This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Steve Skadron stops his slide show on the photo of a mountain of discarded clothes.
“There’s no garbage or tires or anything but clothing in that picture,” says the three-term Aspen mayor who now serves as dean for Colorado Mountain College’s campuses in Aspen and Carbondale.
More than 85% of the clothing in the U.S. gets thrown away, he says, citing a 2018 figure from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“So why not wear, repair, repeat or recycle,” asks Skadron, who has spent several years working on a plan to train CMC students on small-scale manufacturing and sewing, local and regional sourcing of materials, entrepreneurship and the principles of a circular economy that reuses materials and products for as long as possible. His dream is to see local manufacturing outposts across the Western Slope where gear can be repaired or recycled for a second user.
His “Make It Here” curriculum — “a working name that likely won’t stick,” he says — has been approved by CMC and will see its first cohort of students next fall.
“The timing is right on for this. This is happening in the larger outdoor industry,” says Skadron, who seeded Aspen’s push to embrace uphill skiers and build an “uphill economy.” “The lessons that have been learned over the last few years have revealed the reality of our stumbling business ecosystems and how much we need this.”
There’s a snapback happening in outdoor retail right now, with shifting demand, overstocked retailers and a surging focus on sustainability that is setting 2022 up as the best year ever for the nascent recommerce industry.
Owners more than a year ago were seeing outdoor-loving customers clamoring for — and paying top dollar for — backpacks and camping gear, backcountry skis and bikes as the pandemic pushed record numbers of people into the outdoors.
Counting sales from 600,000 retail locations, the NPD Group showed outdoor retail sales from March 2021 to March 2022 reaching $28.3 billion, up 30% from March 2019 through March 2020. During that rapid rise, shop owners increased their orders for stuff. Overseas manufacturers, dealing with pandemic shutdowns, have delayed delivery. And now that the gear is finally arriving at stores, the world is shifting yet again.
Wary consumers appear to be less inclined to buy high-priced and brand-new stuff right now. But they are turning to the swell of sellers offering barely used, deeply discounted gear gathered during the stimulus-fueled outdoor boom of the pandemic.
Online peddlers in the recommerce realm are reporting banner business. Secondhand and consignment stores are turning away sellers. More brands than ever before are getting into the business of buying back used apparel for resale.
“From a market standpoint we have a lot of really good tailwinds. Just huge acceleration across the board,” said Aaron Provine, who spent more than 12 years working for online outdoor retailer backcountry.com before acquiring Utah-based geartrade.com in 2019. After a website and business strategy overhaul, the online second hand retail platform has seen 2022 sales surpassing records set in 2021.
The number of used items listed by sellers on geartrade.com is up 56% this year over last. This summer was exceptionally busy for sellers, with the number of listings up 90% in June, July and August on geartrade.com compared with the same months in 2020, including a 153% annual increase in August. And buyers are flocking. Sales this year are up 80% through August, Provine said.
“This is a really interesting point for this market,” he said. “We have the economic tailwinds, but at the same time, there is a shifting overall consumer perception of used gear and consumer behavior that is unfolding right now. People want to limit their impacts. They want sustainability. And that is leading more people than ever before into the secondhand market.”
Major retailers and brands are coming around to the secondhand market. Patagonia in 2017 launched its Worn Wear online store for secondhand gear in 2017. REI launched its recommerce business in 2017 and in 2020 expanded its used gear business to include pop-up stores. Most brands offer discounts and store credits for consumers who send in used equipment, which has enabled major outdoor brands to reach goals to reduce waste.
Retailers Dick’s Sporting Goods and Public Lands this spring partnered with Denver-based online used equipment marketplace Out & Back Outdoor to collect used gear at some store locations for reselling online. After seeing a 10-fold increase in used items dropped off at two store locations for reselling on the Out & Back Outdoor website this summer, the partnership is expanding to stores in Southern California, Oregon and Utah.
Barruch Ben-Zekry founded Out & Back Outdoor in 2019 after a career guiding new business development for retail giant VF Corp. (Incidentally, VF Corp. just announced it was laying off 600 employees, signaling a stormy horizon for outdoor brands.)
In the past year, Ben-Zekry is seeing more people selling barely used backpacking and camping gear, with many offering complete kits of packs, tents, sleeping bags, pads and accessories. Ben-Zekry offers sellers options to either sell to his site for cash or sell through consignment and pay his site a fee.
Some sellers are moving out of activities they tested during the pandemic. Others are upgrading from their intro-level gear. Some are finding themselves too busy to pursue new activities, Ben-Zekry said. It’s a reshuffling of priorities after a spike in new arrivals to outdoor activities during the pandemic.
The model Ben-Zekry created at Out & Back Outdoor offers cash to sellers as soon as they sign up or drop off their gear. While he also offers gift cards good at Dick’s and Public Lands, most sellers take the cash.
