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I really hope I’m warmer from now on

I’ve spent the odd night over the past winter feeling rather cold. The most “interesting” of these was that episode in the wood-shed [1] between 3am and 6am on a Saturday morning. The absence of sleep before 3am and after 6am probably didn’t help, but I suppose I’d hoped that it would have been warmer during those 3 hours. I probably managed about an hour in total, which made for a very long and cranky Saturday of walking.

This event, and some other recent events, have convinced me that maybe it’s time to fork out some cash and replace the Kathmandu PaceSetter bag that I’ve mostly used recently. I think some people would see the words “Kathmandu” and “Sleeping Bag” in the same sentence (or any gear for that matter), and immediately think that it’s a horrible product. I don’t want to criticise it too much if I can help it, because it’s served me pretty well. At this point I still plan to use it during summer because it’s adequate and probably better suited. It’s usually okay in huts and under an open fly at the low-ish altitudes where I’ve used it, but I can vouch from my own experience that for a sleeping bag that was marketed near the top of the Kathmandu range, I still thought it was… well… flimsy and unreliable, and sometimes cold, at least when it was exposed to places that weren’t under much other shelter.

Consequently, and just in time for mid-Spring (I’m brilliant at timing), I’m now the proud but uncertain owner of a new Macpac Sanctuary 700XP sleeping bag, which I hope will turn out to be more appropriate for some of the winter-like things I want to do in the future. It’s not the warmest bag in the range, but when looking at the relative weights and the loft and down fill, it already seems much warmer than what I already have and without being any heavier.

I say I’m uncertain because I still haven’t made up my mind on what to think about the new Macpac/Fairydown combination. Macpac and Fairydown used to be New Zealand’s two flagship outdoor brands. Unlike many of the imports, they both have a history of having designed and manufactured a lot of gear targeted and suited to New Zealand conditions. It’s also great having brands with relatively local repair shops in New Zealand. For all of this kind of thing they’ve earned a lot of respect from New Zealanders over many years. Having the two traditional competitors spliced into the same company for a streamlined business model just seems weird, though.

For anyone who doesn’t know, last year a company called Mouton Noir (that’s French for “Black Sheep”) purchased the remains of Fairydown, which had gone into liquidation. It aimed to re-design the manufacturing and distribution process and make it competitive once again. This resulted in Fairydown products no longer being available in regular outdoor shops, at least in New Zealand. Mouton Noir eventually opened a small collection of Fairydown retail outlets in major New Zealand centres. They began as Fairydown Liquidation Clearance outlets, but at some point morphed into Fairydown retailers that were selling newly-manufactured products. (I’m not 100% sure if Mouton Noir owned them at the time they were clearance outlets.) I wrote some of my thoughts about this a year ago [2]. I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but I’m also coming from my own perspective which isn’t a business perspective, and it sounds as if it’d be difficult for the business to survive any other way, even if it’s sold its soul in a sense.

In February of this year, Mouton Noir also purchased Macpac. Macpac products were immediately withdrawn from all independent outdoor retailers within New Zealand. For a month or so it was sales and clearance galore for existingly-shelved Macpac products, and soon they were all gone. Practically overnight, all of the “Fairydown” retailers suddenly became “Macpac” outlets, to the extent that receipts were still printing with the “Fairydown” name while the signs outside said “Macpac”. Fairydown now exists as a product branding on some of the products in the Macpac shops and seemingly some products are still being manufactured under that brand, but the shops are all called Macpac. As of today, at least in New Zealand, my understanding is that Fairydown and Macpac branded products can now only be bought from the Macpac retailers which exist in various New Zealand centres, or via the Macpac mail order website [3]. (If anyone can correct me on any of this then by all means please do.)

Like many other people, I still don’t have much of a clear idea of exactly what’s going on here or what the implications are, whether it be about the quality of the gear, or the long term business model. There have been a couple of obvious consequences for the Macpac product range since its change of hands, however:

  1. Much of the range has disappeared, as Macpac has consolidated things into a few of its former models. This is probably to make things more efficient as the business was being made more viable. For example, since the 2006 catalogue, at least 6 of Macpac’s main range of Tramping packs have disappeared from the menu. (Specifically the Cascade, Glissade, Torre, Traverse, Nikau and Ravine.)

    Perhaps they’ll be back one day if and when the systems get sorted and there’s demand, but for now they don’t seem to be available. This is a shame because if the Macpac Ravine were still available, I think I’d have bought one. It’s a relatively light-weight cut down minimalist single-access tramping pack, which really is ideal for things like pack dragging and bush-bashing compared with all the junky imported packs available on shelves right now. I’ve independently run into quite a few people who swear by Macpac Ravines.

