Since being bought out of receivership by Sports Direct, Karrimor is regaining some of the reputation built up so carefully over many years as one of Britain’s premier outdoor gear manufacturers. Neil Kennedy and Mark Tucker explain some of the changes in the brand, and what’s been done to rebuild it.
SGB: What’s new for Karrimor?
Neil Kennedy: In the last year and a half there have been big changes at Karrimor since we moved from the Accrington base, which is our historical home, to Shirebrook which is the Sports Direct group headquarters. The business has been focused on product development and we have been working with key suppliers in the Far East to not just improve products but to improve the efficiency of the product development process and the supply process, which in turn makes everything more profitable for the business.
The key thing for us is to get product to the market quicker and to get more product to the market each season, because when Sports Direct bought Karrimor four years ago this process was very slow.
The outdoor market has followed what has happened to the sports market in that it requires more new product, much quicker. The shelf life of product is also shorter than it use to be; it has dropped from about five years to a maximum of two years before it needs changing. This has been brought about by the increased competition, noticeably the US brands investing more in Europe. However, it doesn’t necessarily work the other way. American brands encompass sports and outdoor and they are so dominant in their home market European brands can’t break into it. Also there is a price issue with trying to go from Europe to the States with both the Euro and Sterling being so strong against the Dollar. American retail prices are also lower than over here, which makes the margins much tighter. In terms of the design of product the American product is desirable over here but the European influence is not sought-after over there.
SGB: Where has Karrimor been growing? Where are you strong as a modern brand?
NK: Karrimor as a brand is building nicely in Europe and we have new partners in many market areas. We are very strong in the Asian market, in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and South East Asia. The strongest International market for us is Japan, which goes back 30 years. It is strong over there in the specialist outdoor market and as a fashion brand and it is distributed through two separate channels. We work with a licensee in Japan so a lot of product is designed specifically for that market. We realise that the competition in Asia is as intense as elsewhere and we are going head to head with some heavy hitters, but last year when we linked up with a new licensee in Korea they set off pretty much at a gallop – at the end of the year they already had 25 Karrimor franchises open, and business from these is already very good.
Mark Tucker: In the last two years there has been a totally new collection launched from daypacks through to travel packs with some huge steps forward in technologies. One of the key areas is the weight – the market demands lighter weight but the product also has to remain durable. One thing Karrimor is certainly known for is product longevity so we’re very conscious of retaining that. What you will see for SS09 is a completely new X-Lite range designed for outdoor situations in climbing, backpacking, trail running and biking where weight really matters. These are versatile lightweight packs which can be stripped down to a minimalist level if required. We have been the UK market leaders in backpacking for many years and led the way in modern adjustable fit systems with the Karrimor SA System. We have further refined this for SS09 and allied it with a new collection of pack bodies with highly contemporary aesthetics and features.. We have also spent a lot of time in both design and testing to provide a state of the art womens backpacking range as the female market is such an important part of future business development.
SGB: How has the company changed under the ownership of Sports Direct?
NK: Sports Direct bought the business out of receivership in 2004, and I came in eight to nine months after that and my background is in the outdoor business. The previous six years I had been with Berghaus. I came in to Karrimor to create a business plan for the outdoor product, which we have been working to for the last three years.
The first year we weren’t profitable but by last year we were. This is based on speeding up the product development process and improving its efficiency. It’s about getting people on board who know the market and can relay information back quickly as we actually need to stay ahead of the market to provide consumers with what they want. We now have very good partners on the supply side who are not just working on production and supply but also have excellent product development capabilities. The suppliers are a key part of the development process because we can’t do prototypes here in the UK, so we have to have people we can work with who are very good technicians in the factories.
MT: We have a full-time employee in China and he has made such a big difference to the development and getting the timelines down. He knows everything there is to know about rucksacks, fabric and the make-up of patterns so he is invaluable out there.
NK: We felt it was much more important to have a product development person based in the Far East working in the factories, than having that job over here in the UK. We work exclusively through distributors and licensees so we don’t have our own sales team. The Blacks Leisure Group is our licensee here in the UK and the rest of the trade is supplied through a distributor. This keeps our direct overheads very tight. We have the right partners to represent the brand and give the correct level of support and service to the customer.
SGB: What do you do at retail level to support shops?
MT: The UK distributor and licensee are responsible for in-store support. We support the brand nationally through advertising within the outdoor and travel press, working closely with journalists on gear testing and reviews, and sponsoring consumer competitions. We also sponsor a group of climbers who are constantly field testing product around the world, and getting new product in front of consumers through their roles in guiding and expedition leadership.  They also increase brand exposure by supplying photographs and articles to various consumer publications.
SGB: Where do you see future growth for Karrimor?
NK: We are focused on being an international brand. Currently our sales split is 50 – 50 between Britain and the rest of the world. There is huge scope for us internationally and we need to keep developing the global opportunity while maintaining our strength in the UK. Certain products have to be market specific but as a brand the whole range has an international flavor to it. The majority of what we do with product and business development really is with an international focus.