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To sustain the market for outdoor jackets in China, domestic manufacturers and retailers must prioritize their brands’ core values rather than solely relying on low prices to drive sales

By Meng Qian Updated Feb.1

An Arc’teryx store at the GR Shopping Mall, Beijing, February 2023 (Photo by VCG)

A store of the outdoor wear brand The North Face at a shopping mall in Beijing, August 11, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

Chinese outdoor wear brand Kailas displays clothing and equipment at the 9th ISPO Beijing, a leading multi-segment sports exhibition in Asia, Beijing, February 27, 2013 (Photo by VCG)

While browsing at Faya Factory Outlet between Beijing’s Second and Third Ring roads, a shopper was surprised to find Chinese outdoor brand Toread’s latest outdoor jacket for women selling for 1,799 yuan (US$246). He said it was expensive, considering he only paid about 800 yuan (US$109) for a blue three-layered jacket by The North Face around five years earlier.  

“This is our latest design,” the shop assistant said, pointing out the ivory-colored jacket, “Its first layer is super waterproof, and the second has down feathers to keep you warm in Beijing’s freezing weather.”  

These features and prices challenge general perceptions of the brand among Chinese consumers. On a popular post from October 21, 2021 on Q&A forum Zhihu, Toread was described as a “low-end” outdoor brand priced at no more than 1,000 yuan (US$140).  

Regardless of the price hike, the shop assistant said outdoor jackets from domestic brands are a major source of revenue.  

Though still in their nascent stages, Chinese outdoor brands such as Camel and Pelliot have profited handsomely from the surge in demand for outdoor jackets despite the competitive market.  

In the first half of 2022, Camel secured nearly 40 percent of outdoor jacket sales on Douyin, China’s TikTok, and 80 percent in the second half, news outlet The Paper reported on October 8. That year, sales of outdoor wear on Douyin totaled 2 billion yuan (US$270m), a year-on-year increase of 382 percent.  

From January to July 2023, the momentum continued with growth of 337 percent, reaching 1.3 billion yuan (US$180m) in sales, among which Camel netted nearly 800 million yuan (US$109.52m), The Paper reported. Revenues for Pelliot hit 500 million yuan (US$68.45m) in 2022, and are expected to reach 1.5 billion yuan (US$210m) this year, online portal NetEase reported on August 5.  

But industry experts warned that low prices are not enough to maintain sustainable growth, and the gap in material tech and branding strategies between domestic and overseas producers will continue to widen if Chinese manufacturers rely on pricing tactics alone.  

Warming Up 
Zhou Yao, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Sanmen, a county in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, has been tasked with promoting the area’s outdoor brands to help boost the local economy since June 2022.  

Two months after he took on the assignment, Zhou set up a team with Zhejiang Taizhou Senmo Outdoor Sports Products Co Ltd to sell their outdoor jackets factory-direct through livestreams. Sales skyrocketed from around 800 jackets a day to over 5,000 by September 2022. Over the next months, the number of accounts livestreaming their products grew from one to 12, one of which peaked at second in the sales rankings for its category on Douyin, next only to Camel.  
“Now is the season for outdoor jackets, and sales on our most popular livestreaming channel are expected to reach about 10,000 a day,” Zhou told NewsChina.  

Zhou attributes the recent success of outdoor wear brands to China’s three-year pandemic lockdown. Before the outbreak in 2020, outdoor sports in China registered a participation rate of a mere 10 percent of the country’s total population. By 2022, the rate grew to 28 percent, according to industry think tank vzkoo.com on November 11, 2022.  

That rate is more than 50 percent in developed countries like the US, leaving much more room for growth, vzkoo.com reported.  

According to global market analysis platform Euromonitor and its Chinese counterpart Insight and Info, the market scale of outdoor sports products in China soared from 166.9 billion yuan (US$22.82b) in 2015 to 357.5 billion yuan (US$48.87b) in 2021, registering a compound annual growth rate of 13.5 percent. In 2025, it is forecast to hit 600 billion yuan (US$82.02b).  

Among these products, outdoor jackets are raking in the largest profits.  

Sales of outdoor jackets on top e-commerce platforms Douyin and Taobao reached a total of 9.29 billion yuan (US$1.29b) between January 2022 and September 2023, up around 81 percent year-on-year, according to e-commerce marketing and data analysis platform Moojing Market Intelligence (MMI).  

Engaged in outdoor jacket ecommerce for over 10 years, Huang Min told NewsChina that one of her colleagues netted 29 million yuan (US$3.96m) in a single day in 2022 selling a lesser-known brand, exemplifying last year’s burgeoning market.  

The colossal demand for jackets has been largely fueled by first-time buyers, who largely turn to influencers on lifestyle platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu for advice.  

Xiaohongshu racked up 1.08 million short videos on outdoor jackets, while trending hashtags pulled in more than 58 million views on Douyin.  

