How Millennials Have Reshaped Retail in the Outdoors

What The New Generation of Consumers is Looking For and Where to Find Them.

By Lily Krass

Imagine you’re looking for skis for the upcoming season. You run a quick online search for “Best Skis 2019,” and dozens of articles pop up from esteemed publications telling you which skis will work best for touring powder, groomers, or mountaineering. Click through a few and you’ll likely land on a few different e-commerce sites, packed with product info, employees available to chat online customer reviews, and maybe even a 20% off coupon if you order before midnight. A few clicks later, you’ve narrowed down your choice to three different pairs of skis, all without leaving your couch.

Millennials are classified as anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 23 through 38 in 2019 if you’d like to skip the math). In the 2018-2019 SIA Winter Sports Participation Study, just over 20% of all 24.6 million snowsports participants were between the age of 25 and 34. At close to 40% of the outdoor industry’s consumer population, millennials are spending more money than all other outdoor consumer demographics, so their shopping habits prove to be an important trend to follow. Unsurprisingly, millennials are a picky bunch when it comes to spending their money on outdoor gear, but here are four trends that can explain how and where they do it: 

Products You Can Count On: Durability, Dependability, and Versatility

As the first generation predicted to be less financially successful than their parents, millennials are shamelessly on the hunt for good value in their outdoor gear. “At this point in my life I can’t afford to buy a whole quiver of backpacks, skis, and boots,” says Sean Fearon, a recent college grad and millennial living in Seattle, Washington. “I’m looking for a single high-quality product that will last a really long time and fulfill multiple uses.” Fearon—like many of his peers—says that value and durability are his number one priorities when making a ski-related purchase. Deals are important, but not at the expense of quality. In general, millennials tend to have less gear, but higher-quality and multi-use pieces. 

Eric Henderson, CEO of Meteorite PR in Boulder, Colorado, works with brands like Dynafit and Salewa. In his 20-plus years in the outdoor industry, he has also learned that durability and dependability have become key selling points for the younger generation. “Young people, especially those that grew up skiing, know what holds value and what’s going to last,” he says. “They want to maximize their money and tend to prioritize brands that stand behind their products, be it warranties, return policies, or trade-in programs.” Dynafit recently bumped up their tech binding warranty from 2 to 10 years, deemed a ‘lifetime warranty’ for a reasonable lifespan of a tech binding. “It’s further proof that we stand behind the product and it builds more trust with our customers,” says Henderson. “That’s the standard that millennials are looking for.”

Creating a Story Behind the Product: Social Responsibility and Community

While quality remains at the top of the list for consumers when making a purchase, brand identity increasingly influences millennials’ purchasing decisions. Whether it’s taking a stand environmentally, supporting a nonprofit, or showcasing personality through creative storytelling, millennial shoppers want to align with a brand they relate to and are proud to represent. A Patagonia shell made with recycled synthetics has become far more than just a ski jacket. It’s a way for the skier to align with a company that prioritizes sustainable manufacturing practices and advocates for the environment. Nicole Sumner, Brand Manager at Backcountry.com, says that they’ve seen a rise in customers who are willing to pay more for products from brands that they have a strong connection to. “Customers want to align with the values of the brands they’re buying from.” 

Ryan Stolp, a millennial in Jackson, Wyoming who runs an outdoor creative agency, believes that although it’s harder for smaller brands to give back on the same scale as Patagonia’s Worn Wear program or The North Face’s Explore Fund Grant for nonprofits, those that do make an effort tend to rise. “Creating a wider size run to prioritize plus sizes or planting trees for products sold like Tentree can make an impression. The gesture of spreading out resources, giving back, and being more inclusive is not lost on the younger generation.”

Stolp drives home the importance of personality and relatability in a brand. “Say I’ve done a lot of research on ski jackets and I’m stuck between an Arc’teryx and Outdoor Research Jacket. They might be equal in features, but I then I remember OR’s funny spoof video about their water bottle holder that they call the Burrito Buddy. That’s pretty funny and relatable and speaks to me more as a skier—all other features being equal, something like that might have a big influence over my decision.”

Keep it Brief: Consistent and Concise

The way millennials consume media has drastically changed in the last decade, and it’s no surprise that a majority of that information comes from a mobile device. A 2019 report found that 93% of millennials own smartphones and 86% are on social media compared to 68% and 76% respectively from the Boomer generation. One of the key features millennials look for in a retailer is a mobile shopping app

Millennials aren’t just constantly connected to the internet, they also consume online content in new ways. Instagram stories and podcasts have become popular ways to engage this generation in consistent and creative ways. Henderson emphasizes the importance of consistent, brief, and easily-digestible content that reaches across a wide variety of channels. “We consume so much more information these days that you need multiple visual and tactual touchpoints to be effective. It’s become more than a traditional ad in a print magazine—you have to hit from a ton of different angles to have that fire-power behind the messaging.” 

Sumner emphasizes the importance of a mutual conversation when engaging with customers, rather than acting purely as a broadcast channel. “Millennials really want to connect, not just scroll and read. We’ve seen success on our Instagram with ‘Ask a Gearhead’ live questions and polling to see what kind of content they want us to put up. It keeps them engaged and checking back, and lets us create a relationship with our customers.”

Who’s the Expert?

Ten years ago, you might have walked into your local ski shop in the fall to look at skis and learn about the new technology for the upcoming season. The shop tech would have walked you through some new updates, introduced you to some new gear, and helped you pick out a pair of skis for the winter. The buying process was far more reliant on the fact that the shop tech was the expert and knew the ins and outs of the gear better than anyone else. 

These interactions do, of course, still exist, but for millennials who do a majority of their research and shopping online, the role of a shop tech or customer service rep has changed. It has become more of a sounding board to validate a decision that’s already been made, rather than an expert to help decide for you. “The customer who walks into a retail shop in 2019 has way different motives than they did ten years ago,” says Henderson. “They’ve been reading reviews like it’s nobody’s business and watching editor’s choice awards. They know what’s on the market, and they come in knowing what they’re looking for if they even come into a shop.” 

Because of the wealth of information available online, thorough and readily-available gear reviews help customers filter through a huge variety of products. Sites like Blister Gear Review, GearJunkie, and Outdoor Gear Lab publish in-depth reviews and comparisons to outdoor gear, allowing customers to read through technical specs and get insight from testers side by side. “I can go online and watch a Youtube video to see exactly how it works, or check Instagram and see how an influencer is using it,” says Stolp. “There are so many angles to look at it from, and by the time I buy something, I’ve usually read almost everything about it.”

With e-commerce giants like Backcountry.com offering 24-hour customer service, free 2-day shipping, and easy returns, it’s hard for brick and mortar shops to compete with the variety and convenience of online retail. Stolp feels that if a retailer offers free returns and helpful online assistants, he rarely feels the need to shop in person. 

Fearon admits that if he walks into a shop, it’s usually to try something on and see how it functions before purchasing it online for a discount. “I’d like to say I buy from local shops more, but it’s seldom the best price. Still, I have a hard time purchasing something that I haven’t gotten to put hands-on in person so I try to support brick and mortar shops when I can.”

Henderson believes that with the boom of online retail, small local shops need to find their niche to hold on to their customers. “It needs to be a place where customers are excited to go. Somewhere they know they’ll get the absolute best information. I believe that some brick and mortar stores that rise to that will stay successful because they hold longstanding trust with the customer. But it’s not a given anymore.”

SIA

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