SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

American Made: Does it Matter?

While I’m sitting here typing this article, three containers of Tubbs’ snowshoe manufacturing gear are making their way across the water to the K2 plant in China. This year, all of Atlas’ snowshoes were built in China, and next year, this will be true for Tubbs as well.

Part of the move has been driven by industry consolidation. Sherpa, Yakima and Yuba all closed their doors. Tubbs purchased both Atlas and Little Bear, and in 2003, K2 bought WinterQuest, the umbrella company under which Atlas, Little Bear, and Tubbs, were operating. And part of it’s been driven by consumer and retailer demand for consistently cheaper product. The result is that with this last move, there are only a handful of U.S. manufactures left in the industry.

How does the move to China affect snowshoeing as an industry? Seven companies – MSR, Crescent Moon, Northern Lights, Redfeather, Tubbs, Atlas, Havlick, and Country Ways – gave me their views on snowshoe production in (and out of) the United States, and on how they plan to stay competitive in a tough market. They also shared views of the sport and the industry in general.

– Redfeather Snowshoes, Denver, Colo. – http://www.redfeather.com –

“Snowshoeing is a really friendly industry,” said Kris Kaprowski at Redfeather. “We’re all really into the advocacy of the sport we really want to see the sport grow.”

Kris turned out to be totally right. Everyone I talked to said that the more people that ended up on snowshoes, the better it was for everyone. He did suggest that K2′s offshore production gave Redfeather’s “Made in USA” brand snowshoes a certain cache. It’s not a deal breaker, but “Americans are eager to buy U.S.-made products, they’re proud to wear a ‘Made in USA’ brand in a post 9-11 era.”

“K2′s decision to outsource hasn’t had any negative affect on our business at all and sales are up 40 percent over last year,” he said. “Our snowshoes are handcrafted and tested in the heart of the Rockies and we have premier service. We can respond quickly to customer requests, we fulfill our orders rapidly and we have a reputation for excellent customer service that we’re really proud of. “

Kris said that with just about any outdoor sport, a great deal of gear is made offshore. Research and development work is done in the United States and then, the product is manufactured offshore.

“Redfeather remains committed to making their snowshoes here in the U.S.,” Kris said.

Redfeather snowshoes have number of features that they market as the reason you want to buy their product rather than a cheaper, offshore brand, but talking with Kris, I got the sense that it’s their customer service that sets them apart. Their commitment to serving their customers promptly and effectively is certainly much easier to maintain when their people and their facilities are right here in the United States.

– Mountain Safety Research, Seattle, Wash. – http://www.msrcorp.com –

Seattle is my home town, so when I called MSR and talked to Carry Porter, I asked her if I could come see their factory. Both of their lines, the Lighting and the Denali, are manufactured at their Seattle site. When I was there, the production lines were humming with the production of stock for the upcoming winter season.

It’s clear from first glance that MSR snowshoes aren’t really like the other shoes in your neighborhood gear store. This is what Carry and I spend most of our time talking about – the way their snowshoes are different from others. MSR’s Denali line is not a “frame and deck” shoe at all – it’s made from injection molded plastic with a snowshoe binding and a snap on tail extension. The Lightning, which is a frame and deck type shoe, isn’t made out of what Carry calls “lawn chair tubing” – it’s a vertical rail with teeth cut in to it, making the frame of the shoe part of the traction system.

MSR prides themselves on their history of innovative design and maintains that this is what will keep them competitive. MSR patents their designs, too, so they know they won’t be seeing another shoe like theirs on the shelf for a long, long time. A novice snowshoer might not see the draw to their uniquely designed products, but if you’ve bought a pair of snowshoes, used them for a few years, and think it might be time for an upgrade, it’s clear you’d consider what MSR is offering.

Like Redfeather, MSR feels they benefit tremendously from manufacturing here in the United States. Local manufacturing allows them to respond to market demand – and have the ability to respond to the decline too. This allows tight controls on inventory levels. Carry did concede that a U.S.-made snowshoe does have a certain appeal, but that features will trump the manufacturer’s location every time.

Carry told me that while most of the winter sports industry is flat, snowshoeing is booming. “It’s the number one growing winter sport. Kids love it, women love it, it’s easy to get in to, it’s relatively inexpensive… why wouldn’t you want a pair of snowshoes?”

– Crescent Moon, Boulder, Colo. – http://www.crescentmoonsnowshoes.com –

Pick up the phone and call Crescent Moon and odds are good you’ll get the President of the company, Jake Thamm, on the phone. That’s because they’re a tiny company – and they like it that way. Jake is a realist about outsourcing and his place in a market that is dominated by large manufacturers.

