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On the adventure trail

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Mr Harkirat Singh, Managing Director, Woodland Worldwide. _ Bijoy Ghosh
Mr Harkirat Singh, Managing Director, Woodland Worldwide. _ Bijoy Ghosh

After shoes and apparel, Woodland will now launch specialised products for extreme sports.

In his short-sleeved black shirt, a pair of faded denims and, of course, Woodland shoes, the slim Harkirat Singh looks like an athlete himself. He is the man behind the outdoor adventure wear brand Woodland, an Indian brand with roots in Canada.

Singh was in Chennai recently on a “routine trade visit”. He is busy with expansion plans, market studies and frequent meetings with his design and R&D teams. He wants to expand the brand’s product range and its retail network further – in India and beyond.

Despite the stiff fight posed by lighter and sportier footwear from the likes of Adidas, Nike and Puma, “we are doing really well”, he says. When Woodland shoes were launched in India in the early ’90s, the footwear market here was largely unorganised.

By positioning itself as a rugged, outdoor leather shoe brand, the kind usually preferred by those fond of adventure, Woodland has carved out a place for itself in the market. “We created a new category of specialised adventure sports shoes, and our products were known for quality and durability,” he says. They were an instant hit with the youth.

That was the beginning, and the brand gradually developed a product line to include apparel, a kids’ collection and handbags for women. It recently floated a sub-brand, Woods, to offer shoes and accessories in formalwear.

As a brand, Woodland always acknowledged the feedback of its customers and has worked towards innovating products to suit the needs of the consumer, he said, citing its kids’ and women’s collections as examples.

Women, in general, do not buy expensive shoes, so, for them “we are working with some fashion designers to create some acceptable models at affordable prices”; and kids do not want to buy anything that says ‘for kids’; that’s why Woodland does not call them a kids’ range.

Singh’s team is currently working on expanding the portfolio. Woodland will venture into adventure gear – from clothes to shoes and more. These will be specialised products for extreme sports such as mountaineering and skiing. Going forward, Woodland will also make tents, sleeping bags and all that one can associate with adventure travels and sports.

Incidentally, Woodland also wants to be very much in tune with nature. The company is in the process of making its entire range of shoes and apparel environment-friendly over a period, using a two-pronged strategy: using materials and chemicals that do not harm nature, and making the manufacturing process less harmful. It will also promote the brand along the same lines. The company has made a beginning with the launch of a new range of biodegradable shoes. “The intent is to make eco-friendliness our brand recall.”

As of now, there is no serious competition for the brand in India, except the US-based Timberland. Timberland in tie-up with Reliance Retail has ventured into India and has set up a few large-format stores in major cities. “This has made us sit up and be more vigilant,” Singh says.

However, with the directive of FDI in retail, many brands will be entering the fray. “But, we feel they will compliment us and together we will develop and enlarge the outdoor adventure wear space and make the market for specialised products bigger and bigger.”

Woodland has been a relatively early player in retail. It set up exclusive brand outlets in the early Nineties when there were not that many, except Bata. Even today, Woodland is probably the only brand that has 350 exclusive outlets, all owned and operated by the company. This apart, it also sells in over 4,000 multi-brand outlets across the country.

The franchisee route would have been a better way to expand, but “as we always wanted to give a brand experience to the consumer, we chose to be on our own”. Initially, Woodland tried the franchisee model. But, Singh says, the owners started cutting corners; they did not want to stock expensive models, and wanted to keep the inventory very small, which “were unacceptable to us”.

The promoter family seems to be so possessive about the brand Woodland that it do not want to dilute its stake to any private equity players.

“We want to keep an iron grip on the company in India,” says Singh in a lighter vein. However, he said it may consider that for its proposed overseas operations.

Woodland closed the year 2011-12 with close to Rs 700 crore in turnover. This year, with the proposed 50 new stores, it expects to post 20-25 per cent growth.

This kind of success has given the brand the confidence to test a few overseas markets as well.

Woodland is currently seeding the market in China. It plans to launch its products through shop-in-shop model there. “It’s not that easy to open own retail stores in China. Maybe after a couple of years, we plan our own stores there.” CIS countries (Commonwealth of Independent States) are also on Woodland’s radar. He says its legacy, the product quality, and its understanding of current trends and consumer needs, constant innovation and efforts to be an eco-friendly brand is what makes Woodland a trusted brand.

For marketing, it bets big on the electronic medium. It has tied up with “like-minded” channels such as Discovery, MTV and National Geographic.

Ask Singh how he wants his brand to be perceived, and he says the brand Woodland should echo adventure. “Whenever anybody thinks about adventure, we want them to think Woodland”.

(This article was published on July 26, 2012)
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