Not wanting to be controversial

This has been on my mind for a while. I am in no way criticising the company involved, as they are very clever indeed and are sticking it to “The Man” in the form of big fat lazy companies at every turn. The issue is the product and the punters blinkered reaction to it, and the consequences thereof. I’ve used and use various bits of their kit, it’s mostly basic and functional, some is just rebranded generic stuff, some gems and some horrors.

It’s the excitement that people are gleefully purchasing the kit without actually thinking about it that amazes me. Let me explain.

You buy a sleeping bag from “B” for £200 in a shop (or £179.99 on the web, but we’ll ignore that because it’ll confuse the issue and you’ll get so bored with the endless connotations that you won’t get to the end where the actual salient point is, the crux of the matter if you will). It is a finely crafted bit of kit, made from the best materials. The shop has paid £117.50incVAT for it to the distributor, who take their cut and the rest goes to the manufacturer who pays the factory in China.

“A” sells their similar sleeping bag direct to the public with no middle man for £120. They pay the same factory in China. “A” are happy to admit the limitations of their kit, the corners cut and how they’re actually doing the punters a favour by keeping costs down. Well no, not really. I know I’m not taking into account volume sold here, but down bags are not a volume selling item. Unless the punter thinks they’re getting a bargain.

Let’s think about this. The bag from “B” is the same cost from it’s origin to retail (distributor to shop) as the bag from “A” (factory to website). “A” has no distributor to pay, so they take a bigger cut. On an inferior product that people are pissing all over themselves to get a hold of. I know that’s really simplistic, some companies do their own distribution etc. but the principle is right.

“B” and the other companies are actually having to react to this, and what worries me is that their quality will fall, ranges are having to include more cheap bags to compete with “A” and quality product development will suffer. It’s like the cut price web guys, it’s screwed the retail trade. Some products are almost worthless due to discounting, the fine Montane SuperFly being a prime example. You can hardly give them away.

So are Alpkit and the cut price Webists (not the small band of quality independant webists who are our new local shops and should be defended at all costs) destroying the trade? Or will Mike Ashley do it?

Whatever, the big companies will soon have to move out of China as labour costs rise and to compete they’ll be sending sewing machines to Mongolian herdsmen’s children to try and save themselves.

I just hope when I’m sixty and heading for the hills I’m not dressed in tat, carrying camping tat in a tatsack because it’s all gone on it’s tits.

13 thoughts on “Not wanting to be controversial

  1. Yeah a worrying line of thought. Can see where you’re coming from.

    I know that I won’t be deserting PHD in favour of an “A” bag since I don’t want those corners cut. (Your comment on OM today about the weight being the main difference for me).

    Perhaps the worst it will do is further polarise the market.

  2. I just look back to the days of wee independant shops awash with quality technical kit, and I miss it. They’re still there, just in smaller numbers.
    These days the customer is getting what they want, cheap.
    I can’t help still wanting just good.

    It’s like my Alpiniste 45+10. I couldn’t afford it when it came out and used to look at it in the shop constantly hoping it would still be there until I eventually got the money together.
    It’s easy now to press the Pay Now button and get something that “will do” sent to your door. The excitement of the online bargain purchase :o)

    I’m not really criticising, it’s more of a lament for the change of times.

  3. Hmmm… an interesting topic, not controversial at all!

    I agree with you that the suppliers of readily-available cheaper “just-fit-for-purpose” kit are tolling the bell for the innovative small outfits that cater for the niche-end of the market. In the past I’ve had a fair choice of places to go to for specialised gear or, occasionally, made-to-my-spec stuff. Sadly, most of these places no longer exist, or are hanging on by their fingernails, run by folk who do it more for the love of it than for the money.

    But, that said, for folks not into the outdoors in a big or extreme way, there’s not always a dire need to have the best gear. Sometimes “just-fit-for-purpose” will suffice for Mr. Average (me). Horses for courses and all that.

    Anyway, who’s to say that “A” won’t eventually become a supplier of good specialist gear? Big trees from little acorns grow.

  4. I’d love it if Alpkit did grow into a super quality, cutting edge supplier. That would really shake up the big fat lazy bastard brands wouldn’t it?
    It usually happens the other way round. Small independants producing stunning labours of expensive love getting bought out and ending up as a label sewn onto kit in Blacks.
    I’ve got a stack of Alpkit er, kit and it’s absolutely fine. But I do think that a lot of folk think they’re getting something half price, whereas they’re actually getting their money’s worth instead.
    And I’m not joking about the trade reaction to Alpkit. It’s being taken seriously.

    Imagine if they got eVent next year…

  5. Hi PTC* an interesting post, I hope you don’t mind if we pipe in! Obviously I cannot speak for the ‘Webists’ (although it did make us giggle to be incuded in a cliche) but I can give you our personal perspective.

