By Chris Meehan | Jul 03, 2020
San Jose, California
Sleeping bags and outerwear
As outdoor manufacturers of all stripes are embracing a direct-to-consumer model, Western Mountaineering still sells exclusively to small outfitters and retailers across the U.S.
That's a tribute to the quality of work Western Mountaineering's wholesale and retail customers have come to expect over the years. With sub-two-pound down sleeping bags rated to 20º F and a two-pound bag rated at 10º F, it's no wonder the company is revered by ultralight backpackers and gear reviewers across the country.
"Right now we don't do any direct-to-consumer," says Schaezlein. "We are going to start doing on a very limited basis direct-to-consumer, but we still want to really support the independent outdoor store."
The sleeping bags and other goods produced by Western Mountaineering are cost-competitive with other high-end manufacturers as well. Schaezlein explains that there are benefits to manufacturing in California. "Even though they make it offshore, they still have to warehouse it. They have distribution costs," he says. "The advantage that we have is that if . . . we're looking at something where we need something, we can turn it around in a week and they're in a totally different situation."
The company doesn't make huge changes to its products every year. "Most of the time, if we do a change, it's a gradual change," Schaezlein says. "You know you can't reinvent the sleeping bag every year, so we may not announce it or make a big ban fanfare about it, but we are gradually always making changes."
Such tweaks might include a switch to a different fabric, but Schaezlein says the company is very particular about its choices. "Like everybody, we're going for lighter and stronger as much as we can," he explains. "So when a company comes out with a new fabric we'll take a look at it. A lot of times we're going to see if they can adjust it because most of the time it's not a balanced construction."
He explains that a material might have a high thread count, for instance, but it might be much higher in one direction than the other, leading a material that could tear in one direction more than another. Western Mountaineering will ask the supplier if they make adjustments to the fabric.
"That's one thing that we do as a smaller company: We'll look at things a little bit closer than maybe bigger companies will," says Schaezlein.
Western Mountaineering has also considered using other technologies in its manufacturing processes, like fusing rather than sewing some materials, but that could lead to other issues, according to Schaezlein. "The older manufacturing may not be as 'new and up to date,' but sometimes it's more carefree and less problematic," he says.
Since the company has also had many of its sewers for a long time, that also means they don't have to learn how to operate new equipment. They can handle most of the volume, but from time to time when things are busy, Western Mountaineering will also work with contract sewers. "We may hire someone that's not local, they sew at home and then FedEx back the finished item for us," Schaezlein says.
As with most businesses in the outdoor industry, COVID-19 has had an impact. "Things cratered in March and April for everybody. A lot of people put their orders on hold," Schaezlein notes.
That's when things were even less certain and many of the organizations that support long trails, like the Appalachian Trail or even the Colorado Trail, implored people to abandon their through-hiking plans. "But a lot of people have brought them back in May," he adds.
COVID-19 also is causing some chaos in Western Mountaineering's outlook. "We're just going into our buying season for next year. Normally we would go to a couple of trade shows at this time, one in Europe and then two in the U.S. Those aren't happening," Schaezlein explains. "So we're going to be doing those online."
We don't know how things are looking for next year but my goodness -- I mean -- the best thing to do is go out and go hiking or camping now. You're not talking about going to a restaurant where you're inside, so I think we may even have an uptick in business just because it's the best thing to do," Schaezlein says.
During the initial throws of the COVID-19 outbreak, Western Mountaineering also pivoted production to face masks. "We were making a few masks for friends and someone saw one of our masks from the health department. They ordered a whole bunch. That enabled us to kind of branch out as far as our patterns and designs, and then it kind of went on from there," Schaezlein says. "We don't see it as a long-term product or a huge product line for us but right now, we enjoy making them. And I think it kind of fits the bill for us for right now in keeping everybody employed."
Challenges: "Online dealers are taking more and more of the retail space," Schaezlein says. "That kind of bothers us because I feel that the independent retailer has his finger on the pulse and they see customers every day. They walk into the store, they talk about what they want, what they like, what they don't like. I don't think you get that as much on the internet. So I really feel that the independent retailers have a place that we don't want to lose. That's our biggest worry."
Schaezlein bristles at some of the other issues Western Mountaineering faces. "One of our biggest problems, if you want to call it that, is that being a U.S. manufacturer, we end up paying more money for our products when we bring them into the U.S.," he says. "On our fabrics, we may pay anywhere from an 8 to 15 percent duty, the zippers have a 15 percent duty. So all these things add up, when you can import a down sleeping bag for a 5 or 6 percent duty, there's really a big detriment to US manufacturing and also countries around the world, like in Europe, have import duties. We're charged anywhere from 15 to 20 percent duty there."
His solution? "I think the U.S. really needs to have a reciprocal duty program. So if Europe charges 15 percent, you ought to charge them a 15 percent duty. Everybody talks about free trade, but it's equal trade. That's what we're looking for -- equal trade."
Opportunities: Notes Schaezlein: "We've been doing this for a long time. I feel that, um, as you had mentioned, we've got a pretty good pulse of what's going on. Things do change, but I feel that even right now with what's going on in the world, the camping industry -- the outdoor industry is in a good spot."
The international market is a sales driver, he adds. "About 40 percent of our production goes out of the country as well. We sell into Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea -- that's a good area for us for growth."
Needs: "We're always looking for good independent retailers that would carry our product," Schaezlein says. "Us opening retail stores no, that's not in the picture. Our expansion would be maybe shops overseas that haven't carried us before and increasing distribution throughout the world."