Outdoors and Heritage Brands Remain Bright Spots During Pandemic

·19 min read

Spending time outdoors has been a lifesaver for many Americans seeking a safe haven — and some sanity — during the pandemic. The popularity of hiking, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding and visits to national and local parks have skyrocketed over the past several months. And that’s not expected to change anytime soon as people learn to appreciate the serenity and health benefits of being outdoors. In a recent survey by CGPR, 82 percent of consumers who recently discovered the outdoors plan to continue to spend time outside in the future.

The figures from a number of other sources reflect that as well. According to a Harris poll conducted in mid-October, more than two-thirds of Americans said they have an increased appreciation of the outdoors. In addition, 65 percent said they try to get out of their homes as often as possible, another 65 percent said they’ve been seeking safe outdoor activities and 48 percent said they have been trying to find new places to spend time outdoors. “Americans are seeking safety in the outdoors as often as they can, and three in 10 (29 percent) will continue to adjust to outdoor socialization during the winter months,” according to the Harris poll.

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A spokesperson from the Outdoor Industry Association said a participation report recently showed “sharp increases in outdoor activity uptake in 2020, which we anticipate will continue in 2021, particularly for nature-based, socially distanced activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking and stand-up paddling,” according to a spokesperson. “The first quarter of 2021 will still be mostly winter products, but the second quarter is when people start thinking about warm-weather activities.”

Even before the pandemic, interest in the outdoors was increasing. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), released in November, outdoor recreation contributed to the economies of all 50 states and accounted for 2.1 percent, or $459.8 billion, of current-dollar gross domestic product and $788 billion in consumer spending in 2019 — a $10 billion increase from 2017.

At that time, boating and fishing were the most popular outdoor activities, generating $23.6 billion toward the overall number. Snow activities were also popular, accounting for $6.3 billion in business. Retailers that cater to the outdoors market accounted for $98.6 billion in sales in 2019, while manufacturing for the sector added $55 billion nationally to the outdoor economic figures, the BEA said.

“The BEA release of economic data comes at a time when the health and wellness benefits of recreation cannot be overstated. A recent poll showed 69 percent of Americans have gained a renewed appreciation for the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. “People want to get outside for their physical and mental health. What’s more, they yearn for social connection, which they can find through safely distanced activities in neighborhood parks or national parks. Now more than ever, we need the outdoors.”

Bill Lewis, a director in the retail practice of Alix Partners, agreed. He said as people spend more time outdoors — hiking or even dining — they’re discovering “the restorative powers of being outside. It takes 30 days to make a habit and I don’t think this is a short-term trend because of the physical and mental benefits,” he said.

A major beneficiary of this newfound popularity is both the retailers and manufacturers that service this market, which is particularly popular with men. Products that boast performance features such as water- and wind-resistance and other properties have been the most sought after. “This will be a trend for the entire year,” Lewis said, “I don’t see a slowdown.”

But it’s not just the outdoor brands that are benefiting. Heritage brands are also reaping the rewards as consumers turn to labels that they know and trust to provide comfort and stability in these times. “For people coming back to the outdoors or new enthusiasts, they’re going to brands they’ve heard of like L.L. Bean, Levi’s, Carhartt,” Lewis said.

And these brands and retailers are reaping the rewards.

Bryson Hopkins, chief merchant for L.L. Bean, said the Maine-based retailer performed exceptionally well last year as customers sought apparel and gear to outfit them for safe, outdoor activities along with comfortable products for nesting at home. “We’re a very trusted brand so our loyal customers know they can count on us. And we’re inviting new customers who are coming to us for the first time to be their provider of choice.” Citing Bean’s “history and reputation” — the brand dates back to 1911 — Hopkins said it is “approachable and unthreatening.”

In the beginning of last year, she said bikes, kayaks, boats and sun protection products were most popular along with apparel and footwear for these activities. In the fall, sales of snowshoes skyrocketed 340 percent over the prior year and apparel to keep people warm and dry posted a 25 percent spike in sales. In addition, slippers and sleepwear sales jumped 71 percent, sweatpants and sweatshirts were up nearly 54 percent, and flannel sheets, blankets and outdoor furniture also increased in importance.

Hopkins said she expects the work-from-home and outdoors trends to continue for at least another six months. “We couldn’t really keep up with the demand,” she said, “and there’s a lot on back order so there’s some money left on the table.” And if a consumer new to the outdoors was happy with the experience and product from Bean, they’ll be back, she believes. “They’ll be encouraged and want to go to the next step,” she said.

