"Brian Thompson, general manager of ExOfficio."
Outside Business Journal

Why outdoor specialty retail stores need to be more like auto parts stores

Brian Thompson, general manager of ExOfficio, explains why the outdoor industry needs to better sell the experience rather than the gear

Brian Thompson

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

Take a look at the numbers: Outdoor recreation contributes $887 billion per year to the U.S. economy. But take a closer look, and you’ll see something staggering: Only 21 percent of that money is spent on the gear and apparel we’re producing. The rest? It’s spent on travel, lodging, tour guides, food, and other trip-related costs.

This is the experience-based economy, and it is now.

As noted author and business strategist Simon Sinek once said, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” More than ever, consumers are using their purchasing dollars to make a statement about their values and how they want to be perceived by others. The real driver of purchasing decisions for today’s consumer is how well the brand or retailer’s products align with the experiences the consumer wants to have. It can be tricky to navigate this shift in consumer purchasing behavior, and it’s top of mind for many of us.

Fortunately, there is already a successful business model that has figured out how to service the experience-based economy: The auto parts store.

Stick with me here, as this isn’t as strange as you might first think. Who goes to the auto parts store for something other than to solve a problem? No one. We don’t go there to buy stuff, we go there because we want our car to run better or be safer or more comfortable. The things we buy there allow us to have the experiences we want. Nobody buys a new alternator to have a new alternator; they buy an alternator to make sure their car starts in the morning so they can get to work on time.

While there are plenty of products available to shop and purchase on the store floor, the real “experience” business is done at the counter. The consumer tells the staff member what their experience is (my car won’t start or is making this noise) and the person behind the counter goes to the back and returns with the parts you need to address the experience you want to have. At most shops, the staff member will even walk out to the parking lot and help you install the parts. It’s all about helping the consumer have the experience they want.

If you don’t think this is applicable to other businesses, just walk into an Apple store and see how similarly they have set up their retail store environment.

Outdoor specialty retail is very well aligned to take advantage of the experience-based economy—if we stop focusing on selling consumers stuff and instead focus on the experiences they want to have. Some retailers are already doing this. The team at Great Outdoor Provision Company, in North Carolina and Virginia, for example, is well down this road with their GetHiking! and GetBackpacking! programs. They offer classes that help those new to the outdoor experience get outside in a fun, safe and approachable way. They demystify the gear shopping experience and help the consumer get just what they need for the level they are at.

The folks at Pack Rat in Fayetteville, Arkansas, have taken a similar approach. They guide backpacking trips for those new to the experience, and lower the barrier to entry by providing loaner equipment to all participants. That’s key, as the cost of participating in outdoor activities can be a major barrier to entry for many consumers.

Both of these retailers have focused on getting consumers connected to the outdoor experience rather than selling them product. This long-term approach creates lasting consumer relationships with greater economic value to the retailer and local economy.

For us at ExOfficio, the opportunities presented by the experience-based economy are as exciting as they are full of challenges. We are a brand that believes in the magic of travel and worldly exploration. The opportunity for our brand, like so many in the outdoor community, is to connect our products with the experiences the consumer wants to have. To create the strategy that will get the brand to this place, we had to create the vision for what this “product-driven experience” looks like to the consumer.

Fortunately, one of our customers did it for us. A woman who had just completed through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail sent us a letter and the actual pants she wore for her experience. The letter thanked us for making a pant so well suited for her experience. She also commented that her clothing was the only gear she took on the trip that became “part of her,” and remained special to her long after the trip was complete. To our delight, she had also written on the pants themselves, sharing the mishaps and scrapes that contributed to her experience.

Photo courtesy of ExOfficio
(Photo: Courtesy of ExOfficio)

As a well-known Seattle business leader once said, “start with the customer and work backwards.”

Consumers are attracted and loyal to brands and retailers that align with the experiences they want to have. By reflecting back to the consumer to understand what they are trying to achieve, and by building “services” that support their needs, the outdoor industry can also sell them the gear they need to have a great experience.

Gear is only important because it helps the consumer have a safe, enjoyable, memorable experience. The gear is the means to the end, not the end itself. Bring more consumers into the “outside” experience-based economy, and gear sales will follow.

Brian Thompson is the general manager of ExOfficio.

promo logo