Founded by the Snow and Outdoor Trade Association in 1985 and now officially dubbed ‘Outdoor Retailer Australia‘, the peak industry event for outdoor gear sellers and suppliers is due to return in June 2015 for its 30th year.

Like Wild, this industry event has witnessed marked change over the decades, none more prominent than the rate of upheaval and disruption that has been so prevalent in the most recent decade. As such, many retailers and brands find themselves wondering what the future will bring.

Last July, market research company IBISWorld released a domestic industry report on what it called ‘Hiking and Outdoor Equipment’, revealing trends and insights into the current state of the market.

Unlike in many other pursuits, gear and apparel is of particular importance for outdoor adventures because the quality and function of these items often has a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of the participant. The ability for businesses to manufacture, market and deliver these wares has a direct influence on their customers’ ability to survive and thrive in the wilderness.

IBISWorld’s report, written by senior industry analyst Ryan Lin, revealed that growth in sales has been ‘swamped by a number of adverse demand-side conditions’ in recent times, and that we could expect this continue into 2015. The lack of demand is largely put down to factors relating to why consumers are spending less time pursuing outdoor activities, as well as a general lack of consumer sentiment.

Wild has followed up with a number of key experts to see how the predictions of this report have borne out and what influence these conditions have on the products themselves.

Lin highlights the impact of online shopping in the equation, citing a “significantly changed retail performance for bricks-and-mortar operators”.

“Consumers are increasingly polarised in terms of their purchases,” he stated. “That is, gravitating towards low-priced essentials and more common products, while at the same time becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to the purchase of premium or luxury goods.”

For Tim Pallin, managing director of outdoor retailer chain Paddy Pallin, a key concern is product pricing since the advent of the global financial crisis, and online shopping is only a secondary concern.

“Currency fluctuations we saw in 2008 caused damage to most businesses and many suppliers were very slow to adjust their pricing to reflect it,” he said. “The good news is that now we have the majority of our brands offering product at very competitive global pricing with some are even cheaper than what you can find in the US – and that includes our GST.”

Alchemy Equipment

Alchemy Equipment – a concept that aims to offer truly fashionable travel apparel and luggage options.

Fashion in the Field

The report highlights the prevalence of ‘innovation’ in the fashionable apparel end of the market, with some retailers adapting their offerings to meet the needs of a consumer that is less interested in technical, dependable apparel and more interested in clothing that looks technical.

Lin refers to this in the way that many retailers are now catering their offerings to the mores of their customers.

“This means that bricks-and-mortar stores are now more visually attractive, products are becoming more consumer friendly, fancier and more appealing in design, especially for apparel,” he said.

This is of particular relevance to Campbell Junor, who previously co-owned outdoor retailer Macpac and has since moved into fashionable travel apparel with his new brand, Alchemy Equipment. Junor’s eye for blending fashion with function has seen his new brand garner significant interest at international industry events.

“Most brands have failed to take a hard stance in how to innovate for a more fashion-forward market,” Junor said. “A few core brands have decided to remain as technical as possible, while the majority have simply softened their offering in search of a broader customer base, resulting in products that aren’t clearly identifiable as technical or fashionable wear.”

The Pressure of Consumer Behaviours

Damien Ewin, general manager of supplier Premier Defence Agencies, believes that a significant ongoing challenge is consumer education. In this line of reasoning, of course it makes sense that people want better looking product, but there also needs to be attention and resources invested into communicating which product is right for them.

“The public have now realised just how inexpensive some items can be, but are the always comparing apples with apples? In my opinion there are too many low cost products being sold as high-performance to people that need quality, and this should be of real concern to everyone.”

Pallin’s sentiment on the matter is that the responsibility lies with the retailer to ensure they’re stocking the best products from the best brands for their customers, and it’s these standards he seeks to uphold on the showroom floor.

“Paddy Pallin chooses the brands that we work with by several requirements: one of the key factors is consistent innovation and development,” he said. “We are seeing increasingly lighter weight products hitting that market, most with still quite acceptable durability. However, as is always the case, ultra-lightweight products will not have the durability required for walking in Australia’s tougher environments, and this is why it’s critical to ensure the consumer is full aware of any limitations.”

Laidlaw WalkWear boots

Laidlaw WalkWear’s camp boots are designed as post-hiking footwear that’s hardy enough to be worn around the campfire.

For Junor, it’s also important to understand the changing lifestyle habits of contemporary consumers.

“People use their leisure time differently than they once did and they travel differently,” he said. “Many consumers are now more interested in fitness and spending time at the gym than they once were, which means they have an eye for what a good fit should be in activewear. It simply doesn’t pay to produce anything that may be considered uncomfortable, or the female version of a top is the same cut as the men’s but with shorter sleeves.”

No matter which side of the market you sit on, the IBISWorld report indicates a challenging environment for outdoor gear sales in Australia, yet there is still hope for the future. With ongoing developments in materials technology and whatever future shifts in the global supply chain may bring, gear and apparel will continue to meet the needs of the Australians wishing to purchase them.

As is always the case, tough times breed innovation. It may be that we can soon look forward to new Australian brands beginning to create products for a unique Australian audience. While some tried and trusted manufacturers remain in the local market (such as One Planet and Wilderness Wear), a new generation of cottage industry-style businesses may be on the cusp of a breakthrough (Laidlaw WalkWear‘s camp boots are a good example).

In the meantime, customers are best advised to research their critical items as thoroughly as possible, determine what constitutes a fair price, and be sure to question their local retailer for further details. Even when a retailer isn’t stocking something, customers should ask them why – the key for the safety and success of the consumer and the local industry lies in open and ongoing communication.