Author: DK Woon
The Importance of Knowing Your Customer
Snow Peak is a brand we’ve been fans of for quite a while at SKEWED. Their product is incredible. We’ve used their gear on numerous camping trips. What we love most is how inclusive their vision of camping is. It doesn’t always have to be a survivalist adventure. They understand the importance of making nature accessible whilst still maintaining a needle eye for quality and detail. To us, Snow Peak is a rather unique brand that has few if any peers.
To introduce the brand we conducted an interview with Emily Dillon - Wholesale Manager of Snow Peak’s European operation. We started out chat with Emily in a mazy manner - eventually getting to the ‘interview’ portion of our conversation after having covered a multitude of topics. For the sake of brevity we’ve edited down the conversation a little, so you don’t have to read our nattering. I think you will find that her natural enthusiasm for Snow Peak really comes across. An enthusiasm that we feel too! That’s the very reason we bought the brand.
In Sweden which is where SKEWED was founded, they have Allemansrätten, which is basically the right to roam. You can camp anywhere in Sweden. It’s kinda cool right?
It’s a shame, it doesn’t exist here and you can only do that in Dartmoor! Or Scotland.
In terms of Snow Peak being in Europe, in general, what’s the European plan, or is it more of a London plan?
No, for us, expanding in Europe is really exciting. We’ve seen a huge boom in business since lock down, everyone is aspiring to get outdoors.
When I started with Snow Peak, nearly two years ago now, we were selling quite a small proportion of the gear. Basically, everything you saw in the window of Goodhood were my best sellers. What we’ve seen since the pandemic, it’s items like the trek series, our titanium and aluminium cooking sets, have become much more popular. The appreciation and understanding for Snow Peak products across the range of products we create is increasing.
Products that people struggled to understand due to their elevated price point, like the beautiful single action rack, a £650 shelving unit, the demand for the product has soared since lockdown. People seem to love the story of our brand and that we’re creating products to last a lifetime. Many of our products we create with craftspeople in Japan. Everything we design is really considered, product that’s fit for purpose. When I talk through a new customer through the collection, something that I like to use as an example of our brand ethos is, the backpackers cup, which SKEWED are buying.
When I was in Japan on The Snow Peak Way, our customer camping event, every day I ate breakfast out of the back packers cup. I think actually ate every meal for four days from the backpackers cup. You get a surprising amount in. It’s a really useful vessel because, it’s single-walled, so that you can put it directly onto a heat source. That could go onto your fire pit to cook in, you can eat out of it, drink out of it or use it as a measuring scoop.
This is the stainless steel version. We also make it also in titanium. The reason we produce it in two different materials is, if you’re camping with your family and you’ve got small children, and you don’t want something really lightweight that they’re going to knock over, you’re probably going to go with the heavier material, which would be stainless steel.
If you’re walking up to the top of a mountain and you want to have a cup of tea there and the amount of weight you’re carrying is really important, you’ll then likely opt for the titanium version which is 63 grams lighter. Or is it really windy? If so you probably want the heavier weight material that won’t blow over. That’s what I love about the options of materials in our gear, there’s always a clear thought process behind it.
I’m always learning something new about Snow Peak products. Every time I think I know everything there is to learn about a product, I discover a new function or a different way you can use it or a built-in feature that I didn’t know about. One of my favourite stories relating to this is the Spearhead Pro L tent. I was camping with colleagues in Epping Forest ahead of our press day last summer. When I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom I saw the spear head twinkling in the distance. I thought one of my colleagues had adorned the tent with fairy lights but when I got closer I realised the tent had reflective panels sewn in that were reflecting the stars.
What goes to the core of Snow Peak?
Community. It is all about connecting people to nature and each other. Essentially every time we develop a product we think about how we can make time in nature more comfortable and practical. Lisa Yamai, our CEO doesn’t want Snow Peak to be known as Japan’s leading Outdoor brand, but for people to think of us as a company that is restoring humanity through making the outdoors more enjoyable to spend time in.