The brand is also jumping into the athleisure world, she revealed. “Our men’s and women’s active apparel business is up, but we really hadn’t covered the athleisure trends,” she said, adding that 50 styles are being introduced this month that can be worn for everything from virtual meetings and walks at lunchtime to ambitious hikes.

L.L. Bean is not alone in performing well during the pandemic. REI is also doing well and even re-forecast its plans and expectations in light of the popularity of the outdoors. Bikes, bike accessories, camp furniture, camping and watersports gear were among the most-popular items early in the year with snowshoes, cross-country skis and backcountry safety equipment leading the way as winter arrived.

Chris Speyer, vice president of product for REI, said: “Our core business is to support the outdoors, and that’s more relevant than ever before. Our customer is not traveling but they want to remain active and keep mentally and physically healthy.”

Early on, Speyer said shoppers invested in safety gear such as backpacking food “to address the unknown.” After that, “the first activity to ramp up was cycling — and it was like nothing we’ve seen before,” he said. “That turned quickly to camping and water sports.” Right now, it’s snowshoes and Nordic skiing gear which are selling at levels four to five times higher than before the pandemic, he said.

On the soft goods side, run and active apparel has experienced a “real demand surge,” he said, while “lifestyle categories” have been slower sellers.

Speyer said REI is also seeing an uptick in its “re-commerce” business, a rental and trade-in program it started two and a half years ago. This not only speaks to the company’s sustainability efforts but allows people to enjoy outdoor activities at a lower cost.

Looking ahead, Speyer said he’s “very bullish that this will continue in 2021. The common thread we see is people doing activities close to home.” As a result, he expects the demand for bicycles to continue even during the winter when demand is usually lower.

“The challenge for us is keeping up with the demand,” he said. “The supply chain is stretched, so having product on the shelves is a focus for the first half.”

Speyer is also seeing an increase in interest in some of its heritage product. “One of the real luxuries of owning a brand that has been around 82 years is that we have wonderful product we make,” he said. That includes the 1982 Summit Pack, a reimagined climbers’ pack, that he said has “resonated with customers.”

In addition, brands such as Patagonia and others are also garnering interest among customers who are looking for product they trust. That being said, Speyer said consumers are proving that they’re willing to try some new product as well, particularly in activewear, with Vuori, Hoka and Cotopaxi among the bestsellers.

Eoin Comerford, chief executive officer of Moosejaw, an outdoor retailer owned by Walmart, saw a major upsurge in interest for tents, kayaks, bikes and snowshoes, the latter of which have experienced sales that are “off the charts.”

“In many cases we are sold out and won’t be in stock until early this year,” he said. “People rediscovered the outdoors when they were cooped up in March and April. Vacations over the summer didn’t involve air travel or hotels, it was car travel where you can control the environment. Campsites saw record bookings last summer as well.”

He said Kampgrounds of America, the world’s largest system of privately held campgrounds, found that the number-one reason kids enjoy camping is that their parents are not stressed. “People are discovering the serenity, peace and health benefit of being outdoors,” he said.

Comerford said that since the trend has now taken hold, “the key challenge for the outdoor industry is how to continue to welcome new people and keep them engaged.”

He said the “events of 2020 heightened the need for inclusivity,” whether that involves gender, race or economic status since the cost of some outdoor activities can be a barrier. So like REI, Moosejaw is embracing new business models such as rentals and resale to try and level the playing field, he said.

The retailer is also partnering with other outdoor brands on a program called the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator, where four start-ups will be chosen to receive an eight-week business mentoring program with IceLab, which will include five weeks on location at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, Colo., and one week in Boulder to master strategy, marketing, e-commerce and retail. Applications will be accepted through Jan. 14, 10 finalists will be revealed on Jan. 25 and then consumers will vote and the winners will be unveiled on March 4.

In addition, Moosejaw is working on broadening its assortment to appeal to all types of outdoor enthusiasts and is providing more content to tell consumers which products are best for their chosen activity. “It’s important to have a good first experience,” he said. If that happens, people will return.

“At Moosejaw, our brand is pretty irreverent and being outdoors is about having fun — and that’s important,” he said.

Although apparel and footwear haven’t performed as well as gear, Moosejaw is still seeing success with base layers made from merino wool, as well as technical outerwear, or “clothes you actually use for the outdoors, not just look like you do.”

Creating clothes for the outdoors has been the hallmark for Carhartt since its founding in 1889. Ben Ewy, vice president of design, research and development, said the brand provides “essential clothing” for workers in a variety of industries who have continued to toil even during the pandemic. “Carhartt is like chicken soup in clothing form,” he said, “something comforting. It’s honest, transparent and made for its end use. People are attracted to truthful things and Carhartt rings true.”

