Branders as retailers

Lately it was announced that the Fairydown brand is under new management (again) for about the millionth time in its history, although I don’t feel as if I’ve been around on the scene long enough to really appreciate all the changes it’s gone through. (Ben of Cactus Climbing has a brief summary of the recent situation.) Well done to these three guys and good luck to them. The new business plan, rather than manufacturing quality NZ-made goods for NZ conditions, is to manufacture it all in Asia (as everyone does these days to be fair), and open New Zealand Fairydown retail outlets in the main centres. I guess I’ve been wondering from my limited perspective about some of the changes that have been going on in the Wellington retail sector of tramping shops.

A few months ago, Mainly Tramping — by far one of the best Tramping retailers in the Wellington region — liquidated. At first I thought it might have been because I’d taken my spending habits overseas for a couple of months, but that still wouldn’t have explained how it could have survived for 24 years, the most part of which I wasn’t buying things from there. Not long afterwards, another excellent retailer (Tisdalls) also folded. Tisdalls has been around in Wellington and elsewhere for at least 100 years, but it can no longer stay in business. Meanwhile Ski & Camp, a store on Taranaki Street that used to be quite good for tramping stuff, has in the last year converted itself very impressively to be almost entirely a cycle shop. It has the dual name of Crankworks.

The market has become much more aggressive lately, with several other much larger retailers having pushed their way into the local and national scene. Kathmandu is the obvious one, with an aggressive model of pricing things about twice or thrice what they’re worth, and then having heavily promoted seasonal sales in which prices are heavily reduced. During these seasonal sales, the number of customers in the stores appears to go from almost dwindling-empty to bursting at the seams. Kathmandu doesn’t actually sell dedicated tramping gear in the strict sense, and it’s easy to see when walking through a Kathmandu store on the first few days of a sale that the majority of customers are probably looking for practical, comfortable warm clothes and other gear to use around town. This is fair enough, and it’s similar to what I use most of my own Kathmandu purchases for. What it does specialise in is Kathmandu-branded travel things, comfortable Kathmandu-branded around-town clothes, and flashy catalogues full of Kathmandu logos and dominating photos of people fashionably enjoying themselves in other countries. Kathmandu gets close enough to the market, however, that it’s possible to get things that are usually satisfactory enough for tramping, and that’s all that really matters.

This would still be okay, but I suppose what bothers me is the increase in stores which are very specifically branded. It’s not just in the tramping market, either. For instance, there’s now a Levis shop on the corner of Customhouse Quay and Willeston Street. This is just down the road from the local Sony Style retailer, which will sell you any TV, laptop, camera, or whatever electronic goods you desire, as long as it’s made by Sony. (Interestingly it doesn’t sell Sony-branded music, however.) Telecom and Vodafone sell their network-locked phones and plans through independent retailers, but they also try to out-do each other in terms of who can get the most dedicated branded phone shops within the radius of the CBD. It’s entirely a marketing thing, since they want to make sure people remember to buy a new phone, and that they don’t forget the brand when they’re walking down the street. Somewhere along the line, manufacturers have discovered that rather than go through the proxy of independent retailers, it’s more efficient for them to force their way into the retail front line, market themselves directly in the face of consumers, and pick up retail prices while they’re at it.

Tramping shops probably aren’t quite the same, since they’re more like retailers getting into manufacturing rather than manufactures getting into retail. It seems as if it’s easier for the larger retailers to have their own products made cheaply overseas (possibly in the same factories as the branded stuff), have their own name slapped on it, and then sell it at a higher margin than they would if they’d gone through a manufacturer. These are the likes of Kathmandu, Mountain Designs (which does sell non-MD-branded things, to be fair), and apparently now the new Fairydown retailers which are coming our way. All of these are branded retailers focus on selling their own branded products, and it seems as if the new model is part of what’s been making it harder for independent retailers to survive. They’re also bigger retailers, and that often (but not always) seems to correspond with less experience in the retail staff.

What I guess I find most disturbing is that unlike the smaller independent shops, I don’t really feel as if I can go into any of these places and get an honest opinion about what’s actually right for me. It’s also becoming more difficult to actually see or play with products that don’t fall under a particular retailer’s branding umbrella, because there’s less incentive for a branded retailer to stock products that compete with their own stuff and which might sell at a smaller margin. It’s still possible to get other things by looking around a bit further, and hopefully the market will sort itself out in the longer term. Wellington now has an R&R Sport on Victoria Street. (This is currently a clearance store and I’m not sure if there are plans to change that.) There are also a couple of other Wellington retailers (Bivouac, Gordons, Dwights) which haven’t gone anywhere, and if that’s not enough it’s still possible to travel a bit further afield.

Anyway, food for thought.

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