Nextec Applications bravely kicked off Winter Market with a -- yikes! -- 7 a.m. seminar titled "Demystifying the Rapidly Emerging Soft Shell Category" that surprised even seminar moderator (aka referee) SNEWS®' own Michael Hodgson with its attendance numbers -- just over 200 by one count.
Seems more than just a handful of folks were seeking demystification about a category some would say is too mystifying for them to truly understand, let alone the consumer.
"What are these things for?" said Solstice's Don Pattison, scratching his head and offering his view of the soft shell situation. "Yes, we have one in our line, but I can't figure out what the best use for it is yet. So far, riding my motorcycle to work is where it performs best."
TNF's Mike Egeck said, "Our athletes really love the concept and what we've produced for them. What we're trying to figure out is how that will play with the general consumer." Egeck says the company will be offering soft shells at several different prices in the future.
Could it be that soft shells were an answer looking for a question? Some manufacturers came to the show with "soft shell" product, but hadn't called it that -- until after the talks began.
For the record, SNEWS® pointed out from the start that this category isn't new at all. In fact, even an oiled wool sweater, by the current still-malleable definition is a soft shell. Most people will say that a soft shell is: sometimes stretchable, always breathable, certainly compressible, absolutely highly water-resistant, and without a doubt made with fabrics (mostly abrasion-resistant) that can be woven, knit, or non-woven.
SNEWS® moderator Hodgson also pointed out that Europe has been selling this category there for nearly 20 years, with Mammut and Schoeller leading the way. And although marketing spin wants to label the products as "newly discovered" outside of Europe, it's not really new since Cloudveil and others been selling products in this category to U.S consumers for several years now.
Thanks to an excellent and balanced scientific presentation by Randy Meirowitz, vice president and technical officer for Nextec, and panelist presentations by Patagonia's Mark Galbraith and GoLite's Russ Bevans – how can you go wrong with those two on any panel? -- the tone was set early on for an hour and a half of energetic discussion.
The decision? There remains no clear way to define this category, and perhaps that is OK. Most, though not all of the seminar attendees did agree that all the designs currently in the workbooks and in the works based on "soft shell" fabric technology offer this industry a shot in the arm for the next great sales growth opportunity.
Soft shell? Hard shell? Who cares! It became quite clear that marketing hype and a search for an impossible definition weren't very important to retailers at the seminar. Being told and shown through POP displays and training how to best sell each and every garment was the paramount issue.
Galbraith pointed out that placing a customer into the correct ensemble of hard shell and soft shell layers is reliant on determining three things: the intended activity, the duration of the activity, and the the anticipated weather conditions during the activity.
Depending on the answers given, a retailer might need to offer the customer any one of literally dozens of soft-shell choices because even in soft shells, there are so many performance variables -- yet another reason why a singular definition will be so hard to arrive at.
Galbraith also reminded everyone that selling hard shells and soft shells weren't activities that were mutually exclusive. A customer needs both a hard shell and a soft shell, and will often need to pack both during an extended outing, meaning compactness and weight become critical issues.
At the conclusion of the seminar, Nextec announced it will conduct a follow-up discussion and gathering during Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in August.