And he’s seeing more buyers comfortable with buying secondhand.
“The outdoor category in general is kind of expensive, but it’s really well engineered. The products are built to sustain more pain than they often endure and I think people are realizing they can buy used and not sacrifice anything,” said Ben-Zekry, who has doubled his Denver staff to about 25 employees in the past year. “If it’s going to last a long time, why not pay half?”
Colin Covington, the manager at Recycle Sports in Frisco, had to turn away wannabe sellers this summer.
“That was the first time we’ve ever had to do that,” he said. “We just didn’t have enough room.”
As supply chain issues challenged brands and retailers in the last two years, secondhand gear shops like Recycle Sports thrived. When it was difficult to find a bike anywhere, Covington had racks of bikes for sale.
“I see secondhand becoming more popular. We don’t even really advertise and it’s been a steady stream of people coming in to sell their stuff,” Covington said. “I think it has something to do with how expensive it keeps getting to ski and live up here.”
Brands and not-just-new-stuff retailers are “driving the next wave of secondhand,” writes James Reinhart, the co-founder of online used apparel marketplace thredUp in a report his team published this year on the state of the recommerce industry.
That report found major brands with resale operations grew from eight in 2020 to 30 in 2021. The global secondhand market is projected to grow three times faster than the overall apparel market, from $96 billion in sales in 2021 to $218 billion by 2026, according to the thredUp report. The secondhand-apparel market in the U.S. is expected to more than double by 2026, reaching $82 billion, according to the thredUp report.
The Pro’s Closet began as an eBay store in 2006 and has since revolutionized the secondhand bike market. The company raised $40 million from investors in 2021 after reporting a quintupling of revenue in the last two years. In 2020 the company relocated from Boulder to a 137,000 square-foot headquarters in Louisville after raising $12 million from investment groups. As supply chain challenges put years-long delays on new bikes and bike equipment, more consumers are looking to used bikes.
“Man, the changes in the secondhand-bike market are really getting interesting,” said Kelly Davis, the head of research for the Outdoor Industry Association who estimates the overseas supply-chain tangle in the bike industry could take three or more years to unravel. “I see the potential for the secondhand market to become a much bigger option for people looking to buy something different or get rid of their bike.”
Davis calls it “demand distortion.” It’s a phenomenon where a ripple from a stressed shop owner who wants more stuff on their shelves places a larger-than-usual order, which travels upstream to the brands and manufacturers, which makes more stuff and by the time that stuff winds through pandemic slowdowns at overseas factories and gets to the retailer, the buying scene is different.
That’s making the secondhand market even more appealing. No one needs to make new stuff in a transaction for used clothing and gear. No one in the outdoor industry is really tracking the secondhand market, so it’s hard to quantify this shift.
“But it’s happening. Everyone is talking about it,” said Davis, who suggests an industry group could soon begin tracking used gear sales and following the market.
Jimmy Funkhouser launched Feral Mountain Co. in 2016 with a mission to grow the appeal of outdoor adventure by welcoming more participants with lower prices for gear. He rented gear so people could test the waters. He sold used gear, both online and in his shop, a former bungalow on Tennyson Street in northwest Denver. He was among the first wave of local shops showing the outdoor industry that buying and selling used gear not only was a viable business model, but it could expand the industry’s appeal. Lowering the price of participation with used gear is a big tool in the industry’s widespread push to increase diversity and inclusion.
Funkhouser, who moved to a much larger store on Tennyson in 2018, says his top priority for the company in the last few years has been to grow the used-gear business. His customers — who are now not just buyers but sellers — have embraced the move.
“The industry loves to talk about inclusivity, but historically has refused to acknowledge that price access remains the biggest barrier to entry for anyone wanting to live a life outdoors,” Funkhouser said. “Companies that want to be serious about improving access to the outdoors also need to get serious about price — and building a circular model in the industry is the most effective and sustainable way to do just that.”
The circular model — where a brand sells something and that something is either recycled or passed along to a second owner — encapsulates the ideals behind reducing impacts, which ranks up there with diversity among the outdoor industry’s make-the-world-better mission. People who play outdoors are more likely to buy from brands that work to cut the environmental costs of designing, making, shipping and selling gear.
Davis, who has spent decades tracking outdoor and winter sports retail trends, sees more retailers, brands and consumers making second hand cool. It improves diversity. It’s sustainable. And now, second hand is a style. That’s a big shift, she said.
“This industry screwed up by portraying an image that you need all this expensive stuff to participate. We know that’s not true,” she said. “Now, with secondhand becoming cool, you don’t have to feel like you are going to look like some kind of gaper because you don’t have the right stuff. We can make it cool again, welcome more people and be truly sustainable. I’m liking where this is heading.”