Core gear companies explore the urban bag world with success

Urbanites are increasingly thinking outside the briefcase. You've probably spotted them carrying sporty courier bags, slings, backpacks and totes everywhere, from bike paths and offices to city streets and subways. In response to the increasing demand, retailers and manufacturers are cashing in on bags that aren't just functional but also stylish.
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Urbanites are increasingly thinking outside the briefcase. You've probably spotted them carrying sporty courier bags, slings, backpacks and totes everywhere, from bike paths and offices to city streets and subways. In response to the increasing demand, retailers and manufacturers are cashing in on bags that aren't just functional but also stylish.

In the last five years, numerous outdoor gear companies that have built reputations on their technical equipment, including Mountain Hardwear, Osprey, Gregory and Black Diamond, have debuted bags customers can use for their everyday lives off their bikes and skis, and out of their climbing and hiking shoes. But it's not just the core customers who are buying, it's also other commuters attracted by bags that are at once functional and durable, but also fashionable.

"What's going on in bags reflects an overall trend in the outdoor industry, which is moving a little more toward lifestyle products," said Ed Ruzic, president of Sherpani. "Your typical mountaineering store isn't just for backcountry skiers and climbers anymore. Women will go in there to buy their handbags."

For outdoor companies, developing a line of lifestyle bags is a natural extension of a brand. And for outdoor enthusiasts, buying a courier, tote or around-town pack from an outdoor brand they trust is a no-brainer. But these consumers are also seeking these carry-alls specifically for their uniquely sporty styling: They want their weekday bag to reflect their weekend ethos.

"Outdoor enthusiasts want to show who they are even when they're in the streets, the office, out socializing," said Sam Mix, associate director for Osprey, which launched its recycled lifestyle pack line, the ReSource series, in fall 2007 to enormous success. "The opportunity for sales is there." Bags and accessories are easy ways to project a sporty image. 

Looks and likes

Like other accessories, bags go through trends. According to Paula Kosmatka, JanSport's vice president of research, design and development, the last five years have seen one-strap slings and then messenger bags trending upward. Currently, totes are selling particularly well. Retailers and manufacturers believe this is in part because of the increased awareness of green living and the demand for stylish reusable shopping bags. In the next few years, companies will develop snazzier design features and innovative styling on these tried-and-true forms, Kosmatka predicted.

One feature consumers increasingly seek is electronics compatibility, such as built-in laptop sleeves and pockets for cell phones and MP3 players. Many companies, such as Deuter, now also offer separate accessories like camera cases, sunglass pouches and phone pockets that attach to or fit inside their packs. Deuter reported that these have sold well in the last year, not the least because their lower price points win over value-conscious shoppers.

Other companies told SNEWS® that distinctive colors and patterns are increasingly popular, as consumers look for bags that reflect their sense of personal style too. Patagonia plans to debut a series of bright, cheerfully colored bags in spring 2010.

"Color is still a powerful source for making bold statements," said Sherpani's Ruzic. "People are trying to use their bag as an expression of their individuality. They want to make a statement about their lifestyle. Color does that very well."

Being resourceful

While consumers are still wooed by eco messages and consider recycled materials a bonus, they are also increasingly persuaded by their slimming pocketbooks. This means that they may be spending less -- or simply more wisely.

"I think people may be more prone to buy something once and keep it for a long time," said JanSport's Kosmatka. "Maybe it's that European way of thinking: They're not going to buy a lot, but they'll buy things they'll have for a while, as opposed to trendy things." One part of value is versatility.

"Consumers are looking for a good value," said Keith Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing for Deuter. "They are also looking for a more versatile pack. They can do a day hike in it, but it has some features that will make it good for traveling on an airline. That crossover item is where I'm seeing a lot more interest." Bags that can serve even very distinct purposes -- going to the gym, commuting to work and taking the baby to the playground, for instance -- are particularly attractive to spending-conscious consumers.

"Especially in this economy, what's serving us well is the versatility of our bags," said Jill Cartwright, founder of Go GaGa, a company that makes bags that act as diaper totes, gym bags, laptop protectors and around-town carry-alls. "Our bags all have a parenting application and a non-parenting application." For example, the Go GaGa Messenger's insulated bottle pocket fits baby bottles, 32-ounce water bottles and wine bottles -- a sell for multi-tasking, style-savvy parents and non-parents alike.

While customers may be increasingly loath to part with their cash, lifestyle bags offer a unique opportunity to sell, because they can be billed as versatile, functional, durable, and, perhaps above all, an inexpensive, low-commitment way to express one's outdoor ethos.

--Kate Siber

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