    I am a bit confused by this comment and the conclusions you are trying to draw from it:
    “The bag from “B” is the same cost from it’s origin to retail (distributor to shop) as the bag from “A” (factory to website). “A” has no distributor to pay, so they take a bigger cut.”

    Ignoring the some what significant factors such as design, sourcing, volume, distribution costs and customer service.. is it not more accurate to say our customers are effectively purchasing our products at trade price? I don’t see where the mark up from distributor to retailer comes in to it?

    Contrary to what people seem to think; we are not out to give the ‘big guys’ a bashing! That’s not in our nature, we just want to get on with what we can offer.

    Nor are we in business to ship cut price chinese products, if that’s what we had chosen to do I do not think we would still be here. From the start our ambission has been to produce top quality kit, it still is and we are getting closer. The new PipeDream, SkyeHigh and Filo jacket are head and shoulders above the previous versions. I hope you get a chance to check them out.

    2 of our 4 staff are product designers. Between designing our own products they design products for other ‘quality’ brands. When they are not doing this they are also dealing with accounts, speaking to customers and packing orders. It is all in a days work for a small specialist independent company.

    Where we do not have the skills we buy off the shelf. The Indigo is a fine example of a torch that we brought in to the market when the only other choice was a £20+ Petzl or BD. It works well enough but unlike other second rate torches retailing for £15 it was never meant to compete with Petzl and BD, although we do know one high profile climber who has got through 5 bd torches and his indigo is still going strong! With other more important products we have total design control, and each iteration of product gets increasingly better because we want to compete on quality of product, not price.

    Like any company who manufacturers, quality control is part of daily life. Because of our small product range and small volumes when something goes wrong it hits us hard. We have no benefit from bringing second rate equipment to the market. Also the number of products designed, sourced and made in the UK will increase next year. This isn’t easy but we are trying. However this doesn’t automatically mean the quality will be better than those made in China. In many cases the production facilities in China are better than in the UK. The other thing to note is that Far Eastern factories are proactive and searching for business. I do not think we have been approached by a single UK manufacturer. Come on guys where are you?

    As it happens one large chain, several independent national and international retailers have approached us to supply them. We have always resisited because we have felt that we can offer better value and better choice by selling direct. Some brands are now selling direct, although they still sell at high street prices, where is the added value here?

    Surely now there is more choice to the customer, how many other brands offer a down jacket in 9 colours? Normally the customer is at the mercy of the buyer who buys what he thinks the shop will sell. We like to act on a whim and the direct feedback of our customers, which may well explain the PD200! Something else we have noticed is that people who previously considered a down bag or a boulder mat out of their price range are now buying them and enjoying their activities more.

    We do have some pretty good deals but we have not set out to be a budget discounter. We have even refused to offer club discounts in favour of offering sustainable prices and not penalising those people who didn’t want to join a group. On top of that we also tried to vary our prices based on the cost of shipping and the exchange rate. Unfortunately this confused people more than it helped as the price of a product could rise and fall!

    So why did we go the direct route? Simply because between the four of us we had the skills to make it work. We are infact no bigger than a descent sized high street retailer, we just sell our own equipment. We work with a small advertising budget and a website that is within the scope of most small busineses. We are in terms of size more like a specialist independent and probably offer a more limited product range at that.

    Let’s keep things in perspective. We were up in Kendal last weekend, and out of the thousands of people there we saw only 4 Alpkit products. Even taking into account the fact that Alpkit customers like to get out on the hills more than schmoozing we would have liked to have seen a few more! If four regular guys like us end up destroying the high street then I think you are seriously insulting the good people trying to make their stores work. One of their biggest operating costs is rent and we and our webists (giggles) probably have a more positive effect than negative on that.

    Alpkit is still only 4 people who like to climb, bike and paddle. We realise that we are only good as our last product, how we treated our last customer and the fresh ideas we have for the future. It is this that drives us forward.

    p.s. PTC* is in no way associated with the Alpkit company and the Alpkitmania that he rightly questions. If he were then the hood on his 1st generation PipeDream probably would have fitted him!

    p.p.s RedYeti: are you refering to the new SkyeHigh range? if so are you comparing like to like? Obviously the SkyeHigh is not meant to be the same bag as the Minim, just as our Indigo isn’t a Zipka Plus.

  6. “Imagine if they got eVent next year…”

    Bring it on! They must be able to use it to make better hoods than Craghoppers did (Epoch, fine jacket, rubbish lid).
    Anyways, I need a new bivi-bag…

  7. You guys are very different from the budget webists, I’m no’ lumping you in wi’ them.

    It probably looks like I’m having a go at you guys, but I’m more concerned with people and the way their minds work. I can’t help but see the machinery operating behind everything that goes on and examine it.
    It’s quite a precedent you’ve set, decent gear that’s almost free. The mightiest dangled carrot of all.
    Once that’s out there it stays in the mind and the customer thinks “Look at the price of that, does Alpkit do one?”.
    You’re too modest, you must know the UK brands have you very much in mind?

