COLUMBIA GETS STREET-SMART

Byline: Robert Spector

PORTLAND, Ore. — Columbia Sportswear Co., known for its performance ski apparel and rugged outerwear, is expanding its line of street sportswear and targeting it to its traditional customer: someone with an active lifestyle.
Columbia’s 30-piece fall line of knit and woven tops and bottoms features street interpretations of the company’s staples — knit shirts, flannels and quilted shirt jackets — that can be worn layered or as separates, according to Mike Egeck, general manager of sportswear merchandising.
Women’s wear accounts for 25 to 30 percent of Columbia’s volume, which is projected to be $340 million in 1995. With the expansion of its streetwear line and the introduction of an aerobics line for spring 1996, Columbia expects women’s wear to grow to 35 to 40 percent of sales by 1997.
“We try to do pieces that are more feminine-looking, but still make sense within our line,” said Egeck. “One of the difficulties with rugged outdoor apparel is that it can look masculine. But feminine women can pull off masculine clothes.”
Columbia has been selling its street sportswear through its established distribution channels, particularly major sporting goods chains where it already has significant brand recognition and loyalty. “It’s been an interesting growth pattern because sportswear is a new business for a lot of [sporting goods stores], as it is for our company,” said Egeck. “We’ve been kind of going hand-in-hand down this path with our customers.”
Columbia recently opened a 3,000-square-foot in-store concept shop in Dick’s Clothing, a 60,000-square-foot store in Hartford, Conn. The experimental shop stocks all Columbia’s products, including rugged outerwear, technical and general skiwear, snowboard apparel, fleece, sportswear, footwear and accessories.
Columbia is so pleased with the shop’s performance that it intends to open another 25 or 30 at Dick’s stores and at other chains around the country.
The continuing strength of outdoor looks has opened up distribution in department stores, “which are also customers of Columbia, but not as developed as sporting goods stores,” said Egeck. Department stores are looking for outdoor apparel vendors “that have an authentic brand name position,” he said.
In the past year, Columbia has opened accounts with Nordstrom, Dillard’s and Dayton Hudson.
“You’ll notice they don’t overlap a lot,” said Egeck. That distribution, he added, gives Columbia a department store core in each region of the country.
“It gives us an opportunity to get established with those accounts to see how that business goes. Right now, we are holding steady with those retailers, and then we will look to open additional accounts,” he said.
Columbia’s sportswear strategy is driven by bottoms.
“Our merchandising philosophy is that companies that have the longest run in the business tend to be bottoms-driven,” said Egeck, who added that in the firm’s traditional distribution, bottoms are a “much tougher” sale than tops.
“A lot of [sporting goods accounts] have never carried any kind of jeans or even pants, other than ski pants,” he said. “That’s been the grand experiment. We’ve brought a lot of accounts along on this.”
Columbia’s Tough Mother five-pocket denim jeans — made in two fits in a variety of finishes and colors — represent 15 to 20 percent of its street sportswear business.
Tough Mother is named for Columbia chairwoman Gert Boyle, whose son Tim is president and chief operating officer. Gert Boyle is prominently featured in Columbia’s print and TV ads.
Other bottoms offerings include chinos and shorts, which account for 40 percent of spring and summer business. Shoppers at sporting goods stores “are familiar with hiking or athletic shorts and the stores are more comfortable carrying them,” said Egeck. “For spring ’96, shorts might become half the business.”
Columbia combines function with fashion “where it makes sense,” said Egeck. For example, the hiking chino has an adjustable cuff so it can fit over a hiking boot.
A hot tops classification is flannel shirts, which include updated versions of classic button-downs in a wide range of color combinations and patterns — from traditional tartans and window panes to snowflake jacquards.
Woven shirts are available in herringbone, twill, calico, corduroy and chamois.
Knit tops include ottoman ribs; brushed looped terry, thermal and popcorn stitches; superwashed piquA, jersey and brushed interlock, cotton/polyester reverse-brushed French terry Sherpa sweaters and vests.
The Columbia line wholesales from $7.50 to $27.50; most of it retails for $40 or less.
“We are commonly referred to as moderately priced,” said Egeck. “With department stores, we’re the opening price point for branded products; in sporting goods stores, we’re up there with the more expensive brands.”
A new casual item for Columbia is a 100-percent Shetland wool marled yarn sweater with the company’s trademarked Barrier Tech stretch laminate lining, which is windproof, but lets the garment breathe.
For spring 1996, Columbia will introduce a 10-piece bodywear aerobics line that will be tested with about 10 accounts.
“We are going to come at it from a cross-functional outdoor orientation, so it will be very textured fabrics: thermal-type weaves with Lycra mixed in,” said Egeck. “It will be very outdoorsy, with earth tones.”
Columbia is stepping up its presence overseas, where sales have tripled to about $30 million in the past two years.
At the end of 1994, Columbia opened its first freestanding store (1,100 square feet) in the French ski town of Val d’Isere, and hopes to open similar stores in other ski areas in France.

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