Millet seeks to expand its U.S. presence, exclusively, one store at a time

Under the guidance of Mark Shaughnessy, Millet, a company headquartered just outside of Chamonix, France, has quietly been growing its presence in the United States by treating its band of retailers according to the company motto: "Each Experience Is Unique."
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Under the guidance of Mark Shaughnessy, Millet, a company headquartered just outside of Chamonix, France, has quietly been growing its presence in the United States by treating its band of retailers according to the company motto: "Each Experience Is Unique."

Though Millet's direct-to-retail distribution concept has been in place since 2003, Millet's U.S. program remains modest in size, with 23 retailers accounting for 79 total doors (up from four retailers in 2003). The company asserts that it considers this number to be quite successful and in line with its plans for continued, but careful growth.

The program is, if anything, completely unique. There is no U.S. distributor, no U.S. office with shipping and receiving facilities, no U.S. billing office and no U.S. sales force -- other than Shaughnessy that is. Millet ships directly to each retailer, and retailers place orders directly with the company, each receiving goods in mass shipments. There is some opportunity for ASAP fill-ins, but not much and there is no guarantee, Shaughnessy told us. Once a retailer sells through something, that is it for the most part, which lends to the exclusive nature of the brand, retailers who carry Millet told us.

The company also prohibits selling on the Web, and leaves it up to what it terms its "coalition of retailers" to decide what prices the Millet goods will be sold at in each store. While one store may decide to sell a jacket for $500, another in a different region may decide that $550 or $450 is the magic number for it. Perhaps most importantly, and music to many retailers' ears, is the fact that distribution is very, very tightly controlled.

"Once we open up a retailer in a particular region, and we work together with our retailer in the area to determine how that region is to be defined, Millet will not open up any other dealer in that region, period," Shaughnessy told SNEWS® during our visit to a dealer sales meeting held, naturally, in Chamonix.

Jeff Smith, co-owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, a Millet dealer since 2004, told us that because distribution is so exclusive, it makes Millet product all the more profitable to sell.

For Blue Ridge, Millet began as a 35-piece assortment in 2004 carried in only a few of the company's stores. By fall 2005, the line had grown to a 60-piece assortment and was being offered in all 13 stores, with plans to grow the offering even more.

"Our success with Millet did not happen overnight, and it did not happen without a lot of effort, but that effort is completely worth it," Smith said. "We are successful with the brand because we chose to do the things necessary to be successful."

Smith told us that he and his buying team went to each store, holding clinics for all of his retail staff. They were told why Millet was being carried, what products were being brought in, and what the store's expectations were for those products. Direct-mail promotions were sent to customers. Window displays and merchandising programs were established -- all designed to highlight and call attention to the Millet product that the Blue Ridge buyers had brought in. Smith also created a Millet Sales Contest to reward his staff for matching "a customer's needs with Millet product, not selling someone something they don't need."

Prizes were a Millet W3 Gore Soft Shell jacket to each retail staff person who sold $750 in Millet product and then getting a name entered into a drawing for every $1,500 of Millet product sold for a grand prize. The grand prize? An all-expenses paid trip to France with the Blue Ridge Mountain Sports buying team on one of the company's Millet buying trips.

The fact that Millet products are very good doesn't hurt the sale opportunities either. We noticed, during our visit to Chamonix, that many of the fabric packages Millet is offering to its dealers in the United States are only available to European companies as they are exclusive to Gore Europe. That means waterproof outerwear with stretch components not available in the United States -- yet. The craftsmanship is excellent to be sure, and retailers told us that the product they had on their shelves is every bit as good, if not better, than much of the product available to them from U.S. base companies.

"Those extra features, extra attention to details, is what allows a retailer to be able to garner a higher margin dollar by justifying a higher price, and that makes the sale worthwhile," said Rob Santa, president of Sturtevants in Idaho.

Currently, the Millet U.S. dealership base includes: Acadia Shop, Mass.; Ashland Outdoor, Ore.; Backwoods, Kan.; Basin Ski, Vt.; Blue Ridge, Va.; Cadillac Mountain Sports, Maine; Environeers, Fla.; Hoigaards, Minn.; Marmot Mountain, Wash.; Midwest Mountaineering, Minn.; Mountain Chalet, Colo.; Mountain Edge, N.Y.; Neptune, Colo.; Paragon, N.Y.; Peter Glenn Ski and Sport, Fla.; Phillip Gall's Outdoor & Ski, Ky.; Puritan Clothing, Mass.; Retail Investments, N.H.; Snow Country, N.Y.; Sturtevants, Idaho; Sugarloaf Ski Shop, Maine; Ute Mountaineer, Colo.; and Whole Earth Provisions, Texas.

Shaughnessy told SNEWS® that he's looking for more retailers, but carefully. "I'm being very selective, wanting retailers only if they are willing to fully commit to supporting the Millet brand in return for higher margins and a brand that has cache and presents huge opportunities for a retailer to grow the margins."

To find out more about the program, email Shaughnessy at mark.ars@verizon.net.

SNEWS® View: After sitting through two days of Millet line presentations in Chamonix (yes, it was hell having to sit indoors with the mountains calling softly to us through the windows and walls), we have to say we're impressed and sold. Heck of a concept, and perhaps most impressive was the fact that even the designers of the company -- many of them expert climbers, skiers, mountaineers -- would listen intently to input from U.S. retailers and the lone media hack regarding needed product modifications. On one occasion, a product was going to be modified after much going back and forth just because it became clear to the Millet gang that what worked beautifully in Europe would not work so well in the United States. Ah, so refreshing. But take Blue Ridge's Jeff Smith at his word -- unless you are willing, as a retailer, to put in a significant amount of your own time and energy to grow the brand in terms of merchandising, promotion, staff awareness, customer awareness and more, Millet, as good as it is, will do nothing more than languish expensively on your sales floor -- and the failure will not be Millet's fault. Like mining for gold, you have to dig or pan if you want to get what glitters -- you can't just sit by the glimmering stream and hope.

Will all Millet products sell in all stores? Not by any stretch of the imagination. And while Shaughnessy works with his retailers to help them ensure they are getting the best mix for their region, the decision as to what will and will not sell is left entirely up to a retailer and his or her knowledge of the market. Size too is a bit of an issue, but one that retailers told us is relatively easy to overcome -- as long as the staff is well trained to know what adjustments to make. Bottom line here is Millet needs sales support to make the sale work. Whether or not that is worth the time and effort is up to you. Retailers we spoke with in Chamonix and a few others we've spoken to since are all smiles.

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