    Anyway, what is the new Pipdeream hood like? :o)

  8. alpkid – interesting comment :)

    And to be clear – I have a couple of bits of your kit and have recommended it to others where I thought it was the most appropriate choice for them.

    And no – I’m not comparing like with like – something that wasn’t clear from my original comment. I know that you aren’t trying to create a Minim. My (perhaps poorly made) point was more that although I know that others may not be clear about it.

    The “cutting of corners” I refer to is not meant as derogatory. I’m sure anything that might be considered corner-cutting is only done to produce a bag that’s fit for its target market. Which is a slightly different market to the one that PHD is targeting. You use 650 FP down – they use 800. I’d always want the 800.

    My concern is (and I think this is the same for ptc*) that the market could shift further and further towards products that just do the job as opposed to doing the job really, really well. I.e. at the expense of those companies that produce the top-end kit.

    I hope there’s room for both. Probably most people will want the former since it’s less costly. I just happen to want the latter.

    And to further caveat that – I think one or two items of your kit does do the job really, really well. It’s just that you use price as a more important design consideration than someone like PHD.

    (ptc*: I assume you mean decent gear without the premium for decent gear as opposed to free. Just guessing)

  9. Aye, “almost free” is a turn of phrase meaning payment without pain :o)

    We could turn this one over forever between us all, each point has a reasonable counterpoint.
    Many folk do buy Alpkit bags thinking they’re getting the equivalent of an ME Frostline or a Rab Quantum 600 (actually they’re maybe not so far off there…), then make the excuse of “Ach, it’s okay it was cheap” if it’s got any niggles.
    As Alpkid mentioned the hood on the Pipedream drove me crazy, but the rest of the bag is great. Lofts like a bastard straight out of a compression sack. I still use it.

    I remember when Vargo had a go at them for selling the same titanium pot. Totally ludicrous, Vargo just went through “Happy Outdoors” titanium catalogue the same as everybody else does and said “I want that one, put our name on it”. But that very reaction from Vargo and the fact that Pertex aren’t playing any more might say more than I needed to on the original post.

  10. I love this thread. It’s rich and flavoursome.

    I was waiting until we got to the Happy Outdoor part of this (titanium) can of worms. Alpkid said “Nor are we in business to ship cut price chinese products” and I believe them – but they still do it.

    Alpkit, Terra Nova, Vargo, Optimus (next year) and probably a bunch of others as yet not identified have taken it upon themselves to forgo creativity and hard work (although Alpkit’s nomenclature for these products is truly outstanding) for an easy trinket sales with their name emblazoned upon them.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with that – it is easy sales for a bulk order and if customers enjoy the product then it’s no blood no foul. The easy cash means that companies have more dough to spend on materials and R & D. Well, that’s what I’d like to believe.

    R & D, R & D, R & D. Or CTRL, R + D (copy and paste) as it’s often called in the trade. I know a great story about a mate who designed a pole configuration for a tent that his company said was too complex and canned. It’s featured in this year’s TNF range. He saw the TNF folk standing round it, playing with his prototype in the factory. Clearly they said. “Ooh – we like that, make us n thousand units with our name on.

    As with Ptc*, it’s the uninformed regular Joe customer I feel sorry for. I can picture some poor mofo evangelising about an amazing bit of kit he just bought for nearly free and all he got is something made by someone else, with his favourite brand’s name on. The worst thing is that Joe will defend his favourite brand without knowing the truth, not realising that it’s highly unlikely, were he to talk directly do designers, or whoever else that worked for them that they’d give a f*ck. As long as money rolls in, they’ll sell pish and Joe’ll lap it up and suck it down.

    There’s a flip side, and many are to blame for it Here’s a story:

    You get a company that wants to make good stuff, so they do. A new product is made of drylon-coated durasteel and thus super expensive. It’s complex do build and has many panels and quirky construction methods. You can’t get it built in Chinostitch – their usual factory – because they don’t have the material or skill, so it goes to say, Bampot – a factory who’re more expensive, ask for greater volume, but have the skills to pay the bills. The product is made and all is well.

    Mr Rep goes into Giganto’s – secretly knowing that the buyer is either going to demand a through the floor volume discount, or just stare blankly at the amazing item because he’s thick and can only understand businessy thinks like spreadsheets, booze and hookers. Even although it’s super awesome, fat buyer doesn’t get it, so decides against stocking it.

    Our clever company sends the awesome product to the magazines for review.

