It’s no surprise that the act of being outdoors has soared in popularity since the start of the pandemic as consumers sought safe alternatives to being locked down in their homes. Even now that vaccinations have helped ease the situation, people who discovered — or rediscovered — fresh air are still heading outdoors for a little slice of sanity.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s recent “State of the Industry” report found that overall outdoor sports participation among active Americans hit 52.9 percent last year, up from 48.4 percent five years earlier. Hiking in particular was popular, with 57.8 million people hitting the trails last year, up more than 16 percent from 2019.
That was the backdrop that prompted Dick’s Sporting Goods, the country’s largest sporting goods retailer, to create a new retail concept, Public Lands, which it describes as an outdoor specialty store. The first store opened in September outside the company’s Pittsburgh, headquarters and on Friday, the second will open its doors in Columbus, Ohio.
Public Lands is being run by Todd Spaletto, a 25-year outdoor industry veteran who has worked in high-level jobs at The North Face, Wolverine World Wide and Jansport. He joined Dick’s at the end of 2020 to spearhead the launch of Public Lands.
“It’s been a really fun project being able to work on an entrepreneurial start-up in a large public company,” Spaletto said.
In both cases, Dick’s is making a major statement: the Pennsylvania unit is 50,000 square feet and freestanding in a former Field & Stream location. (Field & Stream is another division within Dick’s.) And the Columbus store is 60,000 square feet at the Polaris Fashion Place mall with both exterior and mall entrances. In both stores, there are 30-foot-tall rock climbing walls as well as shops dedicated to a variety of outdoor activities, including biking, camping, fishing, paddling, skiing, climbing, running and hiking.
The stores also offer a charitable component, with 1 percent of all sales donated to local and national conservation efforts.
Spaletto said since opening, the Pittsburgh area store has performed well with “really strong” sales of hard goods such as bikes, tents, fishing gear and tackle. In addition to the behemoth outdoor brands such as Patagonia and The North Face, customers have responded to some of the smaller niche brands carried in the unit such as Howler Brothers, Kuhl and Cotopaxi in men’s and Free People Movement in women’s, he said.
“We like to celebrate brands,” Spaletto said. “When you walk into a Dick’s Sporting Goods, Nike really comes to life. That’s what we want to do with our key brands,” which include Patagonia, Osprey, Hoka, Brooks, Cotopaxi and Vans. But with all of these widely distributed brands, Public Lands offers a different assortment such as Hoka’s hiking shoes and Vans’ MTE outdoor product.
In general, the overlap in the mix between Public Lands and Dick’s is small, 20 percent or less, with brands such as Yeti and select pieces from The North Face carried in both. But Spaletto said Public Lands is “dramatically different” than Dick’s, which is focused more on ball and team sports targeted to the local communities within which the company’s 700-plus stores operate. Public Lands homes in more on servicing a community of outdoor enthusiasts who also support its mission of giving back.
Spaletto said even before COVID-19 changed the world, Dick’s had been exploring the idea of developing a concept centered around the outdoor space, which had already begun attracting more attention and participants. It soon realized that this was a different customer, one who was younger, more diverse, more female and even more urban. The outdoors also attracted a lower-income consumer because “bank accounts don’t matter” when you’re outdoors in nature. “Everyone is welcome,” he said.
After the pandemic hit, consumers realized that the outdoors not only offered a physical challenge, but also an emotionally restorative atmosphere where they could de-stress and be inspired.
Dick’s believes that creating a concept that would tick all of these boxes presented a distinct opportunity for the company, and Public Lands was born.
In addition to its focus on popular outdoor sports, the stores partner with small businesses to offer natural foods produced in the communities, local artwork as well as classes on a range of topics such as how to mountain bike, meditation, taking outdoor photos and trail restoration — all in a quest to create a sense of community.
This tactic is certainly not new. Other brands such as REI, The North Face, Patagonia and others offer similar services, but tend to be more focused on the technical end of the outdoor market. Spaletto believes Public Lands’ ability to offer unique branded product from a variety of labels as well as local events for a wide range of consumers is what sets Public Lands apart.
“We focus more on the consumer than our competitors,” Spaletto said. “We believe we’re different based on the experiences we offer and our ability to speak to creatives as well as those looking for technical product. We want to create a multidimensional experience different than what the consumer has seen before.”
In his two-plus decades in the outdoor space, Spaletto said there are two stereotypes: one is the core customer who can survive alone in the woods for three weeks, but also wears baggy pants, a floppy hat, carries a stick and “probably doesn’t have a lot of friends.” The other is the person sporting the latest kit and most technical gear from the best brands, “but they’re just a poser.” Neither stereotype is accurate.
Today’s outdoor enthusiast can’t be categorized easily and the climate is different than it was 15 years ago, he said, when the outdoors was relegated to extreme athletes who appealed to tertiary audiences. Instead, today’s consumer is looking for authentic product that is “unapologetically style forward,” and that’s the white space Dick’s hopes to fill with Public Lands.
Spaletto said there are no plans to add more Public Lands stores beyond the two — at least not right now. “We’re tucked inside a great leading retailer which gives us the ability to study and nail the insights and take the time to do this right. But the opportunity is definitely bigger than just two stores.”
Public Lands also has a sophisticated e-commerce site where shoppers who are not in Pittsburgh or Columbus can experience the concept. “One of our goals is to balance content and commerce,” he said, pointing to the information on both activities and conservation offered on the site.
Spaletto believes that even as the pandemic wanes and consumers can return to restaurants, arenas, concerts, movies and other pastimes that were forced to close as COVID-19 spread, the outdoors will not release its hold on customers.
“COVID-19 brought new people into the outdoors,” he said. “There’s also a younger group that values experiences over ‘things’ and wants to associate with public-serving brands.” With Public Lands’ donating a portion of its sales to the Public Lands Fund, which supports organizations protecting public lands and making them accessible to all, it will appeal to this socially conscious consumer and help Public Lands carve out a niche.