The outdoor industry is poised for some big changes this year, from the introduction of game-changing materials offering both performance and sustainability, to a push toward offering a wider range of sizes in the retail market. And there's no indication that the quickly evolving wearable tech sector is slowing down any time soon. (The same can be said of the Scenic City's love for Chacos and KAVU.)
Here are a few of the trends coming to outdoor retailers this year, along with some of the top items you'll be coveting on the trails in 2019.
SUSTAINABILITY MOVES TO THE FOREFRONT
Consumers continue to show more and more interest in products made using sustainable materials, in addition to whether the companies producing those products are engaging in socially responsible practices, says Jacki Harp, manager of REI Co-op in Chattanooga.
In response, last year REI launched new sustainability standards regarding how products are made, the amount of waste they produce, labor conditions and more. In order to continue to be sold through the mega retailer, all brands must meet those standards or prove they're working toward meeting them, Harp says. The initiative is not only an effort to meet customer demand for sustainable products, but also to be more transparent as a company and fulfill its mission to "educate, outfit and inspire," she says. "The products we sell are one of the most important ways we can do that."
The shift could mean other standards of the industry will have to adjust. For example, GORE-TEX's decades-long reign as the gold standard in waterproof, breathable material may come to an end this fall, when The North Face will launch a more sustainable fabric that does the same thing, perhaps even better, says Chad Wykle, president of Rock/Creek Outfitters, which has six area stores.
FOCUS ON DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
The outdoor industry is responding to demands from consumers for apparel in a wider range of sizes, particularly for women. Harp says customers have been asking about larger sizes for years, but the store wasn't able to offer those options because they didn't exist.
REI is intentionally focusing on diversity and inclusion in the products carried in stores as well as in its marketing efforts, she says. "The goal is to make the pool of people engaged in the outdoors bigger," says Harp. Companies like Columbia, prAna and KUHL are at the forefront of the movement to offer a greater range of sizes in the outdoor sector, and Lucy, prAna and Vuori are doing the same with fitness wear, she says. In REI's "Force of Nature" marketing campaign, the company is featuring women of all shapes, sizes and ethnic backgrounds to help further the message that the outdoors are for everyone.
When it comes to footwear, Harp says fewer customers are looking for a boot they can wear for the next 20 years, instead opting for lighter-weight, more colorful hiking and trail running shoes.
Wykle says shoe brands that have grown significantly over the past few years include Altra, known for its more supportive update on last decade's "barefoot" running trend; Salomon; and HOKA ONE ONE, maker of lightweight, "maximalist" cushioned running shoes.
Harp says she's seen an increased general interest in lighter gear, from customers who want to lighten their load as they get older, to people who've developed a better sense of what they need as they become more experienced in the outdoors. Innovations in materials have also led to the development of lighter-weight apparel and equipment that does the same job - oftentimes an even better job - than their heavier-weight predecessors.
For example, the climbing sector is seeing an influx of lighter-weight gear this year, including a smaller, lighter and safer GRIGRI belay device from Petzl. Black Diamond is introducing a new version of its C4 cam climbing protection device that's 25 percent lighter, resulting in a significant weight reduction on the harness, Wykle says.
Camping products continue to be the core of REI's business, says Harp, adding that the retailer is seeing an increase in sales of pared-down gear, such as roll-top backpacks - though they're seeing a trend at the other end of the spectrum as well. Larger, deluxe camping items geared toward people who want to be outdoors but without giving up the comforts of home are also trending up, she says. The newest additions to the company's Kingdom series, the most deluxe camping series it offers, allow customers to add on a garage and/or mudroom. Customers can even furnish the tents' spacious interiors with pieces from the series' luxury furniture line.
More retailers nationwide are beginning to offer gear rental, giving people the chance to experience the outdoors without the often-hefty price tag for gear that they may rarely (or never) use again. Rentals also help travelers avoid lugging loads of bulky gear cross-country or racking up airline baggage fees. And, they appeal to millennials, who tend to prefer spending money on experiences over material items.
REI isn't offering gear rental at its Chattanooga location yet, but Harp says it will start next year. Customers do have the opportunity now to try products such as bikes and boats before buying through the store's assortment of field classes, in which participants are taught to use provided gear, she says.
Technology is changing so fast that it's hard to keep up, but that's not stopping the area's outdoor enthusiasts from jumping on this trend. Multifunction sport watches from brands like Garmin and Suunto can monitor heart rate, measure pace, provide GPS navigation, play up to 300 songs via Bluetooth, and send notifications from your phone. They can also record the GPS coordinates of your route and download all your stats, allowing you to compete with yourself or others using the Strava app. "It's the best way to compete against other people without having to have any friends," jokes Brandon Vice, a Garmin watch owner and the accessories and hard-goods buyer for Rock/Creek.
WHAT CHATTANOOGA WANTS
Originally from Chattanooga, Harp has worked at six different REI locations, and she reports that "every community is different." For example, at the San Antonio and Austin, Texas, stores, "anything that said Yeti on it, people wanted it," she says. In Chattanooga, there's greater interest in climbing gear than at the average store, which makes sense, considering the area is the climbing hub of the Southeast. Trail running shoes are also more popular here than at other locations she's managed, even in places where running is popular.
Salomon, a leading producer of trail running and hiking footwear, has identified Chattanooga as one of its primary focus areas this year and has several brand ambassadors living in the city, says Wykle. Rock/Creek is also selling a lot of locally made Sockwell compression socks, which are popular with hikers, trail runners, medical professionals and anyone who has issues with swelling, he says.
Harp's observed that the Scenic City's outdoor crowd has what she dubs the "Chattanooga uniform": an outfit accessorized with Chaco sandals and a sling bag by KAVU. In fact, the Seattle-based brand's sling bags, which use climbing rope for the strap, sell much better here than where they're made, she says. In winter, the ensemble is topped off with a Patagonia Nano Puff jacket. Bonus points if your significant other is wearing theirs, too.