Outdoor brands were historically built upon a B2B model utilizing sporting good, big box, and specialty retailers to sell their products. The Internet has been disrupting this traditional channel leading to the creation of omni channels through which consumers search online, purchase online, and augment in-store purchases with online information.As bricks and mortar retail continues to evolve in how to successfully be part of the sales channel, it is becoming clearer that brands understand there is a role for a vibrant and effective B2C channel in their business model that can both complement and enhance its bricks and mortar retail strategy. Companies are also facing the challenge of meeting consumer expectations in what they expect in their experience with a brand across a wide and diverse range of channels. To meet these new challenges and opportunities, brands everywhere are exploring or implementing new AI technologies and tools to deliver award-winning experiences to consumers.
During the Outdoor Retailer (OR) Winter Market, we asked a number of brands three questions pertaining to these trends. We asked:
- What role they see B2C e-Commerce playing in the growth of their brand going forward.
- What do you think consumers expect in the experience they want you to deliver to them across these various channels when shopping for your products?
- Are you using any tools with AI to improve your customers' experience and if so what and where?
Here's what these outdoor brands had to say.
Ashely Williams, KEEN - Q1 - "Our Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) channel is key to how we can offer greater breadth of product offering to our existing and new fans, plus ensuring our fans receive a seamless brand experience regardless of what digital device they’re using."
Q2 - "They’re looking to know more about the products they’re interested in to ensure the product is right for them. They’re also looking for the products they know and love, plus new products and colorways that are only available through our Ecom channel. Lastly, they look to our digital channels to learn more about our brand, innovation initiatives, and find ways to locate our products across our retail base."
Q3 - "We run our eCommerce platform on Salesforce Commerce Cloud and leverage various predictive models to help tailor our content and product selection 1:1 to our fans. This synchronization happens across our social, email, search, and site shopping experiences."
Greg Wozer, Leki - Q1 - "In our brand's growth B2C is playing purely a supplemental role to what is happening at the retail level. We built our distribution and our brand on the backs of the specialty retail store. We're not really looking to try to pull any of that business is away from the retailer's, we're just trying to supplement it. We want to facilitate sales to consumers who have now made online shopping more of their routine rather than visiting the store. We want B2C to support and supplement our retail. We are not trying to drive more business to our website to purchase per se, we are trying to drive people to our website for information but then helping us align them to a local store."
Q2 - "I would think what they want is some consistency from device to device. For example, if they have seen say for example Leki presented a certain way on their PC or their notebook that they would want to see as close to the same information on their cell phone because they were researching Us in at home.
Now they're out where were they may be shopping and they're ready to purchase and they will be frustrated if they only end up getting an abbreviated portion of the information on their mobile compared to what they saw on their laptop."
Q3 - "Not really at this time. We had a few years ago on the retail level where we were using online education for sales staff that they would pass along to the consumer. I know we felt it had less impact and less success than we had hoped. As far as the consumer, we are finding that the consumer is in a lot of cases, is coming to our website after the purchase to maybe troubleshoot the product or find out additional information about the product. I know our parent company is developing more video and more interactive programs to take people to the product and also the reason in our case is not just about why Leki, it's info on why holes in general."
Becky Marcelliano, Deuter USA - Q1 - "We currently do not sell direct-to-consumer. It is something that we have been considering and I think it would be foolish to not think about that as the world moves in that way and consumers start ordering from things in their living rooms. We are working on that. We don't have an exact timeline or an exact way to do that yet, but it is all part of our bigger picture strategy. We will always support our retailers who have been the backbone of our core values and that won't ever go away. It's just a matter of making sure we are in the right place, the channel at the right time when the consumer is shopping."
Q2 - "Education, inspiration, and consistency are three pillars of what we look for to deliver to consumers across channels and what we believe they expect. Making sure the content, product specifications and inspirational stories are the same regardless of channel."
Q3 - "We are not doing a lot in this area. We are looking to doing more going forward."
