November 18, 2009
As Old Man Winter slowly creeps up on Minnesota, I’ve been plotting my plan of attack. I wish I could say that I’ve secured a flask-toting St. Bernard and a happy light, but in reality, I’ve just been shopping around for a few shirts that will work for cross-county skiing and biking in the cold.
I’m entering this market at a very interesting time. We’ve seen an explosion of the outdoor gear industry in the past decade. Extreme athletes and weekend warriors can choose from an enormous selection of custom ski boots, Everest-ready tents and proprietary nano-engineered synthetic body armor. Moreover, recent advances in e-commerce and a decline in consumer spending have pushed online retailers to roll out innovative selling models and steep discounts in hope of salvaging a poor holiday shopping season. It’s a gear addict’s paradise.
One innovative online retailer, Steep and Cheap, sells only one item at a time. The entire home page is filled with an image of shirt, tent, headlamp or the like. A limited number of items are available, and once they’re sold, the site introduces a new piece of gear. This site lends itself to extremely frequent page refreshes and gives me nagging feelings of guilt if I’m away too long. This site and others target a certain type of a shopper – the compulsive deal hunter who lives on the everyday adrenaline built into online shopping.
Many outdoor enthusiasts are notoriously obsessed with new equipment and will display addictive gear buying behavior. The name of one of the top gear blogs captures this outdoor gear-addiction-shopping relationship. The Gear Junkie, run by Minnesota-based Stephen Regenold, reviews gear and publishes articles about adventure sports like endurance cycling, ice climbing and orienteering. Feed the Habit and Department of Goods are other places for users to obsess over cyclocross tires and alpaca ski underwear in search of a killer deal.
Once the junkie gets his filthy hands on a pair of discount bamboo hiking poles, he’s back on the digital streets for the next hook-up. Before you pour out your pity for the gear junkie, take a long look in the mirror. University of Washington neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s studies show how the cycle of addiction affects us all. Our brains are hard-wired to seek and re-seek information for the tiny blast of dopamine that accompanies a successful find. Twitter and Google provide us the opportunity to embark on an endless quest for quick hits of information. News addicts bask in a glowing screen of RSS feeds and Google alerts to achieve an intravenous flow of data. Everyone has their own fix and knows where to get it.
Given our brain’s addictive architecture, what should we offer to our minds? Should marketers take a deliberate step away from 24/7 micromedia promotions and deal-hunting retail models? Or should we continue to feed the beast? I’d love to give you the answers, but I have an ultra-wicking neoprene shirt deal that I have to check on.