Friday, April 3, 2009

The Outdoor Industry

Was the subject of an email I received this week from a dear and old friend, someone I've been happy and proud to have known pretty much my whole life, (with a few decades off every now and again). It went on;

.... is an industry with which I'm hardly familiar anymore.

I went to REI to get a basic dayback... they had none... all were overly tricked out, and prices started at ~$90... seems the peoples coop has gone shi-shi upscale... and their customer base has drunk the cool aid too!

So I went to Chez Target... they had exactly what I needed, well made, in exactly the right color (U of Texas Orange) for $28... plus they seemed to have much of the same basic camping stuff we sold at Appalachian Outfitters, and still at 1970's prices.

Grandma Gatewood advised... "Make a rain cape, and an over the shoulder sling bag, and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes. Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages... most everything else to eat you can find beside the trail... and by the way those wild onions are not called "Ramps"... they are "Rampians" ... a ramp is an inclined plane."

Now, Granma Gatewood was a sharp one alright, she knew more then than I know now, but I'll differ on the ramps, ramps is ramps. What it is.

For those of you who don't know

A reply came in from one of the folks Cc'd on this email that went like this;

(note, I have edited this stuff, it's not posted verbatim. I did this to obfuscate identities. In some cases I didn't want to impact folks's standing in the industry, in other cases, I just didn't have permission to quote them.)

$28 seems a bit high, I got a perfectly comfortable and functional, daypack at an outlet store in WV for $19.00.
When I was in Burlington VT in Feb, there is nice outdoor store there with a used section in the back. Nice name brand coats in excellent condition from $10-$40.
(that's where I snagged the snowshoes that I schlepped around Wheeler Lake with in Feb)
I have been meaning to bail on my REI credit card ...

Anyway, I had to respond, as I have some rather strong opinions on matters such as this:

I got heart burn with both approaches.

The Target (pronouced 'ar-jay) Boutique approach, just means all the
stuff was made by slaves, literally, But it's 'ar-jay, so that's expected.

The REI approach:

(PS, dearest mutual friend, well respected equipment designer,
calls all that 'stuff' added to what would have been a useful piece of
gear 'doodads' and the marketing folks are very clear on all gear
must have them. Lots of doodads, because, like you pointed out,
if the gear doesn't have doodads, it will collect dust on the shelf)

From a rant posted on the bike touring (phred) list a while back
for your reading pleasure:

Hey All:

Not sure how phredish I R, but my camping gear is near
and dear to me, and is the source of endless ranting for
me. So, those who don't like rants, please just move on.

Was long about '73, I finally had saved up enough money
for my first 'real' backpack. Here in these appalachian
mountains, and I studied it all real hard, and took my
hard earned $75 and hitch hiked down to Oakton Va, (a
days trip) to purchase a Kelty Mountaineer bag and frame.

Much to my chagrin, the solid old-skool 5 bar mountaineer
frame, was no longer 5 horizontal welded bars, but rather
3 welded, and 2 bolted with bushings. 'Oh, it's much
better' the sales man said, I inquired further, 'oh,
Kelty was purchased by Airstream, and we're not sure
where they are taking the product, but it's still good.'
was the story behind the story.

Time marches on, the trend was clear. REI, that co-op
out west, used to sell the good ole peter storm oiled
wool sweater, best piece of outdoor equipment I ever owned.
Then came the rise of the zombie synthetics. Eddie Bauer
used to have good down stuff, folks actually used it.
I had an e/b down parka that served me well for many
years, the adventures I had with it, ahh, the days.

REI dropped stuff like the ubiquitous svea stove, the
wool sweaters, the leather boots, took on more and
more REI branded stuff, MSR came to rule the roost.
My own experiences with MSR being less than joyful.
The MSR thunderbird ice axe, the one with the pinned
head? the one that was notorious for breaking? the
one with the aluminum shaft, that stole the heat
from your hands if you used it? They called themselves
Mountain Safety Research. With stoves that still have
a sketchy reputation in some circles, and so on.
Now REI is filled up with that stuff, seems, after
all this time, it's also a 'brand' that's directly
associated with REI, along with PUR. Ever notice
how some 'brands' are all co-marketed together?

