A new store in San Francisco sells a 10-liter backpack in seven colors with a 10-year guarantee for $3.50. No joke.
The product is designed, produced, and sold by Decathlon, a French sporting goods retailer operating more than 1,350 stores in 39 countries. And last week, it made its debut in the U.S. in an 8,300-square-foot space in the West Coast city.
“Everybody knows Decathlon internationally, but here we’re just discovering it,” said Jennifer Tetrick, from the San Francisco store.
Decathlon keeps its prices low because it uses vertical integration for 100 brands globally. While it’s a retailer, it also designs and manufactures entry-level to premium gear in-house for 50 different sports and outdoor activities, ranging from climbing, mountain biking, and backpacking to soccer, archery, and swimming.
“Our purpose is to make sports accessible to all,” said Sophie O’Kelly De Gallagh, chief operations officer. “We want to make sure everyone can enjoy more than one sport.”
Hiking products fall under Quechua, skiing under Wed’ze, mountain biking under Rockrider, running under Kalenji, yoga under Domyos, and climbing under Simond — Decathalon's private labels.
You won’t find the Quechua 10-liter backpack or the Simond Bigwall Bag or Wed'ze Back Country Ski Poles sold by any other retailer.
The line between retailer and brand is blurring: Backcountry.com launched their own branded line last week.
Based on the low price tags, you might think that Decathlon is a big-box store that makes throwaway gear and whose employees don’t know the difference between aluminum and fiberglass tent poles. But that’s not the case says Gordon Wright, president of OutsidePR representing Decathlon.
"There isn't much in the line that's quite as spendy as a Rapha (maker of high-end cycling apparel) or an Arc'teryx, but I've been all over the store, the catalogues, and the online shop and can testify that the range gets pretty technical and premium," Wright said.
"That being said, their mission is to democratize sports and recreation, so their product lineup has a big representation of entry-level equipment and apparel," he said. "But even their really innovative, premium, technical products are priced well below comparables."
While Decathlon has had a massive impact in the mid to lower markets of Europe, especially in its home country of France, the opening in California is a test.
Mike Wallenfels, vice president of worldwide sales for Hydro Flask, said just because a company is successful in one market, doesn’t mean foreign markets will have the same response. He knows through experience in leading the expansion of Hydro Flask beyond the UK into Germany in 2015.
“No matter what, you have to translate what you do in your home market to be relevant in this new market,” Wallenfels said. “What does the American consumer look for in the market and will their private brand apply? Will they be accepted? Will the shopping model be accepted?”
About three miles south, Last Minute Gear is an independent camping and backpacking store in San Francisco that promotes environmentally-sustainable access to the outdoors by offering rentals and allowing customers to borrow gear.
"It’s great that Decathlon is opening a presence downtown," said James Dong, owner of Last Minute Gear, in an email. He said the city has transformed and proved that, in some ways, the traditional market can’t fully address issues of equity and access.
"We look forward to Decathlon and would love to collaborate," Dong added. "The outdoor shops in SF have active community presences and co-sponsored workshops—we just did one ourselves on women’s health—could be great."
The first Decathlon store opened in Lille, France, in 1976. A decade later, the company began designing and manufacturing its own products. The company files up to 40 patents each year, according to a news release.
But the grand opening in California last week was not Decathlon's first attempt in the U.S. In the mid 2000s, the company bought about a dozen existing sporting goods stores. When the market crashed, they had to fold.
For now, Decathlon is staying in San Francisco—close to different outdoor opportunities and the technology scene—and selling online exclusively to Californians during the launch phase. They want to collect feedback from customers before launching in different states.
“Right now, our web presence is available exclusively to California residents,” said O’Kelly De Gallagh. “But that will be rolling out nation-wide in the coming months, because while we are dedicated to a brick and mortar presence here, we also recognize the vast importance of a healthy e-commerce platform.”