There are many take aways from the Outdoor show here in Friedrichshafen, some good some bad. I remember the first time I went to a similar gear show a few years ago, perhaps 5-6 years ago and I remember reflecting on how embarrassed I was by calling myself a blogger. Gear companies would more or less laugh and say move over because the magazine guys are in the booth. I was desperate to get published after that, well not that desperate as I didn’t want to make blogging and writing my job. In any case, it’s easy to say that at-least some companies or even the majority are embracing the blogging format. While I think the focus is still a little off for them, they are at-least on the proper track realizing, sadly, that blogging will be the only published format in the future (near).

Another interesting point here that got my attention was that people, by and large, couldn’t care less where products are being made. They care more about the working conditions, textiles processes, the ecology and social responsibility of the company. But whether a product is made in the USA or Vietnam is of little concern to the vast majority of retailers and shoppers. This is just a fact supported by the sales. While I think it would be great the USA and Europe would and should start producing gear, consumers just don’t care enough to make this a reality any time soon.

R0261100
The Nordisk lofoten 1 ultralight silnylon tent. under 500 grams. Advertised as a tent for humans, but just a little too small.. Maybe good for a small kid or dog. Still, the innovatioin is there.

I also realized that the Glamper lifestyle seems to be (still) a major focus for a lot of companies. I’m not sure how that market is in terms of revenues, but it seems to be just as large today as it was 20 years ago. Coleman, for example had a massive booth filled with gear that seemed to aim at purely the car glamper. The glampers who hire sherpas to carry their backpacks from car to lake. I got this same vibe from many companies, and even many of the Scandinavian companies. 

With that said, there is certainly a new market that is gaining steam, and crashing the glamper and “traditional” gear producers party. This of course is the lightweight, ultralight market. You can see this everywhere; in numbers and figures released from the USA for example, 30% of all tents sold for the PCT were the Big agnes fly creek series, under that was the Tarptent, zpacks among other lightweight producers. I am more than certain that this trend will continue, and eventually push the once mainstream companies that don’t evolve, into a small nisch market. The truth is, backpackers are getting smarter, they know that a backpack that holds 70liters and weighs just 800 grams, is to be preferred over the same volume pack weighing 4 kilos.

IMG_0731
The Western mountaineering quilt

While ultralight is not mainstream yet, it will be. Just ask Hilleberg how their Enan is selling. This of course begs the question: what companies are going to adapt fast enough to get a controlling foothold in this new trend? While I would love to see a company like Zpacks or Hyperlite mountain gear claim that top spot, I don’t see it happening. Zpacks just won’t ever have the scalability that somebody using different textiles and outsourcing from china will have. On top of that, it’s never a good thing to build a brand on just one textile that happens to be owned by one company that happens to have a patent on that textile. While cuben is very light and extremely strong, it’s also too expensive to reach mainstream, and rip stop nylon is catching up. When comparing the same tents in both cuben and nylon, there is now only minimal difference in weight, yet usually the cuben will cost twice as much. Granted, the cuben is much stronger. 

Hyperlite mountain gear has better potential to break into mainstream, but they too are limited by textiles, cost structures and in some ways own production. When building your own manufacturing plants in the USA, you have to basically train your entire workforce on how to make a simple straight stitch. The process of going from new employee to productive and profitable employee is a long one, my guess, anywhere from 6 months to a year. Compare this to china and Vietnam where half the population have the know how and technology to work with textiles.

 

Some of the finer products on show here at the Outdoor show. The Hilleberg Tarp 5 and Mesh 1, The Sierra designs flex capicitor, Mont-bell, and the Toaks alcohol stove.

No, I saw and felt that the companies best adapting to the new trends in backpacking was Big agnes, Big sky products, Nemo, Vaude, Hilleberg, Haglöfs and Osprey to name a few. I think that by the time many of the slow moving companies start to push into this market space, it will be too late, they will be the Colemans of tomorrow. I also think that for some of the smarter small gear producers, such as Gossamer gear, tarp tent, Enlightened equipment and so on, the time is now. Either they get their products out there to a worldwide audience, or somebody else is going to beat them to it. It’s that simple. So far many of the companies I named are producing or importing their products in America, producing products in America is awesome… If your only market is America. However, selling in Europe and importing from the USA is terrible. The cost’s rise exponentially.

There is a reason an HMG Windrider might cost $325 in the USA and $500 in Europe. Even with a retailer discount of say, 40%, the cost of import duties, freight and VAT (value added taxes) pushes the price of import for a retailer to usually more than the original $325. So for a retailer to make her money back, she has to sell the item at total cost plus margin of at-least 25%. Compare this to a company like Osprey who produces in Vietnam and exports directly to Europe and the USA. Instead of Europe via the USA. An osprey farpoint 40, for reference, in the USA might cost $125 in Europe it will also cost $125.

This brings me back to my point about ultralight becoming mainstream. This year at the Outdoor show in Friedrichshafen, you could easily make the argument that the Osprey Levity 60 stole the show for backpacks. an 860 gram 60 liter mainstream backpack. The pack similar in weight and features to the Gossamer gear mariposa. The difference? The Osprey is mainstream, available at mainstream prices at any brick and mortar or online shop.

 

 

The gossamer gear Mariposa and Osprey Levity 60. 

To finish this off, what would happen if Zpacks, trying to break into mainstream, made a silnylon ripstop version of their tents, outsourced in Estonia costing just $250 each? My guess the margins would be considerably higher for zpacks and their scalability wouldn’t be limited on how many people they can find on the street and teach how to sew.

But then again, what do I know? I’m just a blogger running ulcomfort.com, in my little corner of the universe, where once I was nisch, I am now being pushed into the mainstream by an evolving market place.

EDIT: Making one little change to this, my point was not that small lightweight cottage companies must try and break into the mainstream to stay alive. Rather, the market place of UL is becoming mainstream and there is a massive oppurtunity waiting for them as the major brands haven’t completely tied up the market yet. With this said, zpacks doesn’t exist in Europe because of the cost structure of getting their stuff to europe.

So while zpacks and Hyperlite are still trying to make the economics of growth work for them, the big guys are moving in and taking that share, and at the same time proving they don’t need cuben to survive (again I am just assuming that it’s tough, I haven’t actually talked to either zpacks or hyperlite and have no clue how their businesses are going in reality, but I have a background in business development and economics so we can call it an educated guess)

 

Posted by Kenneth Shaw

Blogger, photographer and backpacker. If you like my writing or my site don't be afraid to follow me, like or share my posts here on the site. Thanks and enjoy!

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