I guess it was about nearly 20 years ago, when I got
my annual spring sale flier from REI that advertised
cheap Teva sandals. I ran down after work, to be
in on the first day of the sale, and happily bought
my next few years worth of sandals, as I got about
2 years out of a pair, and I bought 2 pairs for
less than $30 a pair, Oh, Happy Day!
Then I actually looked at what I bought. They were 1/2
as thick as my old ones, the straps, thinner, the
velcro coverage, merely a fraction. They were cheap
knock-off like things. 'An REI Exclusive'. Seems
-and this has the trappings of hear-say- the first
of the soon coming boom of pacific rim manufactured
Teva. You see, up until then, Teva sandals were actually
made by Teva people, who lived here, in this country,
and used the products they made. Like Chaco. But
now, you see, Teva became an REI associated brand,
and was no longer a product, but a life style brand.

And so it goes. horrible smelling polypro replaced
stinking oiled wool. It worked nearly as well,
sorta, cost much less to manufacture, sold for similar,
made much more money for the retailer, and offered
an okay, predictable product. Even at our favorite
co-op, that has neatly driven all the old mom-and-pops
out of the game long long ago. (well, not all, there
are still some around, but even they feed the rei
maw, selling msr/pur/etc) margins matter. Get something
nearly as good, but at a much better price point, and
the 'consumer' will go for it. Hook, line and sinker.

And that's okay, because most folks never actually use
this stuff.

A petzl headlamp, and a princeton headlamp. Similar product,
similar price. One made in europe, by folks with a standard
of living similar to that of the folks who buy it, one
made by folks who don't. which has a better margin?

Even Chaco now makes it's stuff in the pac rim. They
were really expensive, but at least I had some confidence
that the folks who made them, knew what they were for. Now,
it's all about the brand.

I look high and low for stuff made by small shops, dedicated
to the task of putting out stuff that works. I'm not all that
interested in supporting the co-op anymore. Haven't been for
years really.

I can still get Peter Storm sweaters, if you know what I mean,
lemme know, and I'll tell you where. Yes, they are still made,
and they are still good.

Some other folks:

plenty more.

In the end, I learn more about the gear by talking
to the folks who make it, than the folks who
sell it. If there is no talk to the folks who make
it, maybe that's an issue. It is for me anyway.

Rather buy from a shop that *doesn't* pay a nickle
to madison ave, than one that does. But that's just

Now, to the initial point of day packs, I still have the day pack I bought from the original poster at his shop all those long decades ago. It was made by Eagle Creek, which at the time, wasn't really a brand, was stuff made by folks who used it. It is a classic open top with pocket flap. The straps are wool felt padded leather, sewn to flat webbing, american made fastec fasteners with good hinge pins on grommets. Made of ballistic nylon (not 'cordura) and a leather bottom and crampon/ski patches and a real ice axe loop and diamond. *NOT* doodads. Functional stuff. 2 winters ago, before a trip up to the UP, I took some time to hand stitch up some of the seams that had come loose after all the years, and treat the leather for the first time ever. And by the way, I paid $90 for it, THEN.

As to doodads, creeping feature-ism (feeping creaturism) here's another blog

And as a footnote, another vendor who simply just 'does it right', in pretty much every way one can imagine. Why anyone uses anything else is a mystery to me.

Well, okay, sure. There is no mass merchandising of stuff like this, so how could folks use it if they don't know about it? Fair enough.


The afore mentioned 'well respected equipment designer/builder' emailed me with a followup to the email that started all this, he had this to say:

From an industry insider's perspective your commentary is right on. Knock off and quality step downs happen all the time and are bean counter choices, guys who never get out who don't know how the difference between excellent and good can mean life or death in some circumstances... like.... try undoing knots in an ice storm with no gloves or fire, you know, small stuff that really matters sometimes.

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