Despite weak economy, Bic Sport launches U.S. kayak line

Long-time windsurfing company Bic Sport launched a North American subsidiary at the beginning of the year and has introduced a new recreational kayak line.
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Long-time windsurfing company Bic Sport launched a North American subsidiary at the beginning of the year and has introduced a new recreational kayak line.

Buoyed by the success of its kayak debut in Europe nearly a year ago, Bob Hunnewell, general manager of Bic Sport North America (www.bicsportkayaks.com) told SNEWS there's room for Bic's boats in the market and sees kayaks as a natural extension of Bic's manufacturing capabilities.

"Bic is a worldwide brand. It's not so much that there's (worldwide) oversaturation at this point (in the kayak market). The kayak market overall is seeing huge growth in Europe. All the major chains -- big box and specialty -- have taken it on in France. It's done very well in the UK so far. We're gradually working through Europe," Hunnewell said.

"I think with any market you're going to have many players coming in. At the end of the day, it's going to whittle down to the few players that are most significant, the most meaningful and can bring the most innovation and value into the market. I think when companies like Bic get into the market and show that commitment, the resources it can put against it, and the quality of the construction and design, those companies at the end of the day are going to be left standing when others have been worked away," he added.

Part of Hunnewell's optimism about the launch in the last month stems from the company's manufacturing process used to make the first two sit-on-top models. Designed and built in France, the top and bottom of the kayak are fused together seamlessly using Twin Sheet Technology. The process uses vacuum-formed polyethylene producing a more durable and impact-resistant hull, according to Hunnewell. Also, the company can produce hulls with contrasting colored decks and hulls.

"The product is unique, it's different. It's a different construction, a different look, a different coloration than what's out there. Price points are consistent with the meat of the market. There's been a lot of interest from guys who've seen it and we have orders," Hunnewell said.

Targeting specialty shops and larger box stores, the solo Bilbao retails for $499 and the tandem Tobago is $649, both of which Hunnewell said can have 40-plus margins based on the retailer's booking program. The company plans to add two more models by Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in August where it will exhibit for the first time. Eventually, Bic plans to add a classic model with a cockpit.

Hunnewell said Bic's foray into kayaks is a long-term proposition; it has 12 reps across the country -- all with experience in the watersport market.

"Bic has been doing watersport products, and its history is very rich in maritime and watersport things," he said. "This is just the next step to show that kayaks work very well with our process. Our manufacturing method is unique and no one else is doing it. People who have seen (the kayaks) are very impressed with the quality and the overall strength of the design. We feel very strongly that we're going to have a major impact in the market."

SNEWS View: Hunnewell has a lot of faith in the Bic Sport name and touts its market leadership in windsurfing for the past 20 years. When that market declined in the late '80s, Bic's units continued to grow and its market share of that shrunken market remains high. However, the company is now entering a market with established players -- Ocean Kayak, Cobra, Wilderness Systems, Hobie, and WaterMark (Islander and Mainstream). Ocean is by far the dominant player, with a majority share of the North American market that experts place at between 50,000 and 60,000 units sold annually. Estimates for the size of the worldwide market hover slightly below 100,000 units annually. While Hunnewell touts Bic's success in the United Kingdom, that country's sit-on-top sales are considered insignificant ones in the worldwide market. France is by far the larger European market, according to insiders who spoke with SNEWS. Our initial take is that Bic has a legitimate shot to have an impact, though whether that impact will be simply grabbing market share from current players, or expanding the size of the market remains to be seen. A number of the reps currently signed on with the company are top notch and would not associate with a brand that wasn't going to be a player. Too, the margins being offered retailers are good, as are the price points. Though we have not personally seen the boats yet, initial reports from those not associated with Bic who have seen them are quite glowing. Hunnewell did make it clear to us that while he expects a few of Bic's windsurfing customers to pick up the kayaks, the company's main focus is pushing into small and larger specialty stores outside the windsurfing spectrum.

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