Japan’s Cult Outdoor Brand Wants You to Test Its Thousand-Dollar Tents

Luxury outdoor brand Snow Peak Inc. has a cult following in Japan among the kind of campers who are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a tent. Now, the 63-year old company is setting its sights on the country “where camping culture originated”—the United States. 

That’s how 33-year old company president Lisa Yamai describes Snow Peak’s next target. The company is investing $8 million in its own camping ground in the state of Washington, where, if all goes to plan, visitors will be able to borrow and test its products for themselves from July 2022. The aim is to make 30% of sales revenue overseas by 2023.

“The U.S. market is well primed for the expansion of camping gear companies, including high-end ones,” says Alex Jarman, research analyst at Euromonitor International. Appetite for outdoor leisure activities is increasing even as Covid vaccination rates rise, he adds.

Japan’s Cult Outdoor Brand Wants You to Test Its Thousand-Dollar Tents

“Companies such as Snow Peak are well positioned to take advantage of this growing demand, especially around some of the most popular camping destinations in the western U.S.,” Jarman says.

Camping is a relatively niche pastime in Japan: About 5% of the population took part in 2020, according to Japan Auto Camping Foundation. By contrast, 48.2 million U.S. households—close to 40%—camped at least once in 2020, data from Kampgrounds of America show.

Snow Peak’s prices are certainly at the higher end of what U.S. consumers might expect to pay, even if this is not Louis Vuitton outdoor gear territory. A two-room tent aimed at families retails at 174,900 yen ($1,590), while a tent-and-tarpaulin starter pack for camping newbies costs 54,780 yen.

The company also produces the sort of minimalist outdoor apparel worn in urban settings as well as on mountainsides. The brand—whose adherents are known as “Snow Peakers”—has had a boost from such fashion trends as gorpcore and athleisure, according to Michael Causton, an analyst at research firm JapanConsuming who writes for SmartKarma. 

Japan’s Cult Outdoor Brand Wants You to Test Its Thousand-Dollar Tents

Yamai acknowledges Snow Peak’s price point may deter some shoppers, but says it reflects the goods’ quality and lifetime warranty.

“When you think about quality and the resilience of these products, they end up in that price range,” she says. “Customers need quality that lets them spend time outdoors comfortably—it would really ruin their experience if the tent leaked on a rainy day.” The firm’s tents are designed in Japan, while material sourcing and manufacturing mainly takes place in Southeast Asia.

Sam Godin, a 31-year-old American living in Japan, has been using Snow Peak cookware for about six years and agrees that quality is key to the brand’s appeal. 

“The biggest draw of Snow Peak was that most of their goods for hiking and camping were titanium,” he says, making them lighter and stronger than aluminum products. The lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies says he owns a Snow Peak French press and pocket-sized GigaPower Stove, which weighs only 120 grams (4.23 ounces).

The brand’s reputation for quality will speak to some affluent U.S. customers, according to Causton.

“Snow Peak has authenticity, precision engineering, and design. Those three are a very powerful combination,” he says. “The biggest trend in the higher-end consumption is that consumers are looking for authenticity. And Snow Peak has that in its company history.”

Japan’s Cult Outdoor Brand Wants You to Test Its Thousand-Dollar Tents

Founded in 1958 by Yamai’s grandfather, Yukio, the company started life as a metal hardware manufacturer in Japan’s Niigata region. An avid mountaineer, Yukio engaged local craftsmen to produce gear for his own expeditions to nearby Mount Tanigawa—the snowy peak that, according to company lore, gave the brand its name. 

The business refocused as a maker of high-end camping gear under Yukio’s son, Tohru, who joined the company in 1986 and spent 24 years as its president. Lisa joined in 2012 and helped establish the company’s clothing line before taking over as president in 2020.

The planned Washington campsite is not Snow Peak’s only venture beyond making outdoor gear. In Japan, it runs campsites for  “glamping” and for conducting business meetings, and even acts as a design consultant for homeowners seeking to incorporate camping-style elements into their backyards.

Snow Peak is also building a spa resort designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma at its 123-acre Niigata headquarters, as well as a restaurant and a holiday villa. Yamai says the company is considering building houses there, in which Snow Peakers can live for an extended period of time and “experience a lifestyle centered around nature.”

So far, the company’s ambitions have served it well. Shares have surged almost 600% from the March 2020 low, when the pandemic rout hit the markets, and operating profit jumped 62% in 2020 from the previous year.

Japan’s Cult Outdoor Brand Wants You to Test Its Thousand-Dollar Tents

The brand will have to differentiate itself effectively to succeed in the U.S. market, though, Euromonitor’s Jarman points out. “There are numerous well-established brands serving the market, both in-store and digitally,” he says. 

For Snow Peaker Godin, good quality is worth paying for.  

“They make some pretty durable products,” he says. “I’ve recommended Snow Peak’s stove with the auto igniter to more than a few friends.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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