more consumers to the category, Ortlieb President Jeff Scully said as he stood next to a stack of the German brand’s own durable, weatherproof gear haulers. 

The massive, centrally located Fjallraven booth saw heavy traffic at Outdoor Retailer.

The massive, centrally located Fjallraven booth saw heavy traffic at Outdoor Retailer.

Another busy booth: Fjallraven, a Swedish brand whose trekking pants and tights sell well from Brooklyn to Saskatoon. With 19 concept stores open now and a handful more slated to come online in 2018, the brand believes in-store experience—think tailors on staff to tuck and hem those Vidda Pro trekking pants—is key to success.

8. Up next: Place-based marketing.

Outdoor Retailer selects brands for the Venture Out area based on their appeal to young, entry-level, urban consumers. The common thread? Products rooted in place. In fact, that’s the tagline for Bramble Outdoors, a California startup that evokes the Southwest desert in camp towel graphics (sold in 45 REI stores) and uses black, teal, and purple color ways inspired by the Pacific Northwest for new packs.

“We’re trying to ingrain products with an emotional connection before they get to the consumer,” says co-founder Trevor Cobb. “What we’re betting on is that as millenials move into cities, travel continuously, and become more nomadic, products that mimic that mindset will resonate.” It’s an interesting thought experiment, though whether products that evoke place will out-perform Venture Out neighbors with physical heritage—say, French knife-makers Opinel and Duckworth’s Montana-raised merino—remains to be seen.

9. And watch for the maker’s movement in the outdoor space.

Six years ago, NEMO founder Cam Brensinger got into overland travel. Next came #vanlife. That can’t end soon enough for our liking, so we stopped by the NEMO booth to see what Brensinger’s into these days. The answer: woodworking. That’s in step with the millenial-driven maker’s movement, which combines traditional artisan skills with readily available digital fabrication methods.

Take your campsite to the next level with U.S. made furniture from Blue Ridge Chair Works.

Take your campsite to the next level with U.S. made furniture from Blue Ridge Chair Works.

On a larger scale, that looks like Blue Ridge Chair Works, which uses CNC machines (computer-run machine tools, also used in ski manufacturing) to cut hardwood pieces assembled into foldable, durable wooden furniture in North Carolina factories. Founder Alan Davis has been in business for 14 years—and ships 85 percent of his made in the USA product to foreign markets. But he noticed an uptick in booth traffic this year. “For a long time we were on the fringe,” he says. “Now we’re the target. The market is shifting, and it’s coming to me.”

10. See you soon, Denver.

OR’s future dominated conversations on the trade show floor. First, what we know: Starting in January 2018, Denver will be OR’s home for the next five years. Show organizer Emerald Expositions hosts three events there in 2018: Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in January, Summer Market in July, and Winter Market in November. And that three-show calendar will be the new format moving forward.

We are looking forward to starting 2018 with a completely refreshed Outdoor Retailer brand,” said Jennifer Holcomb, senior marketing director for Outdoor Retailer. But despite rumors, OR will remain strictly a business-to-business gathering. “Allowing the general public into the event changes the tenor and entire purpose of the event,” said Holcomb. “It would put retailers at a disadvantage, because the public would have access to newer equipment than what’s available in stores.”

In the coming months, the OR team will devise new education offerings, networking events, and ways to match buyers and brands at the trade events. What does that look like? We’ll find out in January.

And yes, Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Polartec will be there, too.


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