White Sierra seeks to cement "specialty" connection

It wasn't that long ago White Sierra embodied a brand a retailer might consider only if there were a need for a cheap product to fill a low-price niche in the product mix. Times have changed, with a shift in product quality and retailer expectations coinciding with a shift in company philosophy, led in large part by a Patagonia-alum, Andy Howe, White Sierra's vice president of business development.
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It wasn't that long ago White Sierra embodied a brand a retailer might consider only if there were a need for a cheap product to fill a low-price niche in the product mix. Times have changed, with a shift in product quality and retailer expectations coinciding with a shift in company philosophy, led in large part by a Patagonia-alum, Andy Howe, White Sierra's vice president of business development.

"Since I came on board, we have been working very hard to not only communicate our brand story better than we ever have, but better than anyone else in our market position ever has," Howe told SNEWS®.

Howe pointed out that while White Sierra has not altered its pricing structure, it has consciously altered the way the company goes about designing and producing product, and that has resulted in specialty retailers finally taking notice, and signing on.

"We made a very simple product line for a very long time, and as a result we had a very small dealer base," Howe said. "Now, we are offering more interesting product with fashion and technology that is understandable at a price that is understandable."

While it is true that the prices for products that offer more than basic lines and features are higher, the margins have not been altered, with White Sierra offering a 60 margin on average.

"I have worked with outdoor specialty retailers for so long," Howe told us. "I know that fundamentally, they have a much higher cost of service and doing business than chain stores simply because of scale, and one of the most critical things they need, along with excellent customer service and support, is a high margin line on products. I also realize that you can't take high margin percentages to the bank. You can only take high margin dollars, and that is what we are committed to providing."

Add in preseason discounts of around 7 percent to those high margin dollar numbers, and it is little wonder retailers are taking more than just a casual peek at what White Sierra offers.

"If a retailer takes advantage of our preseason discounts, combined with the higher margin dollars, suddenly, they also have a clearance strategy that still allows for healthy margins should it be needed," Howe said.

White Sierra picked up nearly 43 new specialty outdoor accounts after Summer Market, in addition to the 72 new accounts earlier in the year. Combined with specialty dealers already committed to the company as of last year, White Sierra is nearing the 400 mark for specialty retail accounts.

The company is also thinking specialty in other ways. Peter Zavertnik just joined the company in the new position of sales and customer service manager.

"Peter's primary responsibility is to establish us as a company that is proactive about customer service for our retailers, not reactive," said Howe. "We want customer service to be an outgoing function and not just a department that responds to incoming calls."

White Sierra is also pushing the envelope in terms of marketing. Although both Backpacker and Outside magazines have recently announced regional capabilities for advertisers, and Backpacker has gone one step further with specific regional issues, White Sierra believes it is the first company to take advantage of regionally-specific advertising.

In the most recent issue of Backpacker, a full-page White Sierra ad on the right page is matched by a one third vertical ad on the left page featuring key retailers that sell White Sierra product in that area. Similar ads will run in Outside.

"This is just another of our efforts to ensure our specialty retailers feel special and underscores our belief we need to assist our retailers in driving traffic to their stores from customers seeking to purchase our brand," said Howe.

In addition to all of the above, White Sierra has decided to offer a holiday collection of apparel that grew out of the company's CEO pushing Howe to come up with solutions for apparel that was ready before the traditional two-season market cycle.

Retailers were mailed a special gift packet with POP cards designed to educate the retailer, the consumer and to be fitted into POP display holders White Sierra provides. The limited-edition line of fleece products are intended to offer retailers, "something that will work from the café to the trail and yet be compelling and different and ideal for gift giving," Howe told us.

"Everything we are doing is with one goal in mind and that is to be an ideal vendor for specialty retailers because of our high margin dollars, superb customer service, and a 'we do care' attitude that is evident to our retailers in all that we do," Howe added.

SNEWS® View: We have to admit several years ago, White Sierra was on our "you've got to be kidding us" response list when requests arrived at our offices for product testing availability. Times have changed and while a lot of that is due to Howe and the team he has built, credit also has to go to the White Sierra ownership team for having the wisdom and confidence and commitment to stand behind a change -- because it has not happened overnight and has not happened without significant investment. While some emails from competitors have told us, perhaps with a bit of jealousy, that it appears as if White Sierra is simply trying to go upscale, we would counter by telling them to take a look at the last two year's worth of price sheets and product catalogs. All White Sierra appears guilty of is choosing a distribution position that appears firmly entry level, while at the same time offering a level of customer service, product quality and margin dollars that appear anything but entry level. Nicely done Mr. Howe. But don't stop now…you've only just begun.

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