Although the brand has become popular with the fashion crowd of late, Ewy said that’s just a bonus and the company is not chasing trends. “We don’t make fashion product, we make workwear,” he said. “The product looks great and we’ve been playing with color and material more, but when you see our patch on something, you know that it can take you to any rugged corner in the world, from a worksite to a campsite.”

However, while the mission of the brand has remained the same, it has evolved over the years. “We’re not a costume house and we don’t rest on our laurels,” he said. So current product offers stretch, performance-wicking technology, waterproof laminates and other high-tech features that are “attractive to outdoor people. We’re a heritage brand but we treat every day like we’re a start-up.”

During the pandemic, even more people have discovered Carhartt and its “simple, but not unsophisticated” product, Ewy said. “Workwear doesn’t have to be stiff and uncomfortable.”

Ewy expects Carhartt to continue to do well this year and to appeal to a wider audience attracted to the brand’s more comfortable pieces, such as sweatshirts and T-shirts as well as women’s leggings that can be worn off the job site as well.

The brand has updated its Yukon Extremes collection, which was developed more than 25 years ago to battle extreme cold. But the 2021 version offers less bulk for increased movement and updated Cordura and Thinsulate fabrics for durability in insulated parkas, coveralls, bomber-inspired jackets, biberalls and vests.

“Workwear is a trend right now and we appreciate that, but when it’s no longer a trend, we’ll continue to make it. We’re not trying to be cool. Truth, heritage, authenticity and functionality will always ring true,” Ewy said.

Another heritage brand that has found success during the pandemic is Levi’s. Jen Sey, president of the Levi’s brand, said the company “has fared better than originally forecast.” In the third quarter ended Aug. 23, the corporation as a whole posted earnings of $27 million, a steep drop from the $124 million recorded last year, but a victory in these pandemic-fueled times.

Sey attributed her brand’s success to Levi’s long history — it was founded in 1853 — as well as some new products and initiatives.

“People want to go to a brand they trust and see things they didn’t expect,” she said. That includes the introduction of the ’93, an exact replica of the 501 jean, which has been especially popular with Gen Z consumers for whom the 501 is the “ultimate vintage.”

For men, the 501 is the bestselling jean of all time, Sey said, and Levi’s recently introduced a looser fit — “a throwback to the Nineties” — that is trending now.

Also helping Levi’s were a number of sought-after collaborations with everyone from Mario Bros. and Tyler the Creator to Heron Preston and New Balance. Sey also pointed to a Levi’s Vintage piece, a replica of the 501 that had been created in 1944 during World War II, complete with fabric inconsistencies, no rivets and a missing red tab, all requirements during the war and considered collectors’ items today.

Sey knows that “engaging Gen Z is what will lead us into the future.” For this year, it’s all about continuing to update classics and introduce new product such as Red Tab sweats, an organic cotton collection that had a 25 percent sell-through on the first day it was offered, she said. In addition, the brand has launched Second Hand Vintage, which offers used products in the affordable $40 to $50 range. “Last year, 60 percent of Gen Z bought used product,” she said. This year, the brand will continue to offer more sustainable product in fabrics such as hemp and denim produced with less water.

Wrangler has also benefited from the trend toward trusted heritage brands. “We’re continuing to gain share in the U.S. during the pandemic,” said Kristin Schneider, merchandiser for ATG-x-Wrangler. Although business dipped in March, it rebounded quickly and spiked in June. Since then, the positive momentum has continued. She attributed the uptick to a combination of factors including people rediscovering the outdoors and reconnecting with nature. And the ATG (All Terrain Gear) line, formerly known as Wrangler Outdoor, offers versatile apparel options with technical benefits.

Danny Brisby, design director for outdoor and workwear at Wrangler, added that the brand is broken down into two buckets: rugged, heavyweight cotton product and a performance line made from nylon that features stretch and wicking. The range spans everything from flannel, fishing and hiking shirts to parkas, insulated puffers and windbreakers.

“Woven tops and bottoms have been a highlight for us and are driving a lot of the success we’re seeing,” he said. Wrangler Heritage, a collection inspired by the brand’s history in the West, has also been popular, Schneider said.

“The outdoor trend really started 10 years ago,” Brisby said, “but it’s gradually ramped up. We see it as a longer running cycle that will continue to grow.”

Schneider agreed. “The pandemic increased our growth rate,” she said. “And getting outdoors will be more important than ever in spring 2021.” And for fall of this year, Brisby said Wrangler will continue to fan the flames by expanding its outerwear collection.