When I think of our community in the UK, I think of Hoon, our E-Com manger and how on teams calls she’ll sit in her Take! Chair long. She has the chair in her sitting room and it’s surrounded by plants and it looks beautiful. It folds up easily and can be taken out to the garden and had a carrying strap if you want to take it out to the park or on your camping trip.
Although everything we do is created with camping in mind our products are so well designed they work as furniture in the home. When you’re going camping you don’t need to stop at the petrol station and buy an unattractive £10 chair, which is likely going to break quite quickly and if it survives the trip, gather cobwebs in your garage.
Similarly we hate the thought of people going to a campsite or a festival and abandoning our tents. The opening price point is £320, so hopefully, people might see that as a deterrent. We want people to invest in their tents and look after them. We have a repair service in our store in London so that we can help repair poles and any tears in the fabric.
Snow Peak have a whole ethos to care of products, which as an amateur camper was completely new to me two years ago. After watching my colleague Kenya be so precise about the way that he folds and looks after his own tents, I find myself being really careful about the way look after my tent. I find myself meticulously folding my flysheet with extreme care and precision that was completely foreign to me before Kenya’s expert tuition.
The Snow Peak Way seems like such a fun event. Tell me a little about that.
It all goes back to community! Community is the most important thing and what we always come back to. On the Snow Peak Way people are encouraged to put up their own tents. Snow Peak members of staff are there to attend to help everyone but part of the joy of camping is creating your own environment. The customer puts up their tent themselves, that’s part of the fun!
Actually I had quite a enjoyable experience putting up a tent on the Snow Peak Way. There was a typhoon that was meant to hit the campsite in Kochi and I was like, “How is this still going ahead? I’ve never seen so much rain in my life.” I had a blast but every two hours I’d have to go to the bathroom to empty the water from my Blundstone boots. So much rain was pouring in them that I actually ended up using disposable mop heads as a liner to my shoe to try and soak up the water. The volume of rain that fell on the first day was biblical.
I’ve never known anything like it and that people were still wanted to come and camp in the weather as spaces on The Snow Peak Way are sparse and there is a long waiting list to be accepted.
Amazing. You guys are planning on bringing Snow Peak campsites to the UK soon right? Our guys based in London would be so keen to camp there!
The Snow Peak Way was meant to come already to the UK essentially, but COVID has prevented that. We’re hoping that this summer we’ll do our first one, but it’s just so difficult at the moment with COVID and social distancing. Yes, we do have one in the pipeline for the summer, which we’re really hoping is going to go ahead and we would love to eventually have a campsite of our own. In Japan we actually partner with the government on campsites, so we go into areas where there’s traditionally low tourism out of season. We go into a lot of ski resorts put build campsites that are open during the summer to create jobs and employment in those areas.
On a Snow Peak Way you really get a feeling of a shared experience and it is wonderful to feel connected to nature. I think for me, that’s why I love the brand so much. So much of the outdoor industry, first of all, is male-led, we have a female CEO, which we’re absolutely thrilled about. Also, a lot of it’s about climbing the highest mountain, doing it the quickest and it’s really competitive. At Snow Peak, we’ll just say, “What we’re about is just connecting to nature and making it as comfortable as possible when you do that.” I just love that ethos. I find it really refreshing and quite exciting.
We were started by Yukio Yamai, who is Lisa, our current CEO’s grandfather, and then the company was passed down to Tohru Yamai, Lias’s father, who’s still very active in the company and currently president. Yukio loved mountain climbing. When you look at history actually we made ice packs and crampons, and he was basically a wholesaler of these metal goods so they’re built up this connection within Sanjō City of all the metalworkers.
When Tohru was a child his dad said to him, “You’re too reckless to go into the mountains. I’m banning you from the mountains. Go and find your own connection to nature.” That’s exactly what Tohru did. It was actually when he was studying in the USA, it was his lecturer introduced him to this new idea of essentially camping out in the back garden and enjoying time in the back garden.