    Lightweightfatknacker magazine says ‘it’s too hot, has bad pockets and doesn’t be a tarp with sandal-sock holders so is rubbish.

    The readers who trust the opinion of this guy, without learning / researching / looking for themselves don’t want one.

    Slowassedpseudomountaineer magazine says ‘it’s not fit for dangerous hill conditions like back garden I tried it in, it doesn’t fit a map and doesn’t have a wired hood. It’s also too expensive.

    The readers who trust the opinion of this guy, without learning / researching / looking for themselves don’t want one.

    Mister independent gear evangelist shoppe buys it in because they all do stuff and can see where the money went. They buy a few, one of which a staff member buys because the product is so ace.

    They can talk to customers all day about it and how cool it is, but only one customer buys it. This customer has the audacity to haggle over the price with the shop ‘because it’s his local’ and the manager gives in because it’s been a slow month and the bosses are ticked off with the lack of sales. Their town is filled with all the major outdoor players, so they’ve always prided themselves in specialism, but it seems that they’re slowly heading down the drain. Many customers mine the kids in this shop for information, then with education on their side go to the interwebnets to see if they can get a deal on one.

    Mister webwarehouse w*nkblaser buys them in and sells them at almost zero markup, hoping that volume of sales will even things out. Joe ‘always looking for cheap stuff’ customer finds this out and posts on the Outdoors Shut-In forum. He gets a few sales.

    Down the line, our clever company has to clear out their stock, so it gets sold to retailers for almost no markup. It also goes to webists for the same price. They keep their sale price the same and make more margin, laughing at the irony. Our indie friends can’t justify buying any more – even at the reduced price – as they’re collecting dust on the shelves. Giganto retailer punts them with a quick turnaround in the sale happily.

    The next meeting our Rep has with the designers and bosses unearths that this ace product is getting canned, as it turned out to be a financial millstone. They’ve struck up a deal for some nice titanium items with Ray at Happy Outdoor, so that should win back some of the hard-earned cash they spent over-shooting all the idiots that work in the outdoor magazines, the idiot customers and the idiot retailers. Next year, they’ve decided to make more fleece. Big shops buy that, magazines like it and customers still think it’s good because there’s always lots in big shops and magazines say that’s what you need. No longer will the clever company foray into the world of invention. That’s for companies that want to count pennies and not pounds. Bad business that.

    The little indie company eventually pops and the kids go to work in non-specialist stores for better wages, selling kit they hate to customers that don’t know any better. Someday they hope to open their own specialist store and ‘do it right’. They don’t realise that there’s no point.

    Webwarehouse w*nkblaser continues to drive the value and reputation of companies down, along with his prices. Everyone is getting bored of the Super-Flux. They want something new and interesting. New and interesting as long as the magazines say it’s good, it’s cheap and they can get a good deal on it.

    The designers at clever company have a brainwave. They have all the contacts with the factories and are good friends with the various folk that produce the fabrics they use on the gear they design. They decide to leave clever company and start Cleverest Co, going straight to the factory, designing what the hell they want and like, and selling direct to the customer, cutting through some bureaucracy, red tape and costs.

    Every other company and retailer say ‘oh’. Indie retailers look at their bank accounts, take into account a second kid is on the way and start thinking about retraining / going to university / doing nightclasses or applying for that managers job at Giganto.

    A shame.

  11. Wow, interesting stuff. I am loving some of your pseudonyms Craig, hilarious! It all reminds me of a BBC sketch show (Armstrong and Miller) on last night, with one on a half price pot company – brilliant. Its not something that is specific to outdoors retail though, customers just seam to hate retailers making any money for some strange reason, do you want to see your stuff in a shop and try it on, talk to someone about it – if yes then you have to pay for the privilege.

    If Alpkit buy from a factory at the same price as one of the big brands then why should their kit be any worse? DO PHD make less of a margin on their higher spec’d kit? Surely its two different markets, most people want a car to go to the shops so they buy a fiat, fewer people need to race around at 200mph so they buy a Ferrari, Fiat make more money than Ferrari so buy them out. No? Is it the retailers or the customers who are at blame, according to TESCO its the customers, anyone trust them? Its all about greed, and consumer driven society no?

    Mike Ashley slayer of karrimor, thats personal for you PTC huh?

  12. The Karrimor thing is personal, although really karrimor was dead for years and it just didn’t know it. Still, we’ve got OMM for the packs. We just need someone to resurrect the Elite and Alpiniste clthing.

    Alpkit will do extremely well, and it is because of price. Folk always defend the product with “It was a bargain”. I’ve got a PD400 on test just now, it’s a fine bag. But it doesn’t stand up against more expensive bags under close scrutiny for design and construction.
    But how mant folk look at the stitching close up?

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