  2. Things have gotten cheaper. Notably, my 2008 model of a Sanctuary 700XP sleeping bag is about $200 or $300 cheaper than the previous year’s model. In practice this is great for a consumer because they’re more affordable, but it has made me wonder if the bag being sold under the same model name is actually the same bag, as opposed to something with modifications. I asked the manager in the shop who assured me that it is the same, and that the cheaper price is entirely a reflection of improved and more efficient distribution. It’s made in China, but the old ones were also made in China at least for the last few years, and so is virtually everything that’s imported from overseas these days.

    Also, in this thread [4] over on the Fishing and Hunting website, one of the Mouton Noir people (under the alias of ‘blacksheep’ on page 4 of the discussion [5]) chipped in to re-assure people that it’s only the distribution changes which are affecting the price.

Well, now I have a sleeping bag suitable for colder conditions. Whatever the outcome, I do, at least, expect it to work much more nicely in the cold than my existing one. Since they’ve been shunted around so much, Macpac and Fairydown as brands will really have to earn my trust again, but so far they haven’t produced anything I really didn’t like. I guess time will tell for sure.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "I really hope I’m warmer from now on"

#1 Comment By steve On 24 January, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

This whole deal is all very incestuous. When Jan Cameron sold Kathmandu for an absolute killing, she had a restraint of trade in her clause. For this reason, her ex-husband (Bernard) and their former accountant and another partner (unknown) who owned Mouton Noir, bought Fairydown and Macpac over a period of time. To be competitive in the market with Fairydown, they needed to acquire Macpac aswell. This has seen the brands pulled from “normal” retail outlets through the country and only accessible through the macpac concept stores. This means huge margins for Mouton Noir, as they own the stores. Instead of an independant retailer having their slice of the pie, Mouton Noir get a double share, which in turn means a slight reduction in the retail cost. Lets call this “Refined Distribution” for lack of a better word. Now Jan Cameron (Mrs Kathmandu) Has her finger in many many pies. A small share holding in Kathmandu still, shares in Postie+, Pumpkin Patch. You will also notice that Arbuckles has disappeared and Dogs Breakfast has popped up in it’s place. This is Another venture by Jan to corner the market. Quite a brilliant business lady she is! As far as the quality of macpac adn fairydown product, you will start to see this deteriorate to the degree that it will mirror Kathmandu. For those who do not know, Bernard used to own Alp Sports, who turned from a retail store, to a manufacturing company which supplied Kathmandu product. Hence the incestual nature of these outfits. Somewhere along the line, Alp Sports went bust, but this had little effect on Kathmandu as the quality of the product was not an issue, and what one factory couldn’t do, 20 others could. Pretty much just pick the one who will do what you want for the best price. So when you see that there are “Specials” on Macpac and Fairydown product, it’s not a special at all. Their market price has been established long before Mouton Noir took over. What used to cost a consumer $600, would cost a retailer $305 plus GST to stock. Then there is the manufacturing costs, which are peanuts. So if you take out the retailers piece of the pie, you get a wholesaler (effectively Mouton Noir) making a product at a cost of maybe $80, and selling for $600 retail. That’s not a bad return there. The problem is, that eventually people will become conditioned to the fact that there will always be a sale on, so nobody will ever buy anything at the supposed market retail. You can see the same things With the Briscoes group who own Rebel Sport. I don’t know of anybody who has ever bought anything from either place at full retail because they know, the next weekend, there will be 30-50% off store wide. Mind you i think good old Rod Duke may be feeling the pinch a little at the moment. But hey, thats retail for you at the moment. I am a retailer in the outdoor industry so i have a bit of an idea of what is going on and to be quite honest, it has been very sad to see the decline in quality of what used to be flagship new zealand companies as they are being bastardised by the mass production and marketing styles. We stick with the NZ made brands where we can, and use other international companies with good ethics and practices to fill in the blanks. It’s a formula which works well providing you have the point of difference, which is good personal staff who really know their product. It makes the world of difference!

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 31 January, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

Hi Steve.

Thanks for the comment. Macpac and Fairydown have already deteriorated as far as what they’re offering, I think. Macpac no longer makes anywhere near as much variety, and it’s harder to get independent retail advice when they won’t allow the brand to be sold through independent outlets. I won’t be at all surprised if the manufacturing quality deteriorates over time, but I suppose that remains to be seen. I’m wondering if some of the customer relations is going down the drain, too. Some time after I posted this, I sent an email to the customer service address advertised on Macpac’s website to ask if there were any plans to re-start manufacturing of some of the pack models they’ve discontinued, and I didn’t receive any response despite re-sending it several times. Then I sent it direct to a Macpac support staff member who’d responded to another email a few months before, and didn’t receive any response to that either. Or perhaps my email was simply lost.

Even if you ignore the whole Jan Cameron thing, I think what puts me off most is that New Zealand is already full of products that are targeted at overseas markets — they might be suitable for NZ conditions, but more frequently we just get whatever there is and if it doesn’t work over here, that’s too bad.

