By Matt Powell
There are still so many unknowns around this pandemic. When will the vaccine be administered to enough people? When will we feel safe going into stores? What behavioral changes and shopping shifts that we’ve seen under the pandemic will remain permanent?
Given this unclear view of the future, predictions are hard to make. Yet I see clear opportunities for sports retail as we emerge from the pandemic. At a high level, I strongly believe that U.S. consumers will be re-engaged and recommitted to living healthy lifestyles. Many will see healthy living as a way to hinder illness in the future. This is very good news for the sports industry.
Even after most people are vaccinated, I expect social distancing will remain a concern. One important consideration the industry must confront is that this year’s circumstances have brought many newcomers to the fitness and outdoor space. These participants are new to these activities; they are not the elites that the industry typically caters to. Instead, these are entry-level participants who do not need (and are not well-versed in) pinnacle products. If we oversell these new participants, they may be more inclined to abandon the activity. Matching the new entrant to the correct product is key to building a lifelong consumer.
The bulk of the upcoming opportunities for sports retail lie in fitness and outdoor activities that allow for social distancing and welcome entry-level participants.
I expect consumers to be practical in their purchases, seeking products that add value and are versatile. Frivolous fashion, like “dad shoes,” are likely over. In footwear, we can expect performance running, hiking, and to a lesser extent, trail running to outperform the overall market. Brands and retailers that offer credible, moderately priced products and keep beginners in mind can win. Performance running is likely to return to fashion. Consumers will want to look as though they are staying fit, regardless of whether they are. Comfort footwear brands and products will remain strong.
Similar to footwear, versatility, performance, and comfort are the winning combination in active apparel. Sports bras, fleece, and sweatpants rule the day.
In outdoor, the emphasis will be on the “outside” lifestyle, even if that means a local park or backyard, which does not translate to a need for pinnacle products. The newer entrant simply wants to experience the outdoors, not conquer it. Grills, coolers, recreation tents, hammocks, and fire pits will be key sellers.
Hopefully we will have a spring camping and hiking season in 2021. Comparisons against the lockdowns will be easy to achieve. Kayaks, canoes, and standup paddleboards — which did sell well this year — will also be important to the spring season.
Sports equipment for activities to keep us fit while remaining socially distant will outperform the overall sports retail market. We can expect great results in golf, racquet sports, and cycling. But again, greater focus should be placed on the new entrant rather than the elite user, without overselling the beginner’s competencies. In addition, if schools are back in session next year, scholastic sports should have a banner season.
Home fitness also has important opportunities. Many of these purchases are “one and done” – if you bought a treadmill in June, you don’t need a new one in a year. But first-time purchasers may have overlooked add-ons. Devices that create a sense of connectivity are one example.
2021 is shaping up to be a year of continued uncertainty, but there remain plenty of positive opportunities for sport retail, particularly if proper focus is given to those consumers who are newer to the space.
Matt Powell is VP and Senior Industry Advisor of Sports for The NPD Group.