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How outdoor brands can sustain the pandemic boom

26 May 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic might have forced the world indoors, but it did not keep them there for long with many people looking out their windows at an outdoor world just waiting to be explored.  As a result, people flocked to the great outdoors like never before and outdoor brands with DTC channels saw revenues skyrocket, explains Martim Avillez Oliveira, Chief Executive Officer – UK and Europe, ESW.

Outdoor activity increased by 6.9% in 2020.  Millions who previously did not participate in outdoor recreation experiences were discovering (or rediscovering) these interests.  Outdoor enthusiasm continued to grow into 2021, when 164.2million people participated in some form of outdoor activity – an increase of 7.1million people when compared to pre-COVID statistics.  In fact, 2021’s outdoor recreation numbers continued growing even after indoor restrictions were lifted.


With so many people suddenly hitting the great outdoors, gear and apparel sales soared. Major outdoor brands like The North Face, Patagonia, REI and Marmot were the go-to destination for outdoor enthusiasts looking for gear and apparel.  With bricks-and-mortar stores shut down, consumers flocked online for outdoor gear.

Naturally, revenue soared, but the outdoor boom also benefited small, start-up and cottage brands.  Niche companies like Osprey, Houdini Sportswear, NEMO Equipment, Cotopaxi and many others were suddenly competing with the big brands.  In 2021, the outdoor recreation industry contributed $862billion to the U.S. economy, $173billion more than 2020.  In the United Kingdom, outdoor clothing retailer, Mountain Warehouse, recorded record sales in the 12 months to the end of February 2022, and had its busiest ever Black Friday in the same year.


While brands of all sizes enjoyed the increased growth in revenue, they also knew it could not last forever. Outdoor gear and apparel sales plateaued with 2022 sales were flat compared to 2021.  Rising inflation and continuing supply chain disruptions also presented the outdoor industry with new challenges.  Speaking on a recent first-quarter investor call Tim Boyle, Columbia Sportswear chairman, president and CEO cautioned that while “2023 is off to a solid start,” he wasn’t expecting great things from the second half of the year based on a conservative outlook from retailers, softening growth in the hike and trail categories and ongoing issues with excess inventory.  Brands are also innovating to attract new customers.  Faced with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis in the UK Decathlon has launched a sports rental service available across its stores to help customers overcome the cost of buying sporting and outdoor equipment while French tennis brand, Babolat, are focused on connecting with a younger audience utilising next-gen tennis stars to support the launch of its new Pure Aero racket last year.


So, as we look ahead to the rest of 2023, the big question for the outdoor industry is how to sustain online growth as the world returns to normal.

For one, brands will need to pump up proven ecommerce shopping strategies. Personalisation, localisation, top-notch customer service, fast shipping, live online events and a robust social media presence are sure-fire ways to meet consumer expectations. Brands must also bolster multi- and omni-channel experiences and unified commerce strategies to reach customers at all possible touchpoints.

Here are three other trends outdoor brands should follow to ensure growth and scalability in a post-COVID marketplace.


In line with consumer demands, outdoor brands need to spotlight the sustainability of their products and practices.  Reports show 87% of outdoor consumers consider sustainability when purchasing a product and are willing to pay more for it.  In fact, 57% of outdoor consumers will pay premium prices for sustainable gear and apparel.

However, for today’s outdoor consumers, eco-friendly goes beyond the products companies produce and sell.  Consumers are looking for brands that emphasise true, across-the-board transparency in the sustainability of their entire supply chain.  Outdoor enthusiasts will continue to shop with brands they can trust to deliver on sustainable practises, even as the market plateaus.


While established outdoor brands already have strong footholds in the international marketplace, smaller brands might not have the same luxury.  International expansion, especially into the still-booming European outdoor market, can help small brands scale and compete on a global level.

In today’s super-competitive marketplace, jumping into cross-border and multi-local commerce makes good business sense.  Worldwide ecommerce accounted for $5.7trillion in 2022 and is projected to grow to $6.54trillion in 2023.  So, for small outdoor brands looking to scale, expansion is not just a good idea; it’s a necessity.  However, global ecommerce expansion is easier said than done.  It takes time and a serious amount of research and careful planning to ensure investment in cross-border can deliver to its full potential.


One of the best ways brands can embrace sustainability is to embrace second-hand or re-sale strategies.  Thanks to shifting demand and increased consumer concerns about sustainability, 2022 was a stand-out year for the growing second-hand industry.  In fact, the re-sale trend is expected to get hotter as consumers seek cheaper alternatives to pricey outdoor gear.  Experts forecast the pre-owned outdoor gear market will reach $75billion by 2025.

Many major outdoor brands have already jumped on the circular retail trend in response to consumer demands.  Selling used gear keeps products out of landfills while capturing business from customers seeking second-hand goods at a discount.  In the competitive outdoor marketplace, attracting eco-minded and budget-conscious consumers is a great way to improve customer conversion and retention.

ESW is a world leader in helping brands of all sizes with their cross-border ecommerce strategies making end-to-end global shopping better, safer, simpler and faster for some of the world’s best-known brands.


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