Chris King, head of sales at Ardblair Sports, talks to Mark Hayhurst about the brand, it’s identity, new markets and its future.
Founded in 1977, family-owned and run, Ardblair Sports Importers has gone from strength-to-strength in the outdoor, winter sports and trail running sectors. There is synergy and cross-over in the brands that they distribute.
Their brands include:
Aku – Quality Italian footwear from mountaineering boots to active free-time footwear. The first and only company in the footwear sector to achieve the international EPD System certificate. AKU have great environmental credentials.
Aku Tactical – A range of boots especially designed for military and tactical use. The now famous Pilgrim boot is issued to the British MOD but other models are supplied to the Swiss, Danish and Italian military, among others.
Leki – Known worldwide for their pioneering ski, trekking, Nordic walking and trail-running poles and accessories.
As a distributor, Ardblair look to get their brands into the right marketplaces with the right people.
Chris said: “It’s about brand mentality, trying to have an approach to the market which is, you’re still a distributor but you have to add value through an understanding of how brands work. Ultimately, it’s down to the retail buyer to make their choice. So, we must stand on our own merits. That’s the merits of brand, product, commercial supply and, ultimately, whether it sells and if we just keep doing the basics, right, we’ll get somewhere.”
Ardblair Sports brands standout in the marketplace but Chris wants to further the reach of their products.
He said: “Aku shoes, like Spider and Pilgrim, are well recognised within the tactical market and are part of the furniture.
“Within the outdoor fraternity, we tick all the boxes in terms of sustainability. Mostly what we sell, at least in the UK, is European made. But I think what’s interesting about Aku is that they’re not necessarily ‘Brown’. What I mean by that is if you look at what’s ranged on the walls, Scarpa, Zamberlan and Meindl, they’re generally brown in colour.
“I think what we can do in the UK is to bring something that has all the qualities and performance functions of our competitors but do it in a livelier way. It’s not just about function and fit, we’re good at that, or sustainability and supply, we can do all of that. I think it’s also trying to appeal to the customer who want something a bit more interesting.”
The definition of outdoor has been evolving over recent years. It no longer means just hiking for days in the hills. It is becoming a lifestyle, as more and more people wear outdoor gear in cities and towns, walking from their doorsteps into the countryside.
Chris said: “I think operating in the outdoor industry can sometimes be something of a self-serving echo chamber, that we sell to people like us. I sat in Edale, in the Peak District, for a day, and everybody was going up Jacob’s Ladder and people like me were very much in the minority. There are a lot of new market entrants were they will buy something that works from all sorts of different places.
“So, how do you get them to buy our product offering? Having something like the Slope Original and the Ultralight Original, which are old products but very colourful, resonate with the younger market and they work. So, we have something useful to say to get those people who might buy from a Decathlon or a Mountain Warehouse. I think that the further they get into what they do they may start to affiliate with the more technical outdoor brands – it’s not a given but I think we can begin to appeal to that customer in a way that isn’t just brown.”
Ardblair Sports want to push their products to new customers but sometimes it isn’t easy to persuade a younger generation to get on board. However, Chris believes it isn’t unsurmountable.
He said:“Leki are the market leader in poles and are a massive brand. When we’re talking about these new market entrants, and younger folk, how do you make poles relevant to them? Certainly, as they progress in the outdoors they see poles being used in the correct environment. If you’re hiking, poles do make sense but, culturally, it’s quite hard to get that over to young folk so that they don’t feel self-conscious. However, in a mountain area they won’t, so they become intrigued and then you can educate them.
“I think, where Leki is concerned, there’s an ongoing process to introduce people to poles who think they are only for old people.”
Lexi are the go-to-poles for many outdoor athletes and Ardblair Sports are making moves to up their visibility and coolness.
Chris said: “If you look at the Cross Trail market, with trail running, they use some of our more performance-led poles and we’ve struggled to sell our entry level ones. So, Leki poles are kind of sexy and cool.
“We’ve had a rebrand this year. I was quite happy with how ours looked and then, bingo, they refresh it and the former ones looks quite old fashioned. So, it is about how fresh it looks and pinnacle performance that’s relevant to the customer and trying to communicate that.
“What we’re trying to do at Leki is to be a global brand. So Leki are coming to the Cairngorms to take photography for their general marketing. So rather than having a Germanic look, the models will be wearing a bright green top and an orange pair of shorts in a Scottish environment. It becomes more global because you build up the different locations and visual representations. But it’s also about having people who reflect the user as well.
“When you look at Leki or Aku there’s very much an elite level aspect. While there’s nothing wrong with that you can then add different levels. I mean, I’m not exactly an elite. You can equip me with standard walking poles, standard boots, then at least I’m relatable.
“I think whatever the brand, it’s about being relatable in terms of the imagery and the marketing that you use, it’s about being good functionally and doing things in the right way.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, with the ensuing lockdown, saw more people take to the outdoors for exercise and mental wellbeing. This had an added boost for outdoor sales, attracting new customers and opening up new markets. Ardblair Sports was no exception.
Chris said: “I think that there continues to be, you know, an existential searching within people about the nature of lockdown, about what the heck are we doing with our lives?
“People are talking more about the mental and physical benefits of the outdoors. Today we’re going for a walk, in all its different forms, you can do it from your front door, you can go for two minutes or for as long as you like, and you can pick the equipment that you want.
“The UK has historically been quite poor in the male/female split and I think that’s reflective of the culture that we have in outdoor, it’s quite male.
“But athleisure has really held the mirror up to attracting women and doing things in a different way. For the first time ever, we have a 50/50 male female participation in outdoor and, you know, that reflects the status quo in the USA, and Europe, which the UK has been lagging behind.
“All of a sudden we have to think about how we communicate because there are markets out there that we haven’t been addressing.”
Looking to future, there could be some uncertainty in the outdoor market but Chris is confident that Ardblair Sport can weather any storm on the horizon.
He said: “I’m really hoping for a bit of stability, to be perfectly honest with you. On the one hand, we’re having good sales and that’s been great, in very difficult circumstances. But, I think we just just need to stop for a minute. Things need to be balanced. Happily, there isn’t a surplus of stock out there. But there is an ongoing stress of excess demand that’s been placed upon raw materials, manufacturing, which then places stresses on cost prices.
“These were happening anyway but are exacerbated by excess demand. You’re actually beating your own budgets and yet you’re missing sales opportunities. I think what we’d like is a bit of predictability. Because if you have excess demand, the fear is that it’ll go the other way. So, what I’m expecting, and it’s reflected by our forward orders for early 23, is more of a controlled environment.
“We’re all aware of the threat to the economy. And I think that will happen. But outdoor has proved itself to be resilient in putting up with that. Because if you haven’t got any money, then you still want to do fun stuff, put a pair of walking boots on. You can spend as much or as little as you like.
“From what I’ve been reading, it’s a frictional form of economic downturn that is predicted, it’s people tightening their belts for a period of time. I think that’s different from it being a structural recession, as we had in the 80s. I think we may see a period of six to 18 months. But happily, if you just keep a level head and don’t get carried away, you’ll be okay.”