Will Columbia Sportswear benefit from a greater focus on wholesale?

October 04, 2022

At its premiere Investor Day in 84 years of history, Columbia Sportswear has announced plans to “double down” on wholesale growth even as many other active lifestyle brands emphasize direct-to-consumer (DTC) initiatives.

At last week’s event, Tim Sheerin, SVP, Global Wholesale, said that when he first joined the company in 2016, CEO Tim Boyle described the Columbia brand as “humble, approachable , democratic”.

“Perhaps the most interesting of the three words for me was democratic,” said Mr. Sheerin, who previously led Nike’s North American sales. “We all know brands that want to be the most premium and many of them are moving towards a direct business model. At Columbia, we want our brands, we want our products, we want our distribution to be more democratic.

The top 50 strategic partners represent 75% of Columbia’s wholesale business, and this is expected to grow. Mr. Sheerin said: “Retail partners are building great relationships with a broad consumer base and we believe these partners will be able to grow those consumer relationships for years to come.”

Columbia also works with smaller stories specializing in outdoor space and fashion “to help authenticate our product.”

Mr Sheerin, however, said Columbia’s market is “digitally driven”, not only because the fastest growth is expected to occur online, but also because Columbia.com is the first place consumers discover the Mark. He said, “It’s the face of the brand. This is our story. Our party. It is our product. This is our innovation. This is where we focus our messaging and content.

In the US, Canada and Europe, the brand is focusing its physical retail strategy on its outlet stores with an emphasis on full price to deliver differentiation and high storytelling to wholesale accounts.

Mr. Sheerin added, “We create our content with an eye on columbia.com, but the backbone of our business rests with our strategic partners. So we’ll take that content, work with our partners, and help improve the Columbia shopping experience in their stores and on their website.

Columbia’s focus on wholesaling runs counter to the growing move toward direct selling of The North Face, Patagonia, Arc’teryx and Canada Goose in the outdoor space, as well as Nike, Adidas, Polo Ralph Lauren and other major apparel players.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does Columbia Sportswear’s focus on brick-and-mortar wholesale relationships versus owned brick-and-mortar relationships make sense? What should guide a brand’s decision to focus on third-party selling rather than direct selling?

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