The Strange Sociology of Outdoor Retailer


Outdoor people hate being indoors, and outdoor people love beer, especially when it’s cold and free. Those are the two most obvious things I took away from the recent convention center slog known as Outdoor Retailer.

I was lucky enough, if that is the right word, to attend my first ever OR in lovely, chilly, downtown Salt Lake City last week, and it was an eye opening experience.

Now, I am no novice at the convention center slog. As a matter of fact, I have done most of the big ones: LA Auto Show, CES, SXSW, ComicCon, WonderCon, E3, Detroit Auto Show….and the list goes on.

Oddly, no two conventions are the same, and thus OR is a beast all its own.

The first thing I noticed was outdoor brands don’t put out bowls of snickers bars or red vines to attract the wary convention goers. They go healthy with apples, nuts and the like.

Sure there are plenty of nutritional bars and such from brands like Gu and Clif and even PowerBar, but everyone else is offering up natural, healthy treats.

I guess if you are stuck inside all day, instead of out hunting for freshies, you might as well try to take care of yourself.

You also notice these people are good looking. “Oh my God, you have a beautiful head of hair,” the cafe employee told one of the founders of Sunski sunglasses. And he does. And he is not the exception. The outdoor crowd is fit, thin and surprisingly attractive. All the more reason why they must barely tolerate the fluorescent lights of the showroom floor.

And if they have a uniform, it’s the puffy jacket. Large seas of well-quaffed, windblown adventure seekers moving in unison along the super wide one-way streets of Salt Lake City all in search of an almond milk latte. All in some form of a puffy.

There are also a lot of conversations about SKUs and colorways. Every PR rep and company employee is trying to figure out some way to communicate about their product in a way to make it seem different from the product across the aisle. Some accomplished this with trademarked jargon and some had to settle on “we think this is really cool or unique, or special, or a value.”

All this is made a little easier when you can mention Gore-Tex, or Michelin rubber or Vibram soles, but you get the impression that repeating the same spiel over and over again can be a difficult task for someone used to checking snow or surf reports every 15 minutes.

The sheer volume of boots and socks and crampons and snowshoes is a wonderful thing for consumers, but seeing them all in one place is mind-boggling.

Most of us only get to see the great winter athletes on our home televisions or in YouTube clips, and I found out they are much smaller in real life. Not like midgets or anything, but smaller than you’d expect.

Headed home and reflecting back on my very first OR, I can honestly say it grew on me like a fungus. The more people I talked to, the more I realized a lot of them are working the deal for the meal. They live in places like Colorado and Utah and California and they work so they can play. And in the end, that is infectious.