The Impact of Demographics on the Active Outdoor Industry

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Methuselah Effect, by Patrick Cox.  As I’ve said, I often get intriguing business ideas from non-business books.  This is one of those times.  I really recommend this book.  The trouble is, it doesn’t seem to be on Amazon, which I’ve never seen before.

Anyway, the book is about advances in biotechnology and how they are going to impact health and longevity.  The first chapter title is, “Fewer Births, Longer Lives: Society’s Aging Changes Everything.”

His premise, which I found convincing, is that people are going to live longer and be more active.  But there are going to be fewer people.  He goes on to says in the first page, “From here on out, every generation will be smaller than the one before it.  After 200,000 years of population growth, mankind’s numbers are shrinking.”

Back in the 1920’s, Mr. Cox tells us, Warren Thompson was hired to do some demographic research.  Mr. Thompson “…concluded that a profound change in human behavior happens whenever a society’s longevity increases.  He didn’t try to account for the change, but he did document it, and he found no clear exceptions…As people lived longer, birth rates dropped.  The arithmetic left little room for doubt.  So as health and overall living conditions continued to improve, populations would stabilize and even begin to shrink.”

He wrote a book called Population Problems which, Mr. Cox tells us, “…became a standard university sociology text and remained so until the 1960’s.”

Then we became entranced by the doom that was going to be visited on us by over population and Mr. Thompson and his book fell out of favor.  Turns out, we need not have been worried.

Let’s assume Mr. Cox and Mr. Thompson are right (though there’s no reason you should take my word for it).  What does it mean for our little corner of the world?

We’re going to have fewer younger customers.  How many fewer and when? That’s the correct question- or at least one of them.  The devil, as always, is in the details and at the very least it’s time you did a bit of homework on the issue.  If you are selling in Japan, you may already be aware as that country is at the bleeding edge of this transition.

It’s pretty much an article of faith in the industry that if you get them young, you can hope to keep them for life, and they have a lot more dollar value as a customer.  Trouble is, if they aren’t born it’s going to be tough to get them no matter how good your marketing is.

Meanwhile, I don’t think there are going to be any 90-year-old skateboarders, but I’m pretty much convinced that people are going to be active longer.  We’re all seeing that already.  How will that change attitudes and purchasing habits?  Will that create customers for us that we haven’t had before?

I, and other people, have written that demographics is no longer as important a factor in identifying customers as it used to be.  That’s at least partly because the internet has become the great leveler of information availability.  I wonder if it isn’t also because there’s a commonality of some activities across a larger age than there used to be.  I, for example, am still playing basketball.  Sort of.  Can’t jump high, run fast, or play much defense.  But I’m an expert trash talker and love giving the 25 year olds shit.

The result is, I have a connection and something in common with an age group I might not have historically spent much time with.

So here we are.  It’s different for every country, brand, and company.  But overall, there will be fewer possible customers and the average customer will be older.  That’s noncontroversial.  It’s arithmetic!

You’d better figure out how this is affecting you already.  Because, to a greater or lesser extent, it is.

Look at your customer characteristics and see if they have changed.  Perhaps you’ll find that a larger group has similar characteristics than used to be the case.  Should you be segmenting the same way you used to?  It would be great if you could spend less money due to more commonality among your customers.  Perhaps there are some product design changes appropriate for an older, more active demographic.  I can imagine some interesting promotional and advertising opportunities with older and younger customers using the same product.  I see an ad or a video of a fifteen year old and a fifty year old running into each other wearing exactly the same jacket or shoes.

I know I’m describing a market evolution that is (has been, will) happening over years continuing into decades.  But it’s here now, and I’m afraid you can’t ignore it.

2 replies
    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Thanks Pat,
      I read The Fourth Turning years ago. Thought it was prescient. I’ve reviewed it in my articles and recommended in some the speeches I’ve made.


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