The Merrell team flew into town a few weeks ago to give SNEWS® an advance peek at the company's new product launch -- a line of packs and bags designed for urban use and travel.
Why packs and bags for a footwear company?
"The market decided for us in a sense," Jacques Lavertue, president of the Wolverine World Wide Inc., Outdoor Group, told us. "If you really take a look at the sporting goods market in certain quarters in Europe, it is almost expected that a footwear company have a bag line to complement their other products."
The company was trying to figure out where and how to grow, while comfort and travel was already a part of the Merrell brand story to which Lavertue said customers related well. So heading into luggage and bags didn't seem like such a stretch.
"I have made it clear to our accounts that we will be holding our distribution very tight, and yet they also know we need to find ways to extend our brand and grow our business. Packs and socks are a perfect way to extend our brand without compromising our distribution," said Lavertue. "It's also a very good marketing piece as branding presence is extremely high with bags."
The pack and bag line has been in the planning and development stages for more than 18 months, with company designers, consultants, advisors, and others spending time in malls, luggage stores, train stations, bus stations, airports and on planes to watch and see how people used their bags and travel luggage.
Lavertue told us that the growth expectations Merrell has for the bag and pack line are very careful and conservative.
"Bags and packs will still be a very small percentage of our overall business in the next year, certainly less than 5 percent. We will choose the right people to retail and wholesale the line, and we are being very, very careful in our approach to protect the brand equity we have."
Bob Boland, sales manager for Merrell accessories, indicated that while the company is currently selling into 70 countries outside of the U.S. the sales goals for the bag line are a bit less expansive with the plan to sell into 24 of the 70 in the next year.
There are no illusions that the Merrell's new offering will serve to stimulate growth in the market however.
"I think we are going to be taking market share," Lavertue indicated. "Fundamentally, in the outdoor and shoe world, we are dealing with a relatively flat to down market so anytime you sell a product into that market, you are taking someone else's share. No doubt this is a share war and one we are prepared to wage."
Certainly, looking at Merrell's customer service rankings, marketing strength, and the ability to invest in a product to ensure it gets the right sell-through bode well for the success of the company's product launch. Couple that with the successful shop-in-shop programs the company has launched and luggage suddenly doesn't seem like such a huge leap after all.
One thing Lavertue did assure us: Merrell will NOT get into watches and sunglasses. To which we answer with a huge sigh of relief.
Overall, our impressions of the bag and pack line from Merrell is two-thumbs-up.
Boland told us that the concept of the entire line revolves around the idea that everything serves as "shelter for your stuff," and that resonates throughout.
Every bag and pack has nesting components that house and protect computers, cell phones, other electronics, and personal belongings.
The two lines, Outventure for the more traditional outdoor and adventure travel niche and Transit for the more urban appeal, have component details that are both visually inspired as well as pleasant to touch. Handles feel sturdy, yet comfortable with a textured finish that just plain felt good. The Exo-Shell concept with compression-molded exterior panels provides a look that is pleasing and unique, while offering protection for a bag's contents. Bright color blocking inside each bag is both visually appealing and useful as the color contrast helps bag contents not get lost in big black pockets and corners. We particularly thought the Transit line stood out in its unique style and shapes.
Which of the lines caught our eyes?
1940 Duffle (Transit) -- It's a retro and somewhat funky look, reminiscent of what Bogart might have carried when traveling. But beneath the sleek style that catches the eyes, the 2,400-cubic-inch bag is all function. Essentially, it is a duffle bag that opens like a book or, if you prefer food comparisons, clam shells. The center divider panel is packed with organizing pouches and a variety of straps.
Belluna Mini Tote (Transit) – For those who hate purses but still need to carry a few bare essentials, this is a great bag. Weather-sealed zippers help to keep the elements out when dodging the odd raindrop or two, while also protecting wallet or trinkets. Various utility nests help to keep items like a cell phone and PDA organized. Neoprene pockets allow for a certain amount of flexibility when storage needs vary. We want this one for a fashionable yet practical everyday look.
Metrognome (Transit) -- We love the felt shoulder strap and the overall design of this shoulder bag, including the curved ergonomic shape of the handle. The computer nest allows quick and easy access from the side, with is a major bonus for those times you need to whip out your notebook for airport security or for a quick email check. Inside, there are plenty of nifty utility nests to help keep small stuff organized and located for quick access -- like a PDA or digital camera – as well as a deep outside pocket for tickets or other documents, but one with a zipper for security. This would serve as a great smallish briefcase.
Primo Backpack (Transit) -- Just what we've been looking for in an organized carry-all for a computer, files and other stuff. There is even a hidden back panel (of course, now everyone knows it's there) for valuable docs. The computer nest is well positioned for both easy access and maximum protection. And, get this, it's a fashionable hand-carry bag or, for those times your hands are overloaded, it has straps to carry it as a backpack. Side gussets hold contents in place even when the bag is open.
Pulse (Outventure) – A 35-liter carry-on bag that also converts to a backpack. Have it your way, as they say. Handles on front and top allow easy lifting and carrying. Nesting once again takes priority, and inner mesh pockets organize (and, yes, shelter) all your little stuff inside.