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Peter Abraham, Fieldtrip: Outdoor Retailer Winter Market
Peter Abraham
Fieldtrip: Outdoor Retailer Winter Market

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Here’s the Woolrich booth on the show floor. Founded in 1930, they bill themselves as “the original outdoor clothing company.”

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This wall says it all: Patagonia has an amazing amount of authentic storytelling material.

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I am strangely obsessed with this little Japanese brand that effectively combines contemporary style with functionality.

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Hey, cool…Sweet quilted down jackets in bright colors!

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Hey, wait…more quilted down in the same colors. Let’s all jump on the bandwagon, shall we?

I’ve been an outdoor sports athlete basically since I was born, and I’ve worked in marketing and sports for over 25 years. So how is it possible that I’ve never been to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City? I’d wanted to go for years, but never had a compelling reason beyond my own curiosity. This year, working with experiential marketing agency BeCore, I had several clients to meet with. So I boarded my flight to Utah with a lot of anticipation.

The show, which takes place twice a year, is an opportunity for retailers to see gear that will arrive for the upcoming season. So the January show is focused on apparel and equipment for the following winter. Of the hundreds of brands set up in the Salt Palace Convention Center, some of the largest displays included Patagonia, The North Face, Teva, Keen, Burton, Woolrich, and Columbia.  But the list goes down to ski wax makers, outdoor dog accessories, and headlamp makers. It’s a veritable Disneyland of gear, gadgets, and Gore-tex. I LOVED every minute of my time there. 

Here are some of my observations:

The Old Guard: I feel that we’re about to see a paradigm shift in this space. The legacy brands I grew up with—The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear—are all feeling long in the tooth to me. They’re lacking purpose. While they still make functional and nice looking gear, they’ve built their business on the backs of baby boomers. And I don’t see them appealing to the millenials. Specifically, and I’d say this is a problem for over half of the brands I saw, the marketing point of view and brand positioning is conservative and expected. I didn’t see a lot of innovative storytelling on display.

New Blood: But there is a new crop of young brands poised to step into the culturally relevant space. Keep an eye on brands like Trew, Holden Outerwear, HippyTree, and Topo Athletic, who were all in attendance. In addition, there were some brands not at OR whom I also like: Poler and Aether Apparel. These guys, who are all from either Oregon or Los Angeles, are trying to differentiate themselves through design or brand positioning. And I like that. They’ve got a refreshing energy which runs counter to the mainstream.

Patagonia, even at 40 years old, is still a vital and important brand. Why? First of all, they stand for something, and many of the other brands there could learn from this. Patagonia is an environmental movement with a brand attached. And they’re also innovators. They have an accumulated reservoir of storytelling material that goes beyond any other brand at the show. 

Arc’teryx apparel on display was exceptional. They stand out due to their obsessive focus on beautiful and functional design. I learned that they’re the only brand that owns their own factory (in Vancouver, near their headquarters). So they do an amazing amount of prototyping. Their gear is expensive, but it looked and felt different than anything else at the show.

• The quilted jacket phenomenon: We’ve all seen the quilted down jackets popularized by Patagonia, right? Well, if OR is any indication, get ready to see a lot more of them starting this fall. It was literally hard to find a brand who WASN’T making a quilted product at the show. I lost count when I hit 20 brands making essentially the same product in the same 5 bright colors. Do we really all have to do exactly the same thing?

Equipment: As a climber, I love beautifully designed and functional technical gear. OR was full of camping stove makers, lightweight water bottles, and climbing safety equipment. Some of my favorites included Black Diamond, who are now making a vast array of different things, and Snow Peak. This is a Japanese brand that makes lightweight-but-stylish camping gear. You can tell they are design freaks: the attention to detail, the small-but-slick display booth, and the super modern HQ building in Japan. This could be my new favorite brand.

Manufacturing: There were a number of factories with booths selling their services. You can one-stop shop for all kinds of technical apparel and gear production. Like consumer electronics, this business has moved almost entirely to Asia. I found myself pining for a brand that was made in the US.

Holding companies: You may not be aware of how many brands are owned by private equity funds. I certainly wasn’t. Wolverine was there in force. You think of them as a workboot maker. They’ve grown far beyond that, and they own, among others, Merrell, Sperry Topsider, Saucony, Keds, Hush Puppies, and Patagonia Footwear. Then there’s Amer Sports, parent of Arc’teryx, Salomon, Atomic, and others. And of course Deckers, owner of Ugg, Teva, and Sanuk. VF Corporation owns 25 separate brands including The North Face, Vans, Nautica, and Eagle Creek. I personally lament this roll-up of businesses. While it does provide economies of scale and backroom efficiencies, I sense that many of these brands have lost the unique identities that made them successful in the first place. On the upside, the holding companies threw some great parties, and I made it to the Wolverine event that featured a performance by Macklemore.

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