Lapped: Why some sports and outdoor brands are killing it with customers — and others aren’t.

If you think selling gear is hard, try buying it.

Outdoor gear and sports brands are leaving a lot of money on the table. We know this because we’ve done the work to find out. In 2016, Almighty audited the gear buying experience for more than 600 brands across 1000 product lines. We interviewed dozens of customers about their buying habits. Our team spoke with telemark skiers, fly fishermen, and mothers of budding hockey stars. We found processes, systems, and experiences that are inconsistent, and often at odds with the needs of customers.

This isn’t entirely new. For more than a decade, Almighty has designed and built customer experiences and systems for organizations like New Balance, L.L.Bean, Nemo Equipment, Sperry, and Puma. We know how difficult it is to put gear and sports equipment in people’s hands.

We — brands, agencies, marketers — are focused on building strong brands that drive sell-in. We are relentless in pursuit and shelf space with wholesalers. We develop innovative programs to fuel trial and try-on. We focus on driving the foot and site traffic that powers high-margin direct-to-consumer businesses. These are essential. None, though, addresses a set of fundamental obstacles to buying gear.

We’re leaving money on the table because we’re generating brand preference that evaporates in the politics of the retail floor.

We’re leaving money on the table because we create a desire for products that people have trouble finding in stores.

We’re leaving money on the table because we send signals to customers that we’re not interested in their business.

The challenges are as significant as they are familiar:

I want to buy one thing. The retailer wants to sell me what they have. Consider the trail runner. Trail runners are notoriously diligent in their product research. Shoe weight, last, and drop are examined and compared in granular detail. At run specialty retail, their calculated research faces several hurdles. Different assortments and incentives make it difficult to walk out with the shoes the customer was seeking. Is it any wonder that trail runners flock to brands with direct-to-consumer experiences?

Gaps in technology give us enough information to have a convoluted, frustrating shopping experience. Consider the ski rack customer who takes the time to identify the perfect product configuration for his vehicle. With the research done, he visits the brand’s website to find a local dealer. Arriving at the retailer, he learns that they carry only the brand’s bike line.

Brands deliver products for many customer types, but consistently focus on only one (or none at all). Consider the novice bicycle buyer looking to buy a quality entry-level bike from a premium brand. She confronts a sea of technical jargon and specs aimed at the expert cyclist. She finds limited local availability of test rides due to a lack of specialty retailers. Is it any wonder that she instead purchases a readily available bike from a mid-tier brand?

Strong brands are important, for all these reasons (and others). And we invest heavily in them because we believe (correctly, mostly) that strong brands sell. And we believe that our job is selling.

But that’s only part of the story.

Making it easier for people to buy fuels growth.

We’re relying on the strength of the brands we’re building to pull customers through a fragmented, complex buying process. An essential question:

Are our brands strong enough to pull customers through an inefficient shopping experience?

Our singular focus can’t be on selling. It must also be about making it easier for people to buy. A consistent effort to seek out and reduce friction in these processes can deliver remarkable results.

We can do a better job building guided shopping experiences that match customers with the right products for their specific needs. When we do, we wrestle control and influence away from retailers and sales associates and back toward our brands.

We can connect the dots between our sales, marketing, and media data. When we can deliver targeted communications that match the right products with the right retail locations (and, ideally, with the right offers), then we create more satisfying experiences for everyone. We’ll also convert a considerably higher number of the people we reach with our brand promotions.

We can build customers for life. A shopping experience that meets the unique needs of different customer types is an investment in keeping customers rather than repeatedly spending to reclaim them.

With data and customer archetypes, we can optimize the gear buying experience.

Reconciling customer needs and building experiences that meet them should be a straightforward process. Looking at ourselves, and our competitors, in analytical ways gives us a path forward.