Mouton Noir appears to have set itself up to compete on the international market, and to me it seems as if Macpac is just another brand that’s out there to design things targeted at much larger markets, and let New Zealanders scoop up whatever’s left over. I’d say the same for Fairydown, but I’m not even sure why they still keep it going considering it’s presented as some kind of also-ran brand to Macpac. I wonder if they’re simply trying to capitalise on whatever remaining Fairydown brand loyalty exists in New Zealand, and will eventually kill it off.

In any case, given that Mouton Noir is primarily targeting overseas markets, I don’t really see why I should treat them very differently (or any differently) than other manufacturers. When it came down to it, I think I only bought this particular sleeping bag because it appeared to be the most appropriate of what was available at the time, rather than some kind of undying loyalty to Macpac as a brand.

I honestly don’t want to criticise Mouton Noir too much because it’s just their business model and it’s their right to run it how they see fit for whatever end goals they want to. On the other hand, I just don’t personally have as much loyalty towards the new company with this new model.

If you haven’t already seen them, this topic has already come up in several places around this weblog. Notably in [12] (which was partly a follow-up to this post but attached to a different post), and [2], which I already linked to above.

#3 Comment By campbell On 3 February, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

Hi folks,

Mike- you have chosen well in your bag- it is the same as pre-change of ownership (apart from the price). It will serve you well..

Steve- actually Macpac make a lot more variety than we did 2 years ago- just not so much duplication of product (remember there are differences between a wholesale brand that sells to retailers and a retail brand). There are maybe a couple of old favourites missing from the line, but they’ll be back after their development/ refreshes are complete..

And I’m not why you presume we make a killing- your logic is fundamentally flawed- previously the business made a margin selling to retailers. that margin covered the cost of head office, cost of goods, warehousing etc and a profit margin. we still have these costs. retailers then on sold at a mark up, which gave them a margin to cover their costs, rents/wages/advertising etc and a margin for profit. we also have all of these costs too. However, the mark up along the way is reduced now as the pricing reflects- so your presumptions are misplaced- the main advantage is to control our stock- if things are overstocked we can put them on promotion etc and therefore be better positioned as a business. It is tough ensuring a retailer ranges your product, displays it favorably, and not push another brand in preference that offers them a better margin (as macpac was finding had become the situation here)
You say you are a retailer in the industry so why do you presume our business has not the retail costs that yours has?? (by the way, you are mis-guided about several other points ie: Jan owning part of kathmandu, about her and some accountant being owners of macpac, about our quality going south- same fabric/same designs/same factories/same spec…) sounds a bit loaded point of view to me..
we are very much driven by making products for NZ. That is our home and to be frank the toughest audience, so perhaps we slip in a more fashion based colour, but that is superficial / never at the cost of product.
Myself , Bernie and Pierre own 100% of this business (1/3 each)- the former owner of macpac approached us, we cannot afford to run both fairydown and macpac ranges as they were 10 years ago (and in so many ways that wouldn’t make sense).

I’d be extremely interested in finding out the e-mail address you used that you received no response from- we do pride ourselves on our service, so would live to follow up on this.

Mike, hope you don’t mind me sticking me neck in here 9by the way- I post under “blacksheep”- on that forum you linked to earlier, FWIW)

cheers
Campbell Junor

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 February, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

Hi Campbell. Thanks for the feedback. It’s great that you jump into the forums around the place when you’re able to and discuss things.

Going back through my mailbox, the email to which I referred to was sent to [13] on 1st November 2008 at 9.43pm NZDT, subject “Earlier models of packs”. (I think this address was being advertised as the contact address on the Macpac website at the time, although it’s a different one now.) On 9th November 2008 I forwarded the original email back to the same address asking if it’d gotten through, then on 13th November I forwarded it to Jean@moutonnoir…. (whom I’d previously corresponded with on other things) in case the original info address was broken. I didn’t get a response to any of the three emails. No worries, anyway. It was ages ago and I think I just assumed something was broken or it ended up in a spam box somewhere, or perhaps there was a response but it didn’t get through to me.

It’s nice to see there’s a Glissade back on the shelves at the moment. I’m still waiting in hope that something like a Ravine (ie. very simple with few extra zips and pockets) will come back some day, which is what I was asking about in that email. Every so often I run into another person concerned about the lack of really basic tramping packs available, typically people who’d never ever use a sleeping back pocket, for instance. Right now it’s mostly imported packs on the shelves designed for other markets, and the only non-alpine pack which fits that idea seems to be a Cactus Foray, which generally looks alright but is also huge!

Cheers.

#5 Comment By campbell On 3 February, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

Hi Mike,
The [13] should find its way to customer service..I can’t explain that…Jean left us some time ago (18ths?) so that explains that- don’t know why the IT guys didn’t redirect/auto reply her address. My apologies.

In regard to basic packs, both the Ravine and the Torre will be back mid/late 2010…that will make quite a few people happy I’m sure (myself included)!

Cheers
Cam

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 3 February, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

Woohoo, thanks. That’s fantastic news. I’ll keep my eye open later in the year.