Kayla Miller, Bison Designs -
Q1 - "e-Commerce is going to be really important. We need to start marketing to a younger group of B2B buyers and just direct to consumers. It's really going to be important now that we have the B2B website now where they can save their orders and do fulfillments just from what they have already done. It's convenient, less time-consuming and because of all the products, we have they can now compare products next to each other on their screen. I see it being a big help to Bison for retailers and it will also be big for direct to consumer who want to order either direct or who are out shopping retail and want more info."
Q2 - "What we have been working on recently is organization and convenience. We have so many products so we need to provide organization and information that is key across channels."
Q3 - "We don't have a ton right now because they're just growing online. We do use a bit of AI for social media to project when is the best time to post to the correct group of people we are targeting. We are trying to integrate stuff through our website to projects products for consumers based on what they have bought and helped them get to those products on our site. Predict what products consumers will want to buy from our site."
Kate Day and Kyle Begley - Dovetail Workwear. Q1- "We think our B2C website is really the DNA of our brand. That's how we, Kyle, Kate and Sarah as founders and the larger group of others who work with us connect with consumers. That's how we talk with women is through our website and that's where it's in more real-time and we use to kind of connect with our social media. Our B2C site is our home.
We see our website as a way to also help build our relationship with retailers and use our content to support them. We feel our B2C site can help drive women to retailers who don't want to buy our products sight unseen and without being able to try them on. We want to use it to get information about finding our products at retailers that they can touch and feel and see them and try them. We think there is a lot of reciprocity with them (retailers). When we first started out the business we thought B2C would be our primary channel and we've discovered "No," in fact to really grow and reach and access lots of women, retailers have been incredibly helpful. Both channels have a symbiotic relationship when done well."
Q2 - "Consistency in price, consistency in service and consistency in getting questions answered. It is hard because there are so many channels and you can't control everything with all those channels relative your voice."
Q3 - "We are focused on finding and utilizing great fitting and sizing tools to assist the consumer with having a great online buying experience. We need to give more tools to that woman who is up at midnight trying to buy the right clothes to fit her needs and minimize returns."
Marc Stevermer, LaCrosse Technology - Q1 - "I see the roll shifting from what it was 5 years ago, 10 to 15 years ago. 20 years ago when we started doing this we said we would just be a B2B only company. For years we fought the premise of going B2C. I still want to fight that but now I'm realizing that I can't fight it. Two years ago we did something I thought we would never do which was we went B2C on our website. Now doing that we only do it selling full retail. It is amazing how many customers have decided they're okay paying full retail for something that they can go somewhere else to get it at the same or less. I have given this a lot of thought as to why that is and the biggest thing that I keep coming back to is that retailers aren't supporting in-store customers the same way they used to support them."
Q2 - "I think what the customer is looking for today more so than ever is education and when you start talking about the different ways to the grab customers attention I just recently joined Instagram and saw how powerful it can be for product information. I have noticed how effective this hands-on approach by the users is providing viewers insight on how products work and can be used. That's what the consumer wants. Information that helps them."
Q3 - "We are not using any AI directly at this time. We are using it secondarily through services we buy from Google and Amazon for example. We are so far away from being able to use it. We don't currently have the time or people on staff with the knowledge for using it."
Jody Carlson, Smartwool - Q1 - "From our perspective, digital becomes even more important part for the business. We are seeing ample growth within our digital side of the business. The tools and technology there give us a different ability to communicate with a customer we have never had before. So from an end consumer perspective, we are able to deploy a lot of our key stories through our retailers through technology platforms."
Q2 - "From our perspective, they want the same look or feel for our brand regardless of where they are shopping. That has really been a challenge to us and how we can show up to them robustly from an in-store environment perspective to the digital perspective. We have been putting a lot of our investments into digital toolkits to help add supplemental layers of our brand stories onto a lot of key partner's channels whether it is Backcountry.com to REI and all of the other players of course. We really feel like everyone wants to see the same brand no matter where they touch us. Whether it's at an event, if it's in one of our own brick-and-mortar retail stores, if it's in a partners store, if it in a specialty retail store or touching us on our own website that gives you the same experience."
