The State of the Outdoor Industry in a Digital World


At Netrush, we partner with brands in a variety of product categories, including vitamins and supplements, personal care, baby, and kitchen. And while each category we work with has its own distinct opportunities and challenges regarding digital disruption, the Sports & Outdoors category presents brands with its own unique, contrasting, and surprising e-commerce landscape.

Great outdoors, meet the internet

In what may seem an unlikely match up, Sports & Outdoors customers are incredibly savvy with technology and digital commerce. The typical outdoor customer is almost twice as likely to purchase apparel online compared to the average consumer, and is way more likely to shop on Amazon.

Outdoor consumers care about brands

When shopping online for vitamins, breakfast cereal, or t-shirts, shoppers will be met with endless low-price options, including Amazon private label products. In fact, Amazon owns over 70 private label brands, which primarily consist of apparel, electronics, and household basics. With the exception of athletic and athleisure clothing options, there aren’t any Amazon-owned outdoors products. And even with low-priced athletic apparel options, legacy brands remain on top in terms of sales, quality, and customer satisfaction.

Adidas vs Amazon Essentials, via

The difference in brand loyalty between outdoor shoppers and average shoppers is striking. According to Hanson Dodge, 81% of outdoor consumers will buy a product from a company that they trust, even if it’s more expensive. Outdoor shoppers perform searches online for brands (“Fjallraven backpack”), rather than features (13” laptop backpack). This is in contrast to what we see in other categories, such as CPG, in which customers will overwhelmingly search for product features (“organic vegan B12”).

Outdoor consumers value trust, empathy, and quality

Unlike browsing Amazon for basics like t-shirts and iPhone chargers, outdoor customers are shopping to support a passion of theirs, and as a result, are passionate about their purchase decisions. According to Hanson Dodge’s research, 52% of outdoor shoppers will buy from a brand that supports a cause they care about over one that doesn’t. And, even if there’s a cheaper option available with 2-day Prime shipping, 47% will go out of their way to buy a product that is environmentally safe over a convenient one that isn’t.

Amazon leveraged for discovery, education, and protection

“People are going to Amazon to learn about products, whether they see it that way or not,” says Ryan Riggs, Director of Sports & Outdoors at Netrush. This is true — 87% of shoppers visit Amazon for holiday product research, citing product reviews, ratings, and price comparison as their top reasons. This even happens when customers are at a brick-and-mortar store — Retail Dive claims that 58% look up product information on their smartphones while shopping in-store.

To put this in context, it’s important to consider how dominant Amazon truly is — the retailer boasts 100 million paying Prime subscribers, which translates to roughly 70% of US households. To put the cherry on top, 80% of e-commerce growth comes from Amazon sales, and nearly 50% of e-commerce spending in the US is on Amazon.

While consumers are strikingly loyal to the values and quality of longstanding outdoors brands, they still prefer to shop on Amazon. Meaning that if your brand is neglecting to deliver an incredible Amazon experience — optimized content, Prime shipping, on-brand photography, legitimate sellers, and so on — your once-loyal customers may lose confidence and select another equally attractive brand. Not only is Amazon a key way to gain new customers, it is increasingly vital for brands to adopt a digital strategy to protect themselves from competition.

The outdoor industry can learn from Whole Foods

The outdoor space is in a relatively strong position compared to other industries, but this might not last forever. Imagine you own or work for a brand in the outdoor industry and wake up to find that Amazon has acquired REI. This was the reality for brands in grocery and natural product industries last year when Amazon announced it would acquire Whole Foods Market. The news instantly generated more questions than answers, and we’ve spent the past year considering how a similar change would influence the outdoor industry.

Here’s what we learned following the Whole Foods acquisition:
  • Change will happen, and it’s being driven by customers. Blaming Amazon is unproductive — brands can choose to address and control the situation rather than react to it.
  • Brands should take advantage of the relationships they have with their customers by paying attention to where, how, and why they’re engaging with the brand.
  • Brands need to be deliberate about brand messaging and catalog management on Amazon. This helps position the brand while providing discovery and education that support brick-and-mortar partners.
  • It’s important to prepare. Brands should be discussing and considering hypothetical situations preemptively, rather than reacting to headlines when they do happen.

Storytelling above all

All of this can be boiled down to one key objective for outdoors brands: tell your brand story, and do it really, really well. “If there was ever a time to emphasize your values, this is the time to do it,” Ryan Riggs explains. “People care, probably more than they ever have before.” Outdoor customers seek out brands they trust, and they put their trust in companies that have a purpose other than simply making money. Whether that is delivering exceptional quality, protecting the environment, or supporting a cause consumers are passionate about, brands that are able to convey their values and expertise will rise above low-priced options and private labels as the digital landscape expands.