Daredevil wears…

Intrepid sole Harkirat Singh, Managing Director, Woodland India

Largely seen as a lifestyle brand in India, outdoor gear maker Woodland now woos the nascent adventure sport market

Trekking at high altitudes can be gruelling. At 17,000 ft above sea level, the temperature can plummet from 20 degrees Celsius to minus-20 within hours. Winds lash above 150 kmph, straining every effort to stay the course. And on the frozen Chadar lake in Leh, an ice-break means a plunge into biting-cold water and the onset of pneumonia within minutes.

Under such treacherous conditions, besides providence, trekkers and climbers put their faith in their gear. Can the jacket keep one warm when the air around freezes? Is the shoe’s grip firm enough to clamber up a boulder without slipping? Is there any danger of the backpack’s zipper getting stuck?

Life-saving questions these, and Harkirat Singh has viewed them as market opportunities. The market, however, was not ready back in 1992, when he brought Canadian outdoor gear brand Woodland to India. The brand was part of the deal when Singh, whose family exported leather products, bought his beleaguered Canadian client’s business. Waterproof and heat-retaining shoes made sense in that country, but not in most parts of India, where 80 per cent of Woodland’s revenues comes from footwear and apparel. “When we started, the market was not ready for the outdoors. Buyers saw Woodland as a lifestyle brand,” says Singh. Today, after almost 25 years, he believes the time has come. “We were always sure about the category… For the past few years, adventure sport has been catching on in India.”

Innovations ahead

Already in the market with its adventure sports footwear and apparel, including trekking boots and lightweight jackets, Woodland now plans to introduce more products. It has made prototypes of rugged mobile phones, anti-mosquito clothing and dry suits for sea-diving.

“The [outdoor adventure gear] segment is not big in India, but is growing fast at double-digit rates,” says Singh. Woodland dominates the adventure footwear category, estimated to be a little over 10 per cent of the ₹50,000-crore outdoor gear market in India. The company, which clocked revenues of ₹1,200 crore in 2014, claims a similar dominance in the adventure apparel segment.

The launch of new products — cycles, surfboards and kayaks are in the pipeline too — will help it penetrate deeper in this growing market. Earlier this year, it launched outdoor eyewear that offers UV protection and can be used in extreme conditions.

Customer’s choice

New products are typically launched at the company’s flagship stores to gauge consumer responses. Countrywide it has a network of 600 stores. “We open 60-70 new stores every year. It is easy to launch a new product,” says Singh. This comes as good news for Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu and Srinivasa Prasath, loyal users of Woodland products.

“There is huge scope in the segment as even schools now hold sessions on adventure sports,” says Dharmshaktu, a Border Security Force personnel who has been mountaineering, rafting and scuba diving for 26 years. The 44-year-old adventure junkie, who has scaled Mount Everest five times, swears by Woodland’s jackets and pants: “The gear plays an important role in enhancing our performance. There has to be trust that the tent you are using, or the rope you are holding on to, doesn’t give way under tough conditions.”

Prasath, an IT professional in Hyderabad, goes trekking at least twice a year. He is excited about Woodland’s plans for a rugged mobile phone. “The company already has a solar charger. It will go really well with an all-terrain mobile phone,” he adds. Though mobile network is poor at high altitudes in India, a phone will prove handy during emergencies.

Competing times

The adventure sports market witnessed some dramatic developments this year. Timberland, the American maker of adventure gear, exited India after failing to make inroads. That exit, many say, was hastened by a legal tussle with Woodland. The companies have similar-looking logos and product portfolios that almost mirror each other.

Even after Timberland’s exit, Woodland is left with stiff competition. French sports goods chain Decathlon, known for large outlets, recently opened one on the outskirts of Chennai. It has a 5,000 sq ft play area, where customers can try out products. Additionally, the company manufactures more than half its wares in India, keeping costs low and products competitively priced.

Singh cannot afford to overlook that. “Woodland products are almost the same (in quality as foreign ones), but there is a huge difference in cost,” says Dharmshaktu.

The company partly manufactures at its facilities in India and aboard, and sources the rest from overseas suppliers. Singh also partners with international players for product development. Woodland’s umbrellas are made by a German company, whose name he declines to share due to confidentiality clauses.

Still, customer feedback and reviews of Woodland products on some e-commerce sites are not pleasant. Singh will have to win them over if he wants his company to successfully transition from a lifestyle to an adventure sports brand — a task no less challenging than a high-altitude climb.

Published on November 27, 2015

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