Breaking the norm: GoLite shakes up its marketing strategy for 2011

People know GoLite for its innovative products. Now find out how the company is innovating with sales and marketing changes. SNEWS sat down with “Coup” to find out, among other things, why the GoLite president and his outdoor company played hooky from Outdoor Retailer Winter Market this year.
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GoLite co-founders Demetri “Coup” and Kim Coupounas have never been the type to follow the pack.

When the couple founded their outdoor gear and apparel company in 1998, they introduced ultra-light, streamlined packs at a time when most competitors were focused on more padding, pockets and zippers.

In 2006, when many built up debt, Kim and Coup generated capital by selling the GoLite name and its footwear line to Timberland. As part of the unique deal, the couple then licensed back the name to continue controlling and selling their core products of backpacks, apparel, tents and sleeping bags.

Flash ahead to 2011, and GoLite’s founders (www.golite.com) are thinking outside the box again -- this time on marketing and selling. The company is changing what trade shows it attends, bringing its sales team in-house, and focusing more on online and specialty shop sales.

SNEWS® recently caught up with Coup at Golite’s offices in Boulder, Colo., to talk about the changes.

Skipping Winter OR

GoLite grabbed our attention at SNEWS, and likely others in the industry, for its absence at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, in January 2011.

“We thought there hadn’t been a story on us for awhile, so this was the best way to get some coverage,” Coup joked as we sat down in his office for an interview. The president of GoLite was wearing jeans and T-shirt on a Monday -- “we have casual Mondays” he said -- nothing seems to be by convention at GoLite.

At that moment, we couldn’t help thinking of Coup as the student who played hooky from the class field trip. But instead of hiding behind excuses, he’s eager to share GoLite’s reasoning for skipping out on the industry’s biggest domestic show.

“For me, it’s pretty simple,” Coup explained, “and there were voices internally here as well -- I don’t see what we get out of Winter OR for what we spend on it.”

As a private company, GoLite doesn’t release specific financial details. Coup called the cost “significant.”

“It’s not that we don’t like going (to Winter OR),” Coup said. “We enjoy seeing people, we enjoy the parties. It’s just that we’ve been going since 1999… seven months of my life in Salt Lake City.”

We told Coup, he sounds like a man who’s grown tired of the same old friends -- the ones you go out to the same bar with night after night. Sure, it’s fun, but sometimes you want to meet someone new.

“Well, not exactly,” he said, “I like these friends, I want to keep seeing them, and we do, but not necessarily in Salt Lake.”

Coup said most of GoLite’s business with retailers, reps and manufacturers is done before or after an Outdoor Retailer trade show. For the past couple of years, GoLite hasn’t been able to associate much in the way of new dollars directly from the show.

“This isn’t about OR in general -- we’re still considering the summer show. And that isn’t to say that some other company can’t go and get business from Winter OR. And this isn’t about trade shows in general -- we’re attending other regional shows.”

The last point is the one Coup stressed the most.

“We’re not taking the money we save and putting it in our pockets,” he said. “We’re going to see people we’ve never met before.”

Coup points to regional shows put on by the Midwest Reps Association, the Outdoor Reps Association and the Eastern Outdoor Reps Association. And with GoLite’s entry into the lightweight luggage and travel apparel market in 2009, the company recently attended its first Travel Goods Show in Las Vegas.

“I can point to 12 new orders directly from the travel show,” Coup said. “Recessions have a way of making you think in new ways. It forces everyone to rethink of what we must do: ‘Why do we do this… well, because we’ve always done this.’ There’s got to be a better answer than that.”

The decision to skip Winter Market could backfire, Coup admits, and it doesn’t mean GoLite won’t return -- companies like Columbia have left and come back to the show -- but for now, a month later, only two people have said anything, he said. 

“One was a Japanese customer of ours, who we had seen a few weeks before in Boulder… and the other was you -- SNEWS.”

New marketing team

GoLite’s trade show decisions are part of a larger strategy to restructure the company’s sales and marketing. In early 2011, GoLite brought its sales and marketing force in-house -- replacing 15 contract sales reps, with four full-time employees, most of whom were already with the company in some capacity.

Kevin Volz, which has been with GoLite for six years, is the company’s new North American sales director. Greta Oberschmidt and Mike Wedding are assistant sales managers and Jonathon McFarland is sales coordinator.

“Six to 10 percent commissions on reps… people think that’s the major cost of your sales force,” Coup said. “But we lay out a huge amount on samples -- many, many, many sets of samples used for just a few showings. That’s quite a waste. So now, we have four sets of sample sets being extensively used instead of 15 sets being lightly used -- not that we haven’t had great reps, but it just wasn’t making economic sense.”

Coup also likes the idea of having a sales team dedicated to GoLite alone. Contract sales reps almost always have other accounts. That’s bound to take time away from GoLite, he said.

Following the sales

This past year, GoLite also took a deeper look at where its products were selling the best.

“We’re realizing that a disproportionate amount of our business is to retailers who are predominately online -- it’s not quite half, but significantly growing,” Coup said. “Our customers are technically oriented, and they’re comfortable buying online.”

GoLite, like many outdoor manufacturers, is also beginning to sell direct to consumers from its website.

“If you’re a brick-and-mortar retailer worried about online competition, the company isn’t your competitor, it’s your online retailers. This is where our customers are increasingly shopping -- fine, this is where we’re going to meet with them.” 

And that changes everything, right down to designing and development of the product, Coup said.

“Just like we have to think ‘how does this merchandise in a store,’ we need to now think ‘how does this merchandise online.’ It’s an important exercise to go through.” 

And GoLite isn’t turning its back on retailers -- if anything it’s seeking more specialty retail and niche shops where the company is seeing most of the other half of its growth.

More lightweight competitors

Three days before we talked with Coup at GoLite, SNEWS received a press release from a new company called Hyperlite Mountain Gear. The Kennebunk, Maine-based company promises a line of ultra-light backpacks, shelters and stuff sacks. 

Asking Coup about it, he says he’s seen the press release, but not much more on the company.

“My first reaction is ‘great, come on in, the water is warm,’” Coup said. “There’s room in this market for more lightweight gear. Sure, I would love for a day to come when GoLite is the only dominant player in the market, but a more down-to-earth way to look at it is that I would love for lightweight and durable gear as a trend to become dominant, no matter who’s selling it.”

--David Clucas

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