Wonk on the Wild Side

Want to experience the suicidal rush of trying to break into the outdoor gear biz? Join us now for the saga of GoLite, a crazy little startup with everything stacked against it—except for one featherweight idea whose time may have come.

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Golite got lucky. The twister handed coup something no amount of money could buy: Good OR real estate. But there's trouble lurking in the aisles. Despite all the media hype and big-bucks advertising centered around the presumption that outdoor gear is happenin', GoLite is entering a flat market. Industry-watcher Bob Woodward, who consults for outdoor companies and publishes a mercilessly frank insider newsletter called SNEWS, broods over this in a near-apocalyptic "State of the Business" editorial published just before the show. "We all have to accept that the market as we know it is going away," writes Woodward, who lives in Bend, Oregon.

The industry's annual sales, according to Outdoor Retailer magazine's State of the Market report, which is based on a survey of every shop attending its OR show, have dropped in recent years, to $4.8 billion in 1998 from $5.2 billion in 1995. The figure includes sales of tents, packs, outerwear, hiking boots, and climbing equipment—the bulk of the goods on display at the trade show—but not bass rods, firearms, and other hook-and-bullet accoutrements. It also does not include many of the hardgoods that most folks would consider to be outdoor gear—kayaks, bikes, in-line skates, skis, and snowboards, which together would make up a very healthy $7.2 billion market. But one that Coup isn't targeting. No, what GoLite's selling is high-end and wiggy backpacking gear, not the sort that Joe Sixpack can load up on at Wal-Mart, but stuff that will live or die in specialty shops, which sell about a third of what chains do. That means Coup is trying to bust into what is, at best, a $1.6 billion market.

Backpacking may have been the craze that got the masses into high-tech boondocking in the first place, but these days it's limited in popularity. Woodward says it's a more difficult sell now than it was in the 1970s, when he managed a shop in California. "We didn't have to compete with mountain biking," observes the 59-year-old pundit. "The whitewater kayak market was fledgling, and sea kayaks were a British phenomenon. Now all these things are vying for the consumer's attention." About 15 million Americans go backpacking once a year. But according to a study commissioned by the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, there were only 2.2 million backpacking enthusiasts in the country this year, slightly fewer than the number of avid canoeists, and a slide from 2.6 million in 1997. (ORCA defines a backpacking enthusiast as an adult who camps at least a quarter-mile from a trailhead, at least nine times a year.) Worse, opines Woodward, is that backpacking is largely a baby-boomer pastime, and the kids are buying toys to fuel their adrenaline. Woodward says he's heard stories of young staffers at REI referring to the backpacking department as "the geriatric ward."

The niche isn't the only thing old about GoLite's venture. OR vets have heard the ultralight drumbeat before and have watched companies march right into financial oblivion. Sierra West, a 1971 launch, is best remembered for its failed Lite Gear line. (The company survived by morphing into Big Dog Sportswear.) Mont-Bell faltered in the American market but lives on in its native Japan. The lone surviving ultralight purveyor, a New Hampshire mail-order business called Stephenson's Warmlite, has its own...issues. Founder John Stephenson hates clothing altogether, and so the catalog shows its models au naturel.

Some blame big-company dominance for the failure of ultralight; others point to an ingrained perception that light equals flimsy. Consumers expect gear to evolve by accretion, which explains why we have things like three-pound parti-colored rain jackets sewn of umpteen panels, and seven-pound webbing-festooned packs that look like intergalactic wedding dresses. More is an easier sell than less. And contrarian ideas, which consumers must buy to buy GoLite, are tougher.

On the other hand, what's wrong about GoLite could turn out to be right. "If any time is right, now is it," says Michael Hodgson, a respected industry gear maven and former technical editor for Outdoor Retailer. He thinks he's spotted a wave of resentment against overembellished clothing and gear, and thus a yen to buy light and plain. The fall 1999 Patagonia catalog, for instance, opens with a paean to simplicity and subtraction very much in the GoLite vein. Could it be a sign that Coup has a market wave to ride? Or is it that the big kahunas are going to get on their giant boards and plow him under?

Whatever the future holds, history says that Coup has assigned himself a hazardous mission. Mark Erickson, one-third partner and namesake of Erickson Outdoors, says that the industry offers "a high potential for self-delusion." Wildernessy business, like wilderness itself, tends to dazzle first-timers. The outdoor market can seem like a world entire, but rookies forget that its annual sales are less than half those of Toys "R" Us. People want in for all sorts of unbusinesslike reasons. But nobody in his right mind would get into industrial lubricants, say, for idealistic reasons, or because it was sexy. Or would he?

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