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Outdoor retailers long catered to the stated needs of avid hikers, skiers and campers who they knew well by creating and selling them the niche products they openly sought. This reciprocal connection fostered a level of customer loyalty perhaps unseen in any other retail industry.
They got their customers closer to nature, but it turns out, they weren't getting close to their customers' data, preferences and sales opportunities. The chumminess and shared love for the outdoors had its limits.
As much as they might have wanted, outdoor retailers didn't strive to be like other retailers and collect detailed customer data so they could better market their products and services. Enter survey marketing and data-driven sales automation.
Getting away from tech
"The industry was created to make products for themselves and friends," said Samantha Searles, the director of research for the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade group for companies in the outdoor recreation business. "All of these people got their start by creating products that focused on friends. Eagle Creek, for example, made backpacks because it was something they and their friends needed.
"The rate of adoption has been somewhat slow when it comes to shifting consumer focus," Searles added. 'It's not that retailers don't want to; there is a desire and drive. But, for so long, the industry has catered to itself and it has been successful at that."
That could soon change as OIA works on two fronts to enable outdoor retailers and businesses to finally use data-driven efforts to understand and predict current customers' habits while finding ways to attract new customers who are outside that closed circle.
Survey marketing for Kelty
First, OIA is offering its members access to surveys that segment findings on outdoor-minded consumers. Developed with the help of the Boulder, Colo., consulting firm Egg Strategy, the research project was the first of its kind for the outdoor industry, Searles said. It breaks down the customer base into demographic groups and offers answers on how often they make purchases, why they make those purchases and, perhaps the most penetrating question of all, why they go outdoors.
The survey marketing research revealed seven segments of consumers: from avid outdoorsy types to the complacent people who Searles described as those who like to use outdoor apparel to work in the garden, go for long walks and watch their grandchildren play outside. This latter group, and an interest in leisure activities, is finally capturing the marketing interests of outdoor retailers.
"Everyone wants data to support their efforts," Searles said. "I've been surprised by the brands that have adopted the research. Mid- and small retailers have taken this on to better their offerings and hope it will increase their bottom lines. It doesn't have to be a big overhaul."
For example, Searles pointed to the outdoor gear manufacturer Kelty.
Using OIA's survey marketing research, Kelty explored a consumer group new to them: people who played team sports as youths and still play recreationally with friends. Using this information, Kelty created a new product line that fit this urban athlete demographic. Additionally, Kelty started targeting event tailgaters by making products like a sleeping bag that can be reshaped into a blanket.
Ascent360 CEO joins OIA board
OIA also hopes to further its relationship with the marketing software vendor Ascent360 Inc. with its use of Ascent360's customer data platform. In September, OIA named Ascent360 CEO Scott Buelter to its board.
Buelter's advice will help the organization's members better understand how to make use of customer data, said OIA Executive Director Amy Roberts.
"My appointment is about using data as a competitive advantage," Buelter said. "The OIA is really trying to ensure that brands and retailers do well, and they're realizing data is at the core of that."
A customer data platform (CDP) differs from CRM technology, Buelter said. CDP defines what customers are looking for, whereas CRM focuses on sales stages. CRM does involve customer data, but CDP goes further by pulling in e-commerce activities, customer service information and other data, which is all analyzed to see customers' latest purchases and lifetime spending habits so users can drive campaigns through marketing tools that make use of social media and email.
"With CDP, we're talking about reaching an individual, and not a broad audience," Buelter said.
Backwoods reaps dividends
Searles recalled one OIA customer -- the small outdoors retailer Backwoods, in Fort Worth, Texas -- using Ascent360 survey marketing to bolster its tracking of consumer behavior in emails and other communications. Ascent360 data showed that, among other findings, Backwoods customers who spent the most money came into the store less frequently than others, enabling the retailer to improve the arrangement of its inventory so that it could focus on those who shopped there more often.
Buelter hopes that OIA's data-driven focus will enable small and midsize outdoor retailers to compete with Walmart and Amazon, which he said have been "putting mom and pop fishing, hunting, hiking, biking and outdoor stores of all kinds out of business."
For instance, analytics can help the ski industry, Buelter said. Ski resorts are overrun with customer data, but haven't been able to put it all to good use. By not segmenting their data, resorts have been known to send customers a marketing pitch about a season pass when those skiers are already on the trails benefitting from that same season pass.
The message that outdoor businesses need to understand is that data is their best asset, Buelter said. If they want to stay in business, they have to start using data to learn what customers want.