Sporting Goods are not Immune

The outdoor and sporting goods segment has seen its share of shakeups over the past couple of years. Large big box chains like Sports Authority have closed stores or closed shop altogether. Recently, we have seen behemoths Bass Pro Shops LogoBass Pro Shops and Cabela’s consolidating. The trend in the outdoor and sporting goods segment is mirroring the trends in the rest of the retail market.

At least on the surface. Dig a little deeper and there are some major differences.

Big box retail has long suffered through a period of decreasing same store sales, as once loyal customers flock to other alternatives. While some of these alternatives are certainly other brick and mortar stores, many more are simply online retailers. Amazon has picked up the lion’s share of the fleeing customers.

In the outdoor and sporting goods segment, the defection from brick and mortar to online hasn’t occurred yet, at least not to the degree in other parts of retail. The outdoor and sporting goods segment is, at least for the moment, insulated from the migration to online platforms.

Sporting goods are kind of personal

A key reason for this is that, for the core outdoor and sporting goods consumer, purchases are very personal. Bow hunters need to feel how a bow handles. A fisherman needs to feel the flex in a rod and an avid hiker would likely not purchase a boot without knowing how it feels being worn. This has allowed many of the outdoor and sporting goods retailers further insulating themselves from online alternatives.

Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain and REI focus more on outdoor activities like fishing, hunting aDicks Sporting Goods Logond camping, respectively, while stores like Academy Sports and Modell’s focus more on traditional team and individual sports. Dick’s is much more of a generalist, calling itself the “largest omni-channel full-line sporting goods retailer in the US.” Dick’s also owns Field and Stream, Golf Galaxy and True Runner, which further demonstrate the industry’s move to specialization.

While many outdoor and sporting goods stores have been successful in carving out their niche, it is a niche carved out only by their product focus, not their brand focus. Closer examination reveals that there is little differentiation in this category beyond some of the pseudo-specialization of products that is occurring. While meaningful, the brands themselves do not differentiate one versus the other. That is, the brands do not provide a value to the consumer. Consumers generally go to these stores for a product they want to touch and feel before they make their purchasing decision – not because of the store’s brand.

This is not to say that a consumer might decide to go to a Bass Pro Shops, REI or Dick’s just to look around. But the products are what bring consumers to the store, not the store itself. These retailers recognize this too, with each of them is trying to create a better in-store experience. (You get the full treatment at the Bass Pro Shops in Springfield Missouri.) More and more, stores like Field and Stream and REI are also trying to make their stores more of an experience, putting the focus on the store, not the brand.

At this point, it is difficult to imagine further consolidation in the outdoor and sporting goods category and the major players are surviving this nasty retail environment for the moment. However, they all must make investments in their continued viability. While creating a better shopping environment is critical, it can be easily be copied and improved upon. Investments must be made in brand differentiation that goes beyond outdoors, country, athlete or camper. These terms describe what their customers are but fail to describe who they aspire to be. Aligning with that will differentiate the outdoor and sporting goods stores from the others.

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