That really stayed with Tohru. Essentially, he took back that concept to Japan and basically, created car camping in Japan. The pack and carry fire pit actually it’s just set up in my garden just here. I’m looking at it thinking, [chuckles] wonder if I’ll use it tonight. I take it with me when I go and see friends. I went to St Ives on holiday and I took it with me and we used it in the garden of the place we were staying.
Lisa has taken the company to a new place! Her reference points seem really international and diverse. Perhaps with a bit more fashion influence?
Yes, Lisa is ultimately the coolest woman ever. She always looks impeccable. She worked in fashion before Snow Peak and has a real love of travel. She completely revolutionized the apparel for the Outdoors.
What’s interesting to me in the apparel, are items like the Takibi vest. Takibi means bonfire in Japanese, so this range is designed to be worn by the fire. As well as being made of fire resistant fabric it’s got a massive like poachers pocket in the back, which people will carry their firewood in, and all kinds of things. The sales of the tabiki vest have finally started to increase in UK. A lot of people seem to be buying it for dog walking because it’s got so many pockets for all the different dog treats and everything else, and you can get the lead in the back and all these things. And everyone I know seems to have got a dog, or be getting a dog due to lockdown!
It’s that whole idea that even if you’re wearing a Snow Peak in the city, it reminds you of the time you spent in nature, or how you want to go camping, and just that whole that idea of connection. When you’re wearing Snow Peak, hopefully, you’re feeling more relaxed and connected.
How does the design happen nowadays? You mentioned that the apparel’s no longer with Lisa. She’s more of a CEO now, there’s a designer.
Yes. Lisa’s working on the next 60-year plan. I don’t know how much I can tell you. We’re doing hotel, we do the local wear collection. With the gear, Tohru is still very involved. He really is brilliant at designing gear and working with engineers. We only really release about 20 new products a year.
We don’t do huge amounts of development… That’s the wrong thing to say. We do a LOT of development, but it’s all considered development. The way the gear developments happen a lot of the time is, whoever you are in Snow Peak, it’s essential that you go on a Snow Peak Way and you sit around talking to our customers during Takibi time. There you discuss what the customer likes about Snow Peak.
This tradition stems from the economic crash in Japan. Camping went out of fashion, and Tohru literally thought that Snow Peak was on the brink of collapse. He thought his father’s business wouldn’t survive. I love the way the Japanese guys tell it, in this very, like, “Was this the end for Snow Peak?” [laughs] Two employees said, “Look, what we’ve done here is we’ve lost contact with our customers and this is completely wrong. We love our customers, and we need to reconnect with them.”
It was after that, that they had the first ever Snow Peak Way and they invited the customers there. It was the customers that said, “There’s no shop where I can go and see Snow Peak altogether. I want to see the full range so I can get an idea of what I want. I want to be able to use the products more.” Then, this became a thing. This is why we run so many Snow Peak Ways a year in Japan. This is why it’s so crucial for our UK business, so that we’re asking the UK’s camping community what they want from gear, because sometimes it’s quite different.
It sounds like ideas can really start from anywhere in the company!
Yes. Completely, and that’s what’s so exciting. One of the bestselling products and the quickest-selling products we have ever done is for our IGT. IGT means Iron Grill Table. It’s this modular range, building bricks to create cooking and dining options whilst camping.
The product is actually an IGT compatible kitchen roll holder, literally just a wire piece that fixes to the unit, But it sold so, so well. That literally came from a Takibi time at Snow Peak Way. We’re all encouraged to feedback the design ideas to the design team. It’s really exciting. It feels dynamic.
What’s going on in the near future from Snow Peak that we can be excited about?
We’re building an Onsen at Head Office, which is very exciting. We have developed products to accompany this in the Japanese range. This is actually linking to Sweden. We’ve created an outdoors tented sauna. Unfortunately we can’t sell it in Europe but I’ve seen some images and it looks amazing.
Linked to that we’ve also done this mesh chair, which is designed to go into the sauna. They’re also expanding Snow Peak Eat, which is our restaurants. I’m trying to think of anything that isn’t completely confidential that I can tell you. I wish I could tell you about the other two projects in the pipeline because they’re really exciting! But hopefully you will hear about them soon.