The Outdoor and Sporting Goods marketplace has a clear set of customer archetypes that are consistent across categories. The way in which an experienced cyclist shops for components has a great deal in common with the way in which an expert golfer shops for new clubs — far more, in fact, than with the shopping habits of the novice cyclist. While this is counterintuitive, it’s remarkably consistent across product categories. It’s also enormously useful because it means that best-in-class experiences in one product category frequently apply to another: climbing brands can learn a lot from kayak brands.

There are consistent, objective measures of the quality of the buying experience. Gear buyers also buy toothpaste, cars, homes, and salads­ — shaping expectations about store finding, product information, brand endorsements, product reviews, fit specifications, product comparison, local availability, and dozens of other data points.

Together, these form an objective measure of the quality of a brand’s experience for each customer type. We can quantify the impact of specific elements of the buying journey. For example, in most categories the novice buyer places a moderate value on the brand’s trending popularity. For participants in activities that take place in controlled studios — like spinning or indoor climbing — that figure climbs nearly 300%. Similarly, the experienced, brand-conscious participant in an outdoor activity like Nordic skiing cares more than twice as much about the fit of their apparel as the similarly experienced, brand-focused athlete in a sport like tennis — although the athlete places a greater premium on buyer’s guides and best-of lists.

We can measure where our buying experiences are robust, and where we have work to do. And while many people, ourselves included, aren’t comfortable boiling the whole of our experiences down to an algorithm, there’s incredible value in understanding the small, incremental changes we can make to sell more gear.

Organizing around segmentation is a recipe for inefficiency.

Customer segments can be an incredibly useful tool when you’re in the business of selling. They tend to distort our vision when we’re trying to make it easier to buy.

Almost by definition, buying gear is a declaration of forward momentum. Audience segments describe people at a fixed point in time, but each time we traverse a glade, or lace up skates for early morning hockey practice, we’re working our way from novice to expert. Our needs are continually evolving and — generally speaking — the more active we are, the truer this becomes. Customer segments may give shape and form to markets, but they’re poor proxies for understanding rapidly-evolving needs.

Focusing on the ideal customer can get in the way of meeting the needs of the real customer. Typical customer segments define the customer types to which the brand wants to appeal. The ‘Urban Adventurer Male’ is a useful distinction for building a demographic and targeting profile, but is challenging to design an experience around. He may have been climbing for years, or may have taken up the sport last month.

It’s time to see customers in the ways in which customers see themselves.

When we focus our efforts on adopting a customer’s view of the marketplace, we can be significantly more efficient. We can draw direct connections between a user’s needs and functionality or experiences that we can deliver. We can prioritize one set of customers over another, in ways that connect directly to business objectives. We can build on-ramps to our brands for specific customer types. We can stop applying our scarce resources to people who aren’t real. As Dr. Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow, is fond of reminding readers:

‘Simply naming a segment does not make it exist.’

When we acknowledge a journey, we invest in our customers for the long haul. In the interviews we’ve conducted with gear buyers, almost no one referred to themselves in demographic terms.

Consistently, when asked to describe themselves, subjects began by talking about their level of expertise. This response was astoundingly consistent across activities: expert water skiers, it turns out, have gear needs and experiences that are remarkably similar to those of expert anglers; the first-time hockey parent struggles with a lot of the same challenges as the first-year sailing parent.

From that insight, we defined a collection of ten customer archetypes for the Outdoor Gear and Sporting Goods industries. They are distinguished not by their affinity for the sport — hence the absence of words like ‘enthusiast’ — but by the practical and emotional needs in the buying process. Most importantly, these archetypes describe clusters of similar behaviors and relationships with gear — from the way we research products to the ways in which we share them with others.

Detail from buying journey/experience for two of the ten archetypes our team identified

We outline two kinds of novices, distinguished by where their activities take place. We identified a consistent set of distinct preferences, paths, and needs among those beginners who operate in a yoga studio, spinning/cycling center, or climbing gym.

The Newcomer is trying a new sport or activity and needs to buy gear for it.