Compared with expensive down-filled clothing which can end up piled high in warehouses if there is a mild winter, the outdoor jacket market is immune to changes in the weather, an anonymous industry insider told NewsChina.  

Multi-layered detachable outdoor jackets are much more versatile. “They can be worn for months regardless of how the weather changes,” an MMI analyst speaking on condition of anonymity told NewsChina. 

Low-price Dilemma 
Despite the large sales volume, Zhou said an outdoor jacket priced at 199 yuan (US$27), which includes a 30-percent added value, is extremely low compared to international brands such as US’s North Face and Colombia. He attributed the thin margins to the lack of high-tech innovation, which confines domestic brands to the low-end market.  

“The value of outdoor jackets depends on their protective functions, such as defending against extremely cold weather, which requires advanced materials and manufacturing technologies,” Huang Yubing, dean of the Sanmen Research Institute, Zhejiang Science-Technology University in Hangzhou, told NewsChina.  

“But many domestic manufacturers lack advanced technologies and make products suited only to mild weather conditions, pricing them on par with ordinary clothing,” Huang added.  

In 2016, the China Standardization Administration (SAC) released quality standards for outdoor jacket manufacturing, covering waterproofing, material durability and color resilience. On September 7, SAC upgraded several standards for materials, coatings and moisture permeability. The US, Japan and Europe also have their own unique criteria.  

However, these moves have done little to change the market landscape, nor have they helped raise the prices of big domestic brands.  

According to MMI, current prices for Camel and Pelliot jackets average at 598 and 647 yuan (US$82-88), while average prices for North Face and Colombia are 1,706 (US$233) and 1,410 yuan (US$193), and Canada-based Arc’teryx averages 3,921 yuan (US$536).  

Experts blame lagging technology and marketing strategies for the gap.  

According to Huang, supplies for international brands such as North Face, Arc’teryx and Mammut of Switzerland are meticulously calculated to sell out stock quickly before rolling out new products. In contrast, Chinese producers, which compete fiercely in constant price wars to reduce inventories, are more exposed to fluctuations in market demand.  

“Because major international brands established outdoor sports businesses much earlier than domestic ones, they have the background and experience necessary to carve out their niche markets,” a representative for Toread’s sales department told NewsChina.  

Sun Na, brand director for mid-range outdoor sports supplier Kailas, headquartered in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, told NewsChina that growing demand for low-priced outdoor wear will wane as Chinese outdoor enthusiasts become more sophisticated in their purchases and seek out quality specialized products.  

Zhou said shoppers on their livestreaming channels are asking more specific questions about their jackets’ protective functions. “They are increasingly more informed,” he said.  

Core-tech Conundrum 
The greatest challenge for domestic manufacturers looking to compete for higher-end market share is materials technology, which is key to the quality and pricing of outdoor jackets.  

“When we sell our fabrics at 20 yuan (US$3) per meter, big international brands can increase their prices tenfold in added value. That is hard to catch up with,” Pan Litai, head of the Outdoor Jackets Association of Sanmen County, told NewsChina.  

Dominating the high-end outdoor jacket market for over six decades, materials manufacturer Gore-Tex, which supplies many high-profile outdoor brands like Arc’teryx up to the aerospace and military industries with its waterproof, breathable fabrics, poses the greatest threat to Chinese manufacturers.  

“Even North Face, which attempted to dethrone Arc’teryx by setting up their own material production lines, has had to admit that the extreme weather fabric technologies of GoreTex are difficult to challenge, let alone replace,” Tian Xiaomeng, founder of outdoor jacket online retailer Wanwuxinxuan, told NewsChina.  

First serving as factories for major overseas brands, manufacturers from Sanmen County are now seeking to upgrade their technologies after the local government became aware of the potential risk of overlapping capacity.  

Partnering with Zhejiang University of Science and Technology since 2019, local entrepreneurs have implemented technologies like thermal storage, graphenic anti-bacterial material and color-changing dyes. Their cooperation includes developing designs that appeal to younger consumers and market feedback analysis. But their collaboration still needs time to prove its effectiveness. 

Other brands such as sun-protective clothing maker Beneunder and fashion brand Bosideng are also entering the outdoor jacket market.  

But Cheng Weixiong, founder of Shanghai Liangqi Brand Management Co Ltd, told NewsChina that unlike ordinary clothing, the tech threshold to the outdoor jacket market is high.  

“The fundamental problem for Chinese brands is their overlapping designs, which are easy to replicate and surpass,” Cheng said.  

According to MMI, Chinese brands need to shoot for mid-range products with diverse designs to broaden their influence, which in the future may increase their chances of accessing the high-end market.  

“A brand cannot become popular overnight,” a representative from an outdoor sports brand designer told NewsChina. “Every big brand has a flagship product, meaning producers who want to access high-end markets need at least one exclusive technology and must explore it thoroughly enough before launching a spectacular roll-out.”