Q3 - "As to AI, this is one we have been moving pretty quickly on, we are looking at how we connect AI from an in-store perspective. we haven't cracked the code from that perspective yet but we just launched on smartwool.com our sock selector. This is an AI tool that asks you six basic questions where do you go when are you going camping hiking snowboarding skiing; asks what end use you are going to do; if you are male or female; do you want a true height over the calf hidden silhouette potentially so you kind of select from that angle; do you want fun colors; you want compression; do you want a different types of performance benefits, so you can check all the boxes you want and it spits out basically here are the best socks for you. one of our biggest conundrum as a company is the navigation keys both from a digital perspective we have over 400 styles of socks.
How do you connect a consumer with a 40-foot sock wall 8 feet tall 40 feet wide with? Maybe a thousand pics of socks? How do you get the customer in the right sock that is going to enhance their performance outside? Getting people in the precise fit, the right fit every time enhances both their footwear and overall experience in the outdoors. That's an example of AI technology tools to connect people to the right products."
Steve Shifish, FourPoints Bar - Q1 - "E-commerce is good and bad for everyone and for every business. There is a lot of competition for viewer time. We all know that we have this technology in our hand constantly, you have to be in these online platforms. We are a young company. Our website with basic B2C and B2B components is the mechanism to drive traffic and interest. We are on Amazon. You have to be on Amazon. Everyone likes free shipping. We need to grow this area of our business to get our product out in front of the consumer as we continue to build out retailers who carry out products. As a food product with an outdoor focus, we have so many more retail outlets to seek distribution and there is a lot of competition in this space."
Q2 - "I think anymore a lot of it use you can't really have a web page anymore that is just plain Jane it has to be layered with more information so that if the consumer and not even just about maybe your own product but the diversity of the imagery and your stories. People are looking for more depth in information and transparency about your products. The sustainability of your products, how they are made, and how you are being a steward of this world. It's all info people want and they want it wherever they are shopping."
Q3 - "At the moment we are not using any AI driven components. Next year we will be looking into AI a lot more of that because right now, for example, our media content we're just not getting the traffic that we should be getting and we want to improve."
Ryan Taylor, Lifestraw - Q1 - "For our product at LifeStraw on the filtration category both retailer B2B and digital B2C is incredibly important. We've seen and heard from all our 3rd party partners that digital research is an inordinate amount of time researching product. Even for a product that's maybe $20. Our direct to consumer retail sales is more in just a supporting role it's not too much of a key initiative. Much of that is driven by the price point. It's much more impulse or heavily researched by the customers either on a platform or at retail stores."
Q2 - "Our aim for beginning of 2019, maybe even exiting this year in the next 90 days is to create a universal research platform and basically syndicate that information across all channels, so for the consumer, no matter where they start their decision-making process or purchasing process, they're going to get the same information for any of our products and then they can easily compare that to our competition and make the correct choice for them. At the end of the day, Lifestraw is about selling safe water solutions and the data has to be correct."
Q3 - "We work with a few agencies, and some of those agencies are using some AI tools."
Nate Bird, Honey Stinger - Q1 - "Going forward it's it's hard to say when we used it a lot as we were a much younger company as we have limited distribution, so coming straight to Honey Stinger was the way to get honey Stinger if you knew about it. Being here at Outdoor Retailer we certainly very much behind supporting are brick-and-mortar core retailers. However, in this day and age that consumer culture has changed so much there's a lot of different places to get it and you can't always get every single item that Honey Stinger carries at a certain retailer or even an online retailer, so direct to consumer is the way you can do that to find a particular item you want from Honey Stinger. Items that are not as popular that one person, in particular, might like."