The Studio Novice is trying a new sport or activity in a contained studio environment — think climbing gyms or spinning classes — and needs to buy gear for it.

The Unseasoned Parent is responsible for buying gear for her child.

The Seasoned Parent has purchased gear for his child in the past, but needs to evaluate existing gear for fit before purchasing for the upcoming season.

The Brand Loyal Studio Athlete has established perspectives on the quality of equipment brands and has a sense of how their products fit her.

The Brand Loyal Outdoorsman plans activities in a variety of destinations and has a set of preferred brands he tends to buy for different situations or occasions.

The Brand Loyal Athlete is experienced in his sport and has a handful of brands from which he purchases most of his gear.

The Value Conscious Athlete is familiar with the intricacies of his sport and prefers to balance price, value and product quality instead of buying from certain brands.

The Expert Outdoor Athlete is familiar with most of the products and brands within the category and has tried and trusted a broad range of equipment.

The DIY Athlete is familiar with all products and brands within the category and uses this familiarity to build a gear collection composed of the best pieces of gear for each kind of activity.

Not every brand will make use of every archetype: generally speaking, the Unseasoned Parent is more likely to be found buying hockey sticks than cycling shoes. The Studio Novice hardly applies to fly fishing. Most brands, though, will make use of about five archetypes. Understanding the experiences we deliver to each — where they succeed and where they fail — is essential to building an ongoing pipeline of new and recurring customers.

When customer experience is an abstract idea, so is the path toward improving it.

Rather than being emboldened by the idea of delivering better experiences, we see organizations unnecessarily paralyzed by it. The soft science of design thinking seems to be getting in the way of designing and building better experiences.

When the definition of customer experience is vague, we seek truth in workshops. The rhetoric in trade publications, on blogs, and at conferences often leaves the impression that customer experience can be reduced to a single question, or answered through a series of day-long workshops and seminars. These can be productive tools for building consensus and shared vision, but they rarely deliver the central element of real progress in customer experience: a testable hypothesis.

Abstraction creates the false impression that we’re all unique snowflakes. Certainly, the DNA of each organization flavors the experiences we can (and should) deliver, albeit to a far lesser extent that we believe. There are, in 2016, very tangible components of a great customer experience that can be measured and improved upon. It’s only when these are met that most brands will find incremental value in the softer science of personal brand experiences.

When we make customer needs tangible, we can meet them.

Archetypes help us identify needs. Data helps us measure how well we meet them. Our audit uncovered a collection of 30 interactions and experiences that shape a customer’s experience. By weighting each of these for each archetype, we can generate a measure of how well the experience of buying a Black Diamond tent matches the needs of the Seasoned Parent, for example.

Measuring how well we meet needs gives us a roadmap. By understanding where we underperform — and where we perform well — we can prioritize those interactions and experiences that will improve the overall experiences for our most valuable customers.

For example: some of the most technical, advanced product lines we audited were among those that delivered the worst overall experience for Expert Outdoor Athletes.

Benchmarking against competitors improves the effectiveness of our brand-building. There’s a significant difference between work done to improve a brand’s appeal, and work done to make it easier to find a retailer. By developing an understanding of how our customer experience stacks up to key competitors, we can better understand whether we have a brand problem or an experience problem — or both, or neither. Absent data, we’re just guessing.

Our audit generated scores for each brand against each archetype for thirty interactions and experiences, which we’ve organized into five different categories:

