Coming to America: Why more European outdoor brands are crossing the pond

More European brands are making their North American debuts. That's good news for specialty retailers looking for more variety on their shelves.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

In a world where everyone wants their share in the almighty dollar, outdoor companies are no different, and a growing number are finding their way to Outdoor Retailer to introduce themselves to that market. Manufacturers say there’s no better way to make the necessary connections and put yourself in front of American retailers, but the ones gaining ground — and floorspace — at the shows, say there are a few keys to making it work when you’re crossing the pond. The secret to success boils down to a familiar axiom: Adapt or die.

“International companies that want to play in the U.S. market in outdoor have to be present here. This is the menu,” said John Walbrecht, president of Fenix Outdoor North America, which owns the Swedish brand Fjällräven as well as Han Wag, Primus and Brunton. “But I think a lot of them naively believe, if you build it, they will come.”

Two years ago, Walbrecht and the public relations manager for Fjällräven were sitting in a 10-by-10-foot booth, a space they’d inherited from a 60-year-old company that had introduced itself to the U.S. two years earlier. This year, they’re in 2,000 square feet, complete with a Ford Eco-Trek truck topped by a two-person tent.

“We’ve grown as a brand 1,000 percent in two years,” Walbrecht said.

Coming to the market with a bit of humility was key.

“The U.S. market doesn’t respond well to arrogance,” Walbrecht said. “Your ego from somewhere else doesn’t carry. You’re only as good as what you bring to the market.”

Berghaus, from the U.K., is making its OR show debut with a line of packs and outerwear with HydroDown insulation patterned to allow breathability where it’s needed and pack in the warmth where it’s not. Bo Johnson, vice president sales and marketing for Berghaus, said he and Berhaus’ president, Walt Crate, started the two-year process of relaunching the brand in the United States in part because the technology and products were ready, but so were the American markets.

“Berghaus came over in 2007 and looked at the U.S. market, but then the recession put a big damper on that,” Johnson said. “They decided to make a bigger investment in the Asian market and shelve the U.S. market until it rebounded.”

Johnson and Crate talked that timeline up at a dozen trade shows they’ve been doing in various regions around the country, and they knew OR couldn’t be left off the circuit.

“It’s important to capture mindshare early with our retail targets, but also be in front of them throughout the sell-in window, and this is the culmination of the sell-in window for apparel,” Crate said.

“Obviously, it’s an important show for the North American market, and as a European brand it’s really important that they have some exposure in North America,” said Meredith Maldonado, public relations manager for Sigg of Switzerland, which has been coming to the show for about eight years. “Consumerism in America is much more strong than it is in Europe. People buy just to buy.”

“We’ve been growing at 30 percent since we’ve been coming to OR. It’s an essential component to our business,” said Eric Henderson, communications manager for Italy’s Salewa and Dynafit, which debuted at OR in 2010 and 2007, respectively. “I think that what we’re finding is that by opening the doors in North America it actually opens up more doors globally. ... They thrive off that energy that is produced by the U.S. market.”

Americans are drawn to the European heritage and the sense of community that comes with the brand — along with decades of wisdom from making outdoor gear, but gear must be adjusted to be specific to the North American market.

“The way you know [a product is] appropriate is, you come to the shows and know the trends and talk to people and make the appropriate adjustments to product and color, and then everybody’s happy,” said Drew Simmons, founder/president of Pale Morning Media, which represents manufacturers from England, Spain, Germany and Norway, including Dale of Norway, Buff and Deuter. “It requires a certain amount of confidence and flexibility to make it work, because you have to make some adjustments while staying true to your brand. The brands that have done that have stayed and resonated and succeeded, and the brands that have been very rigid and come to the show and decided to say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ don’t always stick around.”

Are European brands edging out their domestic competitors?

“I do think in certain categories, it’s a market-share battle,” Simmons said. “There aren’t a whole lot of brand-new categories coming to the show, so if you see more brands here, they’re trying to get a piece of a pie that’s finite.”

That said, it’s still tough to be the new kid in class.

--Elizabeth Miller

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update ...read more