Steve Lesnard, global vice president of marketing and product for The North Face, has seen an uptick in sales for the past several months — one he expects to continue. “Over the last 10 months, outdoor activities like hiking, running, camping and walking have all seen a massive spike, as folks head outside for a bit of sanctuary in nature. We’ve noticed an even greater appreciation for the world around them and the outdoors, and have seen a notable uptick in sales particularly across tents and camping gear. Our partners over at AllTrails have also seen people flocking to the outdoors at an unprecedented rate, reporting over three times the amount of trail traffic, year-over-year.”

Lesnard said the summer was particularly strong as parents sought to “fill the void left by canceled summer camps, schooling and extracurricular activities. In response, we launched The North Face Summer Base Camp Series to offer two weeks of free, hands-on, mess-making activities, led by the most epic camp counselors ever: our very own team athletes. The programing was wildly successful and an incredible opportunity for kids to learn directly from professional athletes.”

This led to a second series where climber Alex Honnold and snowboarder Jim Zellers taught viewers the basics of camping, hiking and backpacking. “Combined with the gear that folks need to get outside for the first time, this type of content has helped us give new customers everything they need to safely explore.”

He said the brand has also continued to court the fashion crowd via collaborations. “Partnerships and product collaborations with brands like Gucci and MM6 Maison Margiela are perfect examples of how we’re designing and launching fresh products in response to the fashion industry’s interest in outdoor and heritage brands.”

Lesnard said this year, “We expect to see people adventuring closer to home, driving a revival of local parks and backyard trails. We’re specifically anticipating a continued spike in hiking and trail running, which is now the fourth most-popular outdoor activity in the U.S., according to The Outdoor Foundation.” He’s also anticipating a “transition from road running to trail running. Road running has long-been a default outdoor sport for many people, and as road runners look for more socially distanced activities, we expect to see natural growth in trail running. In anticipation and response to the increased interest in hiking and trail running, we see an incredible opportunity to bring a revolutionary trail running and hiking product to the market.” That will include the Flight Vectiv, a new trail shoe that will be introduced this month and targeted to hiking and running.

Dickies, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, is also benefiting from the ability to offer both functionality as well as style, according to Lance Meller, general manager of the Americas, who believes the brand will be even stronger as the pandemic gets under control. Because Dickies was carried by essential retailers such as Target and Walmart, its sales held up at the start of the health crisis, and as farm and ranch and workwear stores reopened, consumers returned to shop there as well.

“Our 874 pants are the uniform for essential workers,” he said.

Add to that the popularity of outdoor activities where Dickies’ shirt-jackets lined with fleece or Sherpa gained fans, along with the brand’s little-known medical wear and scrubs division, and the results were positive, he said.

“All signs say it will continue,” he said. “Everyone is rediscovering outdoor pursuits — camping, fishing, working on their property — and that won’t go away either.”

While Dickies expects its core product to continue to perform, Meller said it plans to continue to build on its “heritage and expertise in the work market” by launching a premium workwear collection this year that will offer updated silhouettes with functional benefits.

Liz Wilson, vice president of product creation for Outdoor Research, an outdoor brand created by mountaineer and nuclear physicist Ron Gregg in 1981 and now owned by Korea’s Youngone Corporation and Dan Nordstrom, a one-time head of nordstrom.com, said although a brand relaunch planned for May needed to be postponed, the company has “never been busier.” Not only did it start making PPE for the military and first responders early on in the pandemic, but its technical sportswear sales increased 117 percent, outerwear was up 81 percent and headwear rose 133 percent as consumers flocked to the brand to fill their desire for respected outdoor apparel.

Wilson is expecting the momentum to continue this year as Outdoor Research adds UV sun protection to its sportswear and headwear and promotes a line of knits for trail hiking this spring, followed by the addition of men’s big and tall and women’s plus-size product for fall 2021 and spring 2022, respectively.

“Outdoor is our core and we’re looking to expand our reach and introduce more people to Outdoor Research,” she said. Athlete ambassadors such as climber Quinn Mason, who collaborated with the brand on a bucket hat that sold out in four days, will help the brand raise its profile with younger consumers.

SA Company, a direct-to-consumer company focused on providing affordable outdoor products for fishing, hunting, boating and other activities, has also benefited from the outdoor trend of late. The brand, which boasted sales of $100 million last year, recently received an undisclosed investment from TZP Group, a New York-based private equity firm, to expand its offerings. Thomas DeSernia, Jr., founder and CEO, said he expects the demand to continue this year. “Our customers were outdoors people from the beginning, but now there’s a new appreciation and we’re expecting our trajectory to continue to grow.” The company will add to its assortment of hoodies, face shields and hats, mainly geared toward men, with more products for women and children.

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