Screenshots from the tool we built to parse retail experience data at score.bealmighty.com
  1. Access to Information: How easy is it for a customer to get the information they need to make the right purchase? 
    a. User experience, mobile experience and speed of the brand’s website(s)
    b. Availability of guided shopping and product comparison functionality
    c. Volume of 3rd party content about the products
    d. Availability of information and content designed to help customers gear-up
  2. Touch and Try: How easy is it for a customer to see, touch, and feel the product — and to imagine themselves in or using it? 
    a. Availability of product specifications and fit information
    b. Ways in which products are visually merchandised
    c. Ability, where applicable, to customize products
    d. Retail penetration in key US markets for the sport or activity
  3. Network Influence: How much do popular opinion and personal networks drive people toward the brand’s products? 
    a. Existence and quality of customer reviews of the products
    b. Search engine performance of the brand’s websites
    c. Brand references and inbound links from other websites
    d. Inclusion on ‘best of’ lists and buyer’s guides
  4. The Power of the Brand: How much does the strength of the brand drive people toward the brand’s products?
    a. Size of the brand’s owned retail footprint
    b. The brand’s roster of professional endorsers
    c. The flow of brand content through social networks
    d. Awareness of, and discussion around, the brand in the marketplace
  5. Ease of purchase: How easy is it to find the product at the most common retailers?
    a. The brand’s direct e-commerce experience
    b. Availability through big-box, mass retail, sports speciality, and e-tail channels

To illustrate the way in which this works, consider two well known, competing tent brands’ relationships with the Brand Loyal Outdoorsman:

Brand Loyal Outdoorsman archetype scores, Tents:

The two brands are virtually identical in several regards, providing similar levels of product information and ability to touch and try the product. Tent Brand B has a much more powerful brand presence among experts but makes it far harder to purchase.

It’s not difficult to imagine that customers walk into stores intending to buy Brand B, and frequently leave with a tent from Brand A.

“Campaign culture” makes it difficult to address customer needs.

Product launches and marketing campaigns align well with the rewards systems built into organizations. They allow us to celebrate months of effort and collaboration. They announce a new unified vision. They come with fanfare for a job well done. They’re moments built for marketing — for selling. Unfortunately, they tend to get in the way of making it easier to buy.

Relaunches make for noisy systems. Sweeping redesigns and relaunches make it extraordinarily difficult to understand what works, and what does not. Is the uptick in website conversion rate a product of the streamlined checkout process or the improved product detail page? Are surging YouTube views a result of our investment in high-quality content or the decision to embed them on our homepage? Is unexpectedly high sell through of a new product the result of new brand efforts or the new dealer locator system we deployed? Unless you have a team skilled in complex attribution, these kinds of questions can lead to less, not more, clarity.

The eye is drawn to the new, but the brain is drawn to the familiar. In most cases, users will navigate a flawed, but familiar system more easily than they will a perfect, but entirely new one. Brands tend to be more enamored of their new features, processes, and experiences than customers will be.

Work toward a culture of perpetual, surgical enhancements.

Many of the best-performing brands, both in our study and across industries, instead embrace an ongoing stream of customer-focused improvements. Brands like Patagonia and L.L.Bean (disclosure: an Almighty client) generally opt to introduce new website functionality and retail installations on a rolling basis rather than in campaign form. These rollouts are diligently A/B tested with subsets of their users and customers before they’re introduced to the world en masse.

Controlled settings let us dial in experiences. When we build muscle memory around testing small improvements to the customer experience, we can measure the impact of each without the noise of a larger redesign.

Great experiences benefit from the routine and mundane. When we make small changes to a retail experience of the way people understand the fit of our products, people will adapt quickly to the new experience. When we ask them to navigate multiple, substantial changes they lose their way — and revert to a competitor’s familiar experience.

Our brand experience and archetype data illustrate the power of a series of small enhancements to the experience.

There is a clearly defined tier of backpack brands whose ability to reach new backpackers (Newcomers) significantly exceeds the rest of the category. Even among those, The North Face is considerably easier for these new customers to buy:

Newcomer archetype scores, Backpacks (all scores from 0.0–100.0):
1. The North Face (72.9)
 — — — — — — — — — — —
2. Black Diamond (60.9)
3. REI (60.7)
4. Patagonia (60.2)
5. Osprey (57.9)
6. Gregory (54.5)

Consider how the landscape changes for the Newcomer if Black Diamond makes a single update: merchandising their packs on-person, rather than on a white background, on the brand’s website.