“We’re small and plan to remain small, there’s always room for the best, natural product to use. And we focus on creating a binding that makes snowshoeing comfortable and intuitive,” he said. “We don’t compete head to head against production shoes and we don’t build a product that’s limited by price. We compete at the top of the pyramid. Our shoes cost slightly less now than Atlas and Tubbs, and we only make two lines. We don’t do seasonal discounting and this protects the margins for the retailing and, we don’t have any dumping of our products post season.”

Just-in-time manufacturing allows Crescent Moon to be responsive to supply and demand. A bad snow year, for example, means that Crescent Moon will build fewer snowshoes, not that they’ll dump their product at discount at the end of the season. And local manufacturing in a town like Boulder, known for snow sports, does give the company a little extra something, but they don’t depend on that for their sales.

Crescent Moon shares a design-based philosophy with MSR. You get the sense that their snowshoes are almost a gourmet product, handmade, with a great personal investment from the owners themselves – their pride in their product is clear. Jake tells me about how they’ve carefully selected hydrophobic (non-water absorbent) components in the binding, how the deck is made out a material that won’t stretch or freeze, and how their teardrop shaped welded frame provides a rigid maneuverable platform.

Jake doesn’t think the shake out of the smaller players in the industry was due to either industry consolidation or offshoring. They’re gone because they didn’t offer much by way of a uniquely designed or differentiate product. At Crescent Moon, they’re confident they can stay in the market. And they love snowshoeing, naturally.

“It’s a great family experience, the whole family can participate. It’s so unique,” Jake said. “It’s a remarkable way to get a work out. It’s got all the aerobic benefits… it’s attractive to women and they’re responsible for the growth of the industry. The pay-off is really high. You can be outside and get your daily dose of endorphins.”

– Northern Lites, Wausau, Wis. – http://www.northernlites.com –

If Crescent Moon is the gourmet snowshoe company, you get the feeling you’re talking to the NASA guys when you call Northern Lites. When Russell Post talks about his snowshoes, he talks about inertia theory, distributed weight, aircraft grade high-test alloy…and Mazeratis. Sophisticated engineering, lightweight materials, that’s Northern Lite’s angle on snowshoes.

Russell has been paying close attention to the industry for the 14 years he’s been part of it. He’s watched Tubbs take the front line in promoting snowshoeing as a sport and watched some of the smaller companies go under as the big ones grew. The growth and change in the industry only served to make snowshoeing more popular, and as such, made business better for Northern Lites.

He’s realistic though, and says it might be too soon to tell if cheap, offshore production will hurt his business. “Does volume production mean that cheap inventory piles up and the market is flooded?” he asks. He doesn’t know the answer yet.

Russell says that offshore manufacturing has a four to five month lead-time. If it’s not a good season for snowshoeing, too much gear can end up on the market. At Northern Lites, production staff is increased in the fall to respond to regional demands. They’re just not at risk of building more shoes than they can sell, and they don’t pretend to compete with a mass produced mid-range product.

Russell is not at all interested in offshore manufacturing for his product and doesn’t see it as a real threat. “You have to build 10,000 units or something like that, to make it worth going offshore. The big guys, they’re all about volume, whereas we focus on our margins.”

Furthermore, he thinks that getting folks out on a quality shoe is essential. He thinks a snowshoer should have a good shoe on his foot from the get-go, that way he – or she – will get the most out of the experience. “Inferior product can kill the market somewhat… you want to get people out there on product that’s a good quality.”

Northern Lites sells their snowshoes primarily by word of mouth. They also gain exposure for their product by offering discounted snowshoes to school programs, search and rescue organizations, and other causes they can support. Their shoe is used in the Midwest Special Olympics. But because they’re small, they can’t give away or discount product for everyone. Still, they’re very committed to supporting community snowshoe activities.

“We like to think we’re the Mazerati of snowshoes – without the Mazerati price,” says Russell.

– Havlick Snowshoes, Mayfield, N.Y. – http://www.creatcompsol.com/havlick/index.html –

Richard Havlick has been watching the migration of snowshoe manufacturing to China for the last few years. He seems sympathetic to the market forces that have caused the relocation of the big American plants. Manufacturing is expensive. “Take a kids shoe,” he says. “It costs the same to make as a full size shoe but you can’t sell it for the same price.”

Still, Havlick isn’t going to China yet.

Havlick started making wooden snowshoes back in the 60s. They’ve since stowed their steamers and frames and refocused on their metal line, which they’re really proud of. Richard mentions the rivets they use to put their shoes together. “We could by a half-cent rivet, but we use one that costs quite a lot more. We get better construction and the shoe acts kind of like a snow tire.” He mentions some other features that make their snowshoes, like their “trail tail” that protects the decking from wear and tear. These are the deal-breakers for him around selecting a snowshoe, not the shoe’s country of origin.

(Havlick does still make a wooden snowshoe binding, making it possible for snowshoes to have a top of the line updated binding attached to a classic wood-framed snowshoe.)

