Is the outdoor look losing its appeal?Market research data in Orca’s Top-Line Report, a bimonthly measurement of retailsales of outdoor products, reveals a 21-percent decline in specialty store apparel salesbetween 1997 and 1998. Apparel sales for September/October 1997 were $156.6 million, and ayear later the same sales were measured at $124.4 million, or $32 million less.

Should this decline continue, companieswill be examining the causes of the change. If it’s determined another fashion styleis cutting into the outdoor specialty apparel market, companies may need to strategize toalign their products with newer trends. For instance, popular in the mainstream fashionindustry today is a trend tagged as the “urban sportswear” look, according to anOctober 9, 1998, article in The Wall Street Journal by columnist Leon Wynter.

Certainly other influences besides theupswing of the urban sportswear look contribute to the sales decline of specialty storeapparel in the Top-Line Report. Sportif Vice President Steven Kirsch says he firmlybelieves the outdoor look is still on the rise. “It’s red hot and gaining speed,”he says. The specialty store figures represent a cycle Kirsch says he has seen many timesthat is related to several factors, namely the economy.

“Specialty shops don’t alwaysthrive in a robust economy,” says Kirsch. “People are buying larger ticket itemslike automobiles—they’re looking to refinance their homes—not buy a jacket.”He says that the mainstream popularity of the outdoor look itself plays a role in thedecrease in specialty shop sales. “As the outdoor look becomes hotter and hotter, itbecomes more of a commodity and the specialty stores suffer.” His example is thepresence of lower quality fleece items now available in stores like The Gap and Old Navy.In previous years, fleece items were solely available at specialty outdoor stores. Kirschalso identifies weather patterns resulting from El Niño as cyclical factors related tothe decline.

Specialty Store Manager Dave NETTLE ofAlpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, Calif., says the decline can be attributed to the factthat outdoor apparel products have become much more versatile and durable and thereforethere is a wider crossover in use. He also has noticed products are lasting longer andthat there is more time in between replacement of purchases. Finally, Nettle points outthat catalog and Internet sales are making an impact on specialty stores.

Additionally, factors in the decline mightbe hidden in more stats from the same time period which reveal that although fleece sales(per unit) fell significantly, the average price rose 40 percent, from $55.21 to $77.56.On the other hand, rain gear (rain jackets and ponchos) showed a whopping 120-percentincrease, but the average price plummeted from $70.43 to $48.84 per unit.

Annual subscriptions for the Top-LineReport are available at ORCA, booth 3610. Rates are $300 for ORCA members, and $600 fornon-members. The Top-Line Report is compiled by the sport market research firm The LeisureTrends Group.