Newcomer archetype scores, Backpacks (all scores from 0.0–100.0):
1. The North Face (72.9)
2. Black Diamond (67.0)
 — — — — — — — — — — — 
3. REI (60.7)
4. Patagonia (60.2)
5. Osprey (57.9)
6. Gregory (54.5)

By also adding a guided shopping experience to its website­ — assisting customers in finding the right pack for their needs­ — Black Diamond separates itself even more substantially. More critically, it becomes about 12% easier for a Newcomer to buy a Black Diamond pack, at no cost to the brand’s ability to sell to more experienced customers. In fact, these changes create similar effects in the brand’s capacity to sell to Brand Loyal and Expert Outdoorsman archetypes.

Newcomer archetype scores, Backpacks (all scores from 0.0–100.0):
1. The North Face (72.9)
2. Black Diamond (69.2)
 — — — — — — — — — — — 
3. REI (60.7)
4. Patagonia (60.2)
5. Osprey (57.9)
6. Gregory (54.5)

Start here: embrace the value of customer experience optimization.

Constant incremental improvements to customer experiences begin with continuous incremental improvements to the ways in which we work.

Prioritize what you need to tackle, and the archetypes whose needs you serve. Not everyone is going to buy into this archetypal view of the customer. Segmentation habits die hard. Avoid the temptation of attempting to solve the needs of all customers at once, or trying build things for a hybrid ‘super-archetype’ that doesn’t exist. To build consensus and momentum behind this way of thinking, demonstrate the ways in which competitor experiences are clearly designed to meet a particular archetype’s needs, and use those as a benchmark 
for your improvement.

Dedicate time, effort, and resources to investing strategically in the customer experience. You’ll find that this requires organizational patience, as the return tends not to reveal itself as quickly as same-store sales or lifts in website traffic. Investing in better experiences isn’t budgeted in the same ways as campaigns or launches, in which a significant initial investment is carved away as a percentage of the marketing spend. Instead, identify the business value of, for example, driving 25% more qualified customers from your brand’s website to your retail partners, and work your way back to investment in the ‘find a dealer’ experience that makes financial sense. Allocate portions of the budget to both substantively improving an interaction and to dialing it in once you’ve made some progress. Demonstrating investment in this way will generate internal consensus on the value of this approach.

Build customer experience into your working process in little ways. This mindset can be difficult to create consensus around, particularly in established organizations with deeply-held beliefs and practices. Don’t attempt to make this fit into old language or old measures. Avoid asking people to ‘embrace a new vision’ — it’s not a particularly new way of thinking, and the stink of workshops and past, failed mandates isn’t something worth trying to overcome. Instead, bake customer experience into your organization in small and mundane ways: the words you use in documents, the measures cited in reports. Challenge convention with archetypes: there’s no more powerful question than this:

‘is it really reasonable to ask (archetype x) to (do this)?’

We’re going to make buying easier, together.

Outdoor gear and sports brands are leaving a lot of money on the table. But that can change.

This model for ongoing, incremental improvements is a start. It can help us sell more of the right products to the customers we value most. It can build the customer advocacy that underpins strong brands and creates network effects that our brands crave. It creates institutional memory around what matters most to customers.

Let’s expand this. Let’s add data points to our collection, and improve the way that we measure interactions and their relevance to customer archetypes. Let’s take a deep look at how we use data and technology to connect retailers, brands, and customers. Let’s look at how we can lower the cost of that process — and lower the barriers to entry for small gear brands in the process.

Let’s make it incredibly easy to be a customer.

You can explore the entire data set across all customer archetypes in our Retail Impact Score tool. Please note that the data is updated and scores revised on an ongoing basis.

  • Alie Brown
  • Ian Fitzpatrick
  • Mimi Weber