Q2 - "As people doing this multi-channel omnichannel shopping experience where they're buying across different channels what's your sense do you see or learn from your sales experience what do people want in their experience where they want to get out of their experience when they're shopping through cross channels. I feel like it's a convenience thing in a large way. They want to get it as fast as they can, as easily as they can. People are price conscious. So it's it's a lot of that and completely in the opposite spectrum, people are seeking a more thorough education on products really researching what they want and what the good uses for it are, and where the best place to get it is."
Q3 - "We are not currently using that technology. I would say we are more old school as far as that goes. As that technology becomes more prevalent, easy to access and use I'm sure we will be utilizing that more along with our sister company Big Agnes. We share some resources and our operations director is a very tech-savvy guy and gets into that I'm sure some of that will come into play, but right now we're not doing anything of that sort."
Peter Sachs, Lowa - Q1 - "I think it gives the consumer the opportunity to buy products that retailers, be it brick-and-mortar or online don't normally stock and sell, so for a brand like ours it could be some of the mountaineering boots, it could be large or small sizes things that most retailers don't comely stock. We view it as a service to consumers to make the brand that is the entire scope of the brand available to them."
Q2 - "We think consumers use a lot of online time for research to try to understand products before they go shopping or if they go to see a dealer try to understand the differences between products what are the material differences, what are the fit differences, what are the end-use differences that kind of thing. So we see online as a research tool.
So we still think brick-and-mortar has a place to get fit. A place to try on different sizes. It is a place to get questions answered. It's a place to test things on a ramp for instanceas we have here at the trade show, to see if the boots fit on a little bit of an uphill or downhill. So brick-and-mortar is still super relevant in the process. Consistent information."
Q3 - " No AI in use at this time."
Awareness of Amazon's Power
Besides dealing with the challenges of bricks and mortar retailer networks, Amazon, 3rd party resellers at Amazon, other e-tailers and their own online e-Commerce, many brands expressed that two other challenges they face are competition from large partners like Amazon and REI who are creating their own private label products that compete with their products and overseas factories that make their products starting to create their own brands and launch straight to market via e-commerce.
In a recent article in Recode, it stated, "brands also have to face the fact that Amazon is increasingly using the insights from the brands’ sales on Amazon to create Amazon-owned product lines that get prime real estate on product search result pages."
Without good e-Commerce services for your outdoor brands, their long-term success will be in question. That’s not an understatement, it has gone beyond something the majority of them probably want to do, to what they have to do. The number of manufacturers selling directly to consumers is expected to grow 71% this year, which means 2 out of every 5 manufacturers will be selling directly to consumers by the end of 2018.
The Time for Direct to Consumer is Now
Although brands may have "Amazon" on the brain, more than half (55 percent) of shoppers prefer to shop directly with brand manufacturers over retailers, according to Astound Commerce Insights “Global Brand Shopper Survey.” Only a couple of years ago the outdoor industry was debating how to avoid a “street fight” with their retailers over a direct e-Commerce strategy. Now they must be charting a process driven digital e-Commerce marketing and sales strategy that supports their retailer partners while allowing themselves to sell their products directly to consumers who want to purchase them directly.
Over a third of consumers report they bought directly from a brand manufacturer’s website last year and 59 percent already use a brand manufacturer’s website for researching products and usually make their purchase there as well. Outdoor brands must not only have a viable e-Commerce store they need to maximize their strategic participation across all the e-Commerce channel options.
To fight back, brands are giving their customers a reason to embrace their brand by giving them the information, shopping options, and personalization they want. According to Dan Pingree, chief marketing officer for Moosejaw, "if customers love your brand and you’ve made a personalized connection with them, some segments within your customer base will pay up to 10 percent more for a particular product. They know that with some research, the same item can be found cheaper somewhere else online. But they’ll prefer to buy from you because they love the brand experience you give them. The trick is identifying this segment and making sure you deliver a great personalized brand experience."
For additional information, check out this article about e-Commerce. My thanks to Casey LeBrun for his help with this article.