Nemo turns focus from direct sales to specialty retail to ensure growth

Nemo Equipment, founded by NASA consultant and ice climbing fanatic Cam Brensinger in 2002, remains a company many retailers have heard of, but few know much about. True, Nemo created quite a buzz over its innovative approach to replacing traditional aluminum tent poles with a low-pressure pneumatic air-support system.
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Nemo Equipment, founded by NASA consultant and ice climbing fanatic Cam Brensinger in 2002, remains a company many retailers have heard of, but few know much about. True, Nemo created quite a buzz over its innovative approach to replacing traditional aluminum tent poles with a low-pressure pneumatic air-support system. With what Nemo has branded AirSupported Technology, a patented airbeam structure, a user can set up a tent in less than a minute with nothing more than a foot-powered pump.

Awards and accolades have rolled in, even if sales have not. Nemo was the overall winner in the ispo BrandNew Awards in 2005, won a Design Distinction award from ID Magazine, received a Best Innovations of 2005 award from Popular Science Magazine, was recognized as one of the Most Amazing Inventions of 2005 by Time magazine, and nabbed a Climbing magazine editor's choice award for 2006.

When SNEWS® first spoke with the Nemo team in early 2005, the company made it very clear that its goal was to be a direct sales company. Brensinger, the company's CEO and president, informed us during a May 5, 2005, interview that one of the reasons to opt for going direct was that the tents Nemo produced were so high end and technologically advanced that if he had to build in a retailer margin, the tents would become prohibitively expensive.

Still, we wondered then how a relatively unknown company with a radically new product technology could hope to achieve success if specialty retail was not part of the package, and sat back to watch.

In a late December 2005 follow-up interview, Brensinger told us that while his original hope was to opt for mostly direct sales, it was not to cut out the retailer. The company's goal was to know who all of its customers were and offer a better retail price. However, a lack of physical interaction with the consumer was holding back sales.

"What we discovered is that we were asking a lot of a consumer to go to website, as good as ours was, and glean enough information from it to buy a premium product that they have never seen before," Brensinger told us.

By watching customers interact with its tents in the few specialty stores that carried them, Nemo learned that despite its website and article write-ups, customers still wanted to actually see the tent. Consumers wanted the opportunity to push on it and climb into it to appreciate its quality, strength and value.

"Catalogs and websites and stuff can't replace seeing the tent in person. It is your home in the wilderness. It is natural for a customer to want to be able to imagine how they will get in and out, how they will sleep, how much room is in it, how strong it is, and how much of a portable home it will become," said Brensinger.

"Sure, we could do a better job of (our website) than we did, but I am not sure the Internet really ever takes the place of going into a store and having an informed salesperson there to answer questions. Even if we put page after page of endless dialogue along with superb interactive images, consumers want to be able to ask a good salesperson how small the tent packs up and how does it do in the rain and will single wall be as good as a double wall tent," added Brensinger.

"As one may have expected, the subsequent summer (after our first interview) was a great learning experience for us and has helped us put Nemo in perspective with a refined sales approach as we push forward into 2006. We have assembled a very strong veteran sales force in order to shift our focus from direct sales to specialty retail," said Chris Dickey, marketing and sales director for Nemo.

The rep force Nemo has lined up is very solid, Dickey said. Erik Mushial and Al Diamond of Diamond Sports will sell Nemo in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region. Diamond also reps for Gregory, Five Ten and Metolius. Chris Hall, who reps for Leki, Mad Rock, Mount Seven and Foxfury will take Nemo to retailers in the South and mid-Atlantic states. Chris Rounds, Scott Parr and Brent Anslinger of the Great Lakes Group, who also rep for Camelbak, Osprey, Yakima, Garmont, Bridgedale, Princeton Tec, Timex and Brunton, will rep Nemo in the Mideast. Bryan McDonald will handle the Midwest along with Arc'Teryx and Mad Rock. The Rocky Mountain region will be represented by David Light, who also reps for Trango, New England Ropes, eGrips and Flashed Climbing pads. Northern California and Nevada will be handled by Mark Robinson, who also reps for Mammut, Ajungilak, Barryvox, Raichle, Kahtoola and Ozone.

"Another positive that came out of our direct involvement with selling the product was a refinement of our marketing and design approach," Dickey told SNEWS®.

One of those key refinements was streamlining the construction and design of the tents, allowing retailers to offer the tents at the same price they are currently being sold direct. The end results is a strong enough margin to be profitable for both Nemo and the retailers.

"We have made some really smart refinements this year that reduce weight and size and bring the cost down," Brensinger said. "One thing we did is to tie together all the air beams, so there is single point of inflation and deflation instead of a separate point for each beam. That removed the extra cost, weight and bulk of multiple manifolds. Also, no tent has more than two beams now, which also saves significant weight and cost."

He added, "We are really excited about really becoming a part of the inside circle of the industry. We felt a bit like outsiders in the last Outdoor Retailer show in the back of the pavilion, as we were a direct sales company, (which) alienated us. This year we have moved into the main building in the corner with all the climbing companies, and that is a huge thing for us and a great statement that we have earned our place.

"Now we can work and focus on building relationships with retailers that will be a real positive thing for us," said Brensinger.  

SNEWS® View: Welcome to the neighborhood, Nemo. As we had surmised, it would be very difficult for Nemo to straddle the fence of direct sales and select specialty retail support. This is not to say that Nemo can't and shouldn't be selling its tents directly to consumers, as long as it does so at the same price as its retailers, and as long as it gives retailers the opportunity to make the sale first. However, by now admitting, correctly, that the company needs specialty retailers to showcase its premium products for the company to be successful, Nemo has embarked down a road that can and should make it a serious player in the high-end tent market. Consumers will love the simplicity and ease and performance that Nemo offers. And retailers will love that they have a specialty product that is truly that, special and worth showcasing. Best of all, Nemo has now opened the door to a world of retail that will be opened even wider as the company rolls out more innovation down the road, with products other than tents.

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