Richard Havlick is circumspect about what the manufacturing of Chinese snowshoes is going to do to the industry. And “Chinese made snowshoes are heavy,” he says. But he admits that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen if a $30 to $40 snowshoe starts showing up on the market.

The folks at Havlick have seen the market for snowshoes change over the years. “Our market used to be harvesters of syrup, surveyors, and hunters 40 years ago. But then it became trendy – now we sell to mostly recreational markets. This season we came out with the sprinter. Local guides are coming in and buying the sprinters for high peaks,” he said.

Havlick stays competitive by selling directly to the consumer. Because there’s no retail markup on their shoes, they’re able to match a gear store’s pricing. And they’ve embraced the Internet as an important part of their strategy. “We used to mail out a catalog, but the Web changed everything. Now if we come out with a new line, we just take some pictures and post them to the Web site.”

Richard doesn’t sound particularly nervous or worried for either his business or the sport. Plus, it seems that while Havlick naturally has an eye on the bottom line, it’s not their only consideration, they’re in it for the fun of it, too.” Our philosophy has been to enjoy what we do and to maintain contact with the people that do the sport. We’re more interested in putting out a good product and having a good time. We enjoy the sport and the people we meet.”

– Tubbs Snowshoes, Stowe, Vt. – http://www.tubbssnowshoes.com –

The Tubbs Snowshoe business has been a presence in Stowe for about 100 years. Tubbs will maintain a business office in the United States, but now that the factory has closed…Tubbs snowshoes will be produced offshore.

Marchelle Falcone has been with Tubbs through the transition and spoke about what’s happening now – and what they anticipate for Tubbs’ future.

K2 will maintain the Tubbs sales, marketing, and product development facility in Stowe. They’re committed to preserving the heritage of the Tubbs brand. K2 is also involved in helping displaced workers.

“We’re helping relocate all of our people in positions in the community. The folks who started the business grew up in Stowe and it’s important that they get all the help they need from K2.” Marchelle doesn’t sugar coat the difficulty but she speaks respectfully of K2. “The local impact has been really hard. The interest in their employees is genuine and the company is really caring.”

With regards to the outsourcing itself, Marchelle expressed the inevitability of the move.

“Over time, we probably would have had to go overseas anyway,” she said. “We were already headed that way with our low end products. We probably would have had to make the move to remain competitive: The K2 merger just made it happen faster.”

For the longer run, Marchelle was optimistic about the affect the move will have on Tubbs and about the benefits of the Tubbs/K2 relationship. And she thinks that it will benefit the people that buy snowshoes. “A lower cost product is just reality.” Even though snowshoeing is a popular family sport “parents will only pay so much to buy snowshoes for their kids.” Lower cost manufacturing makes it possible for Tubbs to offer discounted family pricing on their snowshoes.

She’s also optimistic about their products and about the sport in general. She talks about how access to all of K2′s family of brands will allow Tubbs to get involved in events and markets that they’ve not previously had access to. And, like her competitors, she mentions how getting more people on snowshoes can only be good for this fast growing sport.

– Atlas Snowshoes, Berkeley, Calif. – http://www.atlassnowshoe.com –

Atlas was the first company to make the big move overseas to China, and Karen Righthand was there for it. This year, all of Atlas’ snowshoes were made overseas. She’s honest about how hard it was and about the sensitivity of the issue. But she’s also candid about the improvements that have been made possible by the move.

The move to China wasn’t the first time she’s experienced the effects of a factory closure. Karen was there when they closed down the Atlas San Francisco facility and moved it to Grand Junction, Colo.

“It’s hard when you see people lose their jobs,” Karen said. “We had staff at our San Francisco site who worked at Atlas for their entire careers. And we had an incredible crew. They could manufacture 1,000 pairs of snowshoes in an eight-hour shift. Those people made us who we are; it was really hard to see them go.”

Now that K2 owns Atlas and manufactures Atlas gear at their China facility, the company has access to facilities and resources that Karen suggests they’d never have had on their own. “We can hurl resources at quality assurance problems, we can dedicate ourselves to making fixes and improvements in a way we just couldn’t do when we were in the United States.”

Karen suggests that a lot of the pressure to move comes from the consumer. A consumer demands a lower-priced product from the retailer. The retailer pushes that demand back to the manufacturer. And there you have it: U.S. retailers want to pay lower margins on their stock and consumers want to pay less for their snowshoes.

What concerns Karen most about offshore production are the companies who are building a “knock-off/me-too” brand of snowshoes. They’ll take a shoe from an experienced and committed company like Atlas, present it to a manufacturing company offshore and crank out thousands of snowshoes to flood the American market. Companies that do this aren’t committed to the sport, don’t invest in research, they don’t participate in organizations like WinterTrails (http://www.wintertrails.org) that “promote health, fitness and social aspects – and benefits – of snow sports.”

