For the past four decades and change, Outdoor Research has produced technical, multi-use outdoor apparel for its customers to use in all kinds of outdoor activities.
Now, the brand has decided to delve deeper into mountain biking based on customer feedback and is releasing a new, eight-piece line designed solely for the sport.
Available for spring 2024, Outdoor Research’s new Freewheel Mountain Bike Collection includes a bike-specific half-zip hoodie, a long-sleeve jersey, a short-sleeve riding T-shirt, riding shorts, two bike gloves, and a hip pack.
To better understand the decision to expand into mountain biking, The Daily spoke with Outdoor Research’s Chris King, vice president of brand for the company.
The push to add mountain bike apparel to the product mix came from a survey the Seattle-based company ran asking what activities people were doing when they were wearing the company’s apparel.
“We were assuming it was climbing, hiking, ski, snow, mountaineering, then down through various activities,” King said. “But mountain biking was actually third.”
That was about 18 months ago. A “switch flipped” in Outdoor Research’s product team and they started researching “every bike short in the industry,” King said.
The team studied which brands were making the best gear and where there might be opportunities.
“We found that a lot of the materials being used in the bike business were lacking,” King said. “(It was) a lot of thin plastic, and fit was all over the place.”
That led Outdoor Research to invest in a wide range of sizing, from extra small to 4XL, and to start working on other ways to differentiate the brand.
At this stage of the game, the mountain biking market is already well established, with many major players.
“In the bike space, it’s hard to create new products,” King said. “People like what they like and know what’s essential on the trail.”
To better understand what mountain bikers needed and what was lacking, Outdoor Research ran about a dozen focus groups, King said.
The focus groups consistently told them they were looking for fit, breathability, and protection against the elements.
“A lot of brands were making biking shorts that were not breathable, were poorly made, and didn’t sit well,” King said. “Shorts that were selling for $130. That’s where we saw an opportunity.”
Once the products were under development, the company spent three to four months with athletes, employees, and friends of the company taking feedback and refining the products.
To get existing and new customers to buy into Outdoor Research as a mountain bike apparel brand, the company is offering its same “infinite guarantee” on the new products.
“Mountain biking is a sport where you’re beating the gear up pretty good,” King said. “We’re going to see if the infinite guarantee is a loser or a winner for us.”
But either way, this new line is a good way for the company to stay relevant and attract new consumers as well as appeal to its base.
“It’s a new brand for some people, and it’s the same great old brand for some people,” King said. “For those that are fans of the brand already and they mountain bike, they know before they even touch, feel, or purchase our product that they’re going to get a certain level of quality they expect from the brand.”
King admitted there was some hesitancy from major retailers to add another mountain bike line to their shelves.
“It’s a busy space,” he said. “But on the flip side, we did hear from some retailers that there was a lot of opportunity. They saw a lot of high-margin product going through their stores that was just based on the brand name and quality wasn’t No. 1.”
After a lot of conversation, they got REI on board, and Backcountry will carry the products as well, in addition to other specialty outdoor retailers.
Looking ahead, Outdoor Research will keep an eye on the sell-through to see if it wants to continue with the line or expand it.
“Obviously if we sell out of our bike collection next year, there’s a different conversation that needs to be had,” King said.
Right now, the mountain bike line is taking about 20% of the company’s focus.
“Internally it’s definitely taken a huge amount of extra work from our product team and our marketing team and our materials team, really investing that time,” King said. “But I think that people are generally pretty excited about it, especially with the feedback that we’ve been getting on it.”
Similar to other companies across the industry, Outdoor Research isn’t immune to the macroeconomic obstacles that are slowing down business this year. That includes high inventory levels and retailers acting conservatively going into next year.
Also, like other businesses in the industry, the company isn’t seeing as much growth as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic boom years, but King said Outdoor Research is still growing.
“For OR to keep growing in a situation like this puts a lot of confidence into the team,” King said. He declined to give an estimate of how much growth the business has been seeing but said Outdoor Research has been on a “significant growth path year-over-year.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.