Millennials Are Buying Less Outdoor Gear

CC BY 2.0. m.prinke

Sales have dropped in the past year, as young buyers show a preference for less specialized, more versatile items.

The outdoor gear industry is trying to figure out Millennials. This generation of young shoppers, born between 1982 and 2004, has very different consumer habits from their parents. Sales dropped 6 percent for the industry between December 2016 and November 2017, compared to the previous 12-month period, and analysts attribute this to Millennials' preference for products that are "less specialized and more versatile."

Whereas their parents wanted items with a specific purpose that could withstand extreme conditions, Millennials want fewer items that can do more things. As one market analyst explained to the Associated Press (AP), Millennials are looking for "good-enough products, that will get me through most of what I want to do."

Is this a good or a bad thing? It's unclear. If Millennials are buying fewer items because they like the idea of more flexible outfitting or are minimalists who want fewer items to store in tight living quarters, then this is a good thing. But buying less gear could mean that Millennials are spending less time outdoors, in which case it is unfortunate.

The market analyst, Matt Powell, appears to think it's the latter, when he says (with the slightest hint of condescension):

"The hardest, the most extreme condition some of these boots are going to have is walking from the Prius to the craft brewery."

But then he goes on in a more positive tone:

"Millennials are outdoorsy and support environmental preservation and sustainability, but they have a different take on health and fitness than their predecessors. They have a more lighthearted approach that involves their friends."

It got me thinking about my own collection of outdoor gear, compared to that of my parents. Without a doubt, they own a lot more than I do -- cross-country skis, snowshoes, canoes, a kayak, inflatable water toys, bug jackets, parkas, snow pants, boxes of hats and mitts, boots for all conditions. They invested in these products when they were still young, giving them to each other at birthdays and Christmas; it was a priority to outfit themselves early in life, whereas I shy away from incurring those costs and prefer to borrow or rent when needed.

I think one main difference stems from where they live, compared to where I do. They're in the forest bordering a lake, surrounded by trails and dirt roads. These pieces of gear are tools that enable them to access their environment, whereas I don't have that sense of urgency living in a town. As young people move to cities in droves, they too have less need for these items. Why buy snowshoes if you can rent them for a weekend?

Another reason could be the countless distractions that exist indoors. Staying inside has never been so interesting as it is nowadays, with digital entertainment galore; by contrast, my parents' generation was limited to TV, board games, and books, which may have made them more inclined to go for a hike.

Whatever the reason might be, the industry is concerned and will need to "respond to this shift in the mindset of consumers," in Powell's words.

Meanwhile, AP reports that sales of snow-based sports equipment is up 7.8 percent, compared to the industry as a whole -- a hopeful sign that people are getting out to enjoy the wintry weather.