Atlas is clearly committed to the sport of snowshoeing. They sponsor the largest snowshoe racing team. They run snowshoeing workshops for women and their Web site is full of useful information for snowshoers.

Karen says that her impression is that the American shopper has taken a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to buying gear. They might ask where a shoe is made, but it’s just not that important to the buyer. In her entire time at Atlas, Karen has seen only one pair of snowshoes returned because they weren’t assembled in the United States.

– Country Ways/Wilcox and Williams, Minneapolis, Minn. – http://www.snowshoe.com –

Dyke Williams is bit of an independent when it comes to the snowshoe industry. His business (which he founded with partner Greg Williams) is one of the last American wood snowshoe manufacturers. But he’s not an anachronism, he’s totally tuned-in to new materials, the snowshoe industry, and the world of our sport.

He knew all about the Tubbs move and regretted it, saying it was the end of an era. But it’s not something that worries him personally. “We don’t consider ourselves in the same league; we’re not in competition with performance snowshoe makers.”

Dyke and I talked for a long time about snow. I described the over-my-knees powder I snowshoed (in Austria) this last season, and he talked about the “sun slab” and “wind slab” snow that you find above the tree lines where he lives and all over the place in the Cascades where I first strapped on a pair of snowshoes.

The wooden snowshoes that come out of Country Ways are for flotation, flotation, and flotation. The Ojibawa (with the pointed toe) and the Alaska (their largest shoe) are 75 percent larger than what Dyke calls an “urban snowshoe” or the metal-framed shoes that dominate the market. The deep dry powder that I had and the snow that Dyke sees in Minnesota just cry out for that extra flotation.

Quality and education are essential to Dyke when it comes to selling snowshoes. He laments the fact your average retail sales person doesn’t understand the features of a snowshoe. They need to know the type of snow you’ll be on; they need to know what kind of snowshoeing you’ll be doing. He knows his product isn’t perfect for every situation – “don’t even TRY to race in our snowshoes!” he says, laughing. “And they’re not for making summits. You’ll want an urban snowshoe for that.”

Even though his market and his customers are different than Atlas customers, Dyke shared Karen Righthand’s dismay over cheap made-in-China knock off snowshoes being dumped on the market. “It cheapens the sport and it drags us all down,” he said. He doesn’t discount the market forces that drove Atlas and Tubbs to China, but he doesn’t have anything nice to say about companies that produce snowshoes for the American market without having the knowledge and investment in the sport. “I don’t think the consumer dismisses a product immediately because it’s made in China, but when they’re looking at a knock-off product, they have the sense that it’s not a quality item, it’s not a quality sport. And they walk away. This is bad for all of us.”

Dyke, like Kris Kaprowski (Redfeather), commented on shopping in a post 9-11 America as a possible factor, but he doesn’t give it a lot of weight. “People like the idea of a U.S.-made snowshoe, but they also like the idea of a Canadian snowshoe since there’s this perception that snowshoeing comes from Canada.”

Since he’s something of an outlier, Dyke doesn’t express any concerns for his own business because of the factory move. He’s tuned in to the broader issues around the sport, but when you talk to Dyke Williams, you talk to a man who is confident in his business and his product.

“People get a pair of urban snowshoes and then they come to us when they realize they’re on the wrong shoe for the snow they’re in,” Dyke said. “Or they come back to us when they’ve worn out or broken their other snowshoes. We’re not striving to be a mass manufacturer. We don’t build to a price point – we build the way things should be built and see if we can get the world to pay for it.” He admits that his approach might be a little unconventional, but he likes it that way.

– Conclusions –

Design, service, innovation, research… these are the things that are going to keep smaller, U.S.-based companies alive. Industry consolidation and lower cost manufacturing could mean that, for the next season or two, snowshoes are what everyone is giving – and getting – for the holidays. But for seasoned snowshoers, there’s more to it than snowshoes as the trendy gift of the year. Snowshoe manufacturers seem unified, philosophically at least, about this: Educated consumers will make discerning choices when it comes to buying their snowshoes.

I came away with a much more sympathetic view of the offshore move than I’d expected to. What am I going to shop for next time I’m looking for new snowshoes? Of course I’m going to look at features, but I’m likely to cast a broader eye at the company that’s making the shoes. Do they provide gear to school programs? Do they invest in environmental causes? Do they support athletes and advocates alike? I want my shoes to come from a company that knows the sport.

Maybe my next pair of snowshoes will be made in China, I don’t know. I do know that they’ll come from a company that is invested in snowshoeing and the people that participate in the sport. After talking to all these people I don’t think that the location of the production factory, be it in Colorado or China or Maine, determines a company’s level of commitment to the sport. It’s bigger than that.