Lead Photo Credit: Decathlon
If you were asked the question, “what is the world’s largest sporting goods store?” what would your answer be?
How far down would your list go before you get to Decathlon? Or, better yet, would you even have Decathlon on your list?
Chances are that unless you are in the know, you would have no idea that French sporting goods giant, Decathlon, is one of, if not the largest, sporting goods retailers in the world. However, despite being on top, they are far from what you would expect from more traditional sporting goods giants like Dick’s or REI. Decathlon is a sporting goods store that offers everything from snorkel kits to skis at a budget price and…they sell mostly their own gear.
Making Sports Accessible for All
Their tagline, “Make sports accessible for all” has enabled Decathlon to make a name for itself almost everywhere else in the world besides the United States. But to be a true global brand one must have a presence in America, and for Decathlon, that has been hard to come by.
Think of Decathlon as the Trader Joe’s of the sporting goods world. That is to say, it has what you are looking for but in the form of brands that most people have never heard of. Brands like Nike, Under Armour, Rossignol, Lange or Blizzard are as foreign to their store as Decathlon might be to you.
Why? Because, Decathlon owns their own brands. So instead of Spyder jackets, they have Wed’ze ski jackets and instead of Rossignol skis they offer Wed’ze.
In doing so, Decathlon is able to keep costs down and excel based on a low cost model. Lower costs are not always a bad thing and, in the case of Decathlon, has worked well as they strive to make sports accessible to a higher percentage of the population. However, what may work overseas does not always sit well with an American market particularly when it comes to the high priced sports of skiing and snowboarding.
Associating Expensive With Good
Americans are known to associate expensive with good and are therefore willing to pay the higher price tag, especially if it means wearing the newest Helly Hansen jacket or skiing on the hottest DPS skis.
However, despite the stigma that often comes with the word, “discounted,” Decathlon may be on to something. Their products are actually quite good (see my review of their Wed’ze Powchaser FR900 below the interview) and the quality at a low cost model will definitely make high priced sports more accessible, a notion that the ski and snowboard industry is often criticized for.
Decathlon is now two years removed from the initial launch of their line of skis and ski boots made specifically for the U.S. How is it working out for them? I recently caught up with Yohann Kelkel, Snowsports Product Manager at Decathlon to find this out.
Decathlon Product Manager Talks Skiing on a Budget in the U.S.
RS: As a sporting goods giant in Europe, why is breaking into the American market so important to Decathlon?
YK: The desire to break into the American market for Decathlon has multiple roots. The first and maybe most obvious one is that for many sports, from golf to camping, snowboarding and skiing, or any other outdoor sport, the US market represents between 30% and 50% of the global market. To become a true international brand we need to be present in the US.
The second one is linked to our DNA as product designers and developers. Sporting goods users in the US are often asking a lot of their products and brands, from services to product’s technical ability. We develop our product with our users in mind and include their feedback in our daily routines, which helps us continue to make the best technical product in the world for each sport.
The third reason is linked to the opportunity to enter a historical market without being previously known, allowing us to try new things and attempt to find success in the strategies we utilize elsewhere in the world.
Last but not least, we have observed that practicing sports in the US is very expensive and not accessible to everyone. That is where Decathlon is very strong, bringing technical products as well as smart innovation at a fair price so that users can consider trying new sports as well as progressing in ones they’re already engaged with.
We have a role to play here in the US, opening the door for more people to participate in physical activities, and bringing more people outdoors with the best technical, yet affordable products.
RS: Why do you think your first couple of attempts failed?
YK: To provide some context on our history in the US, the first attempt was on the east coast more than 10 years ago at the retail level. As is true with any international brand that launches in the US, entering a mature market with its ways of doing business and specific cultural norms, paired with a highly competitive landscape, is never an easy task.
From style of communication, to building a community of brand advocates — such as sponsored athletes and ambassadors — as well as earning customers’ trust, it simply takes time to develop that image to align with the US culture and perception. While this has not been our strongest suit in the past, it is something we have invested heavily in and drastically improved upon over the years, so we’re beginning to see more success with our communication and interest in the US.
Moreover as I mentioned before, we are working hard to maintain our mission of making sports accessible to everyone, everywhere. This is achieved by selling our products at a fair price, to strike a balance of the best quality to price ratio. This is often a challenge of perception in the US, as customers are used to paying top dollar for technical products, and in some cases paying more for a brand image.
A big challenge we’ve faced is convincing new customers that our approachable cost is not because our products are of lesser quality, rather they offer a lot of value and compete with other premium brands on the market. This goes hand-in-hand with establishing our name in the US market, so as we continue to evolve, we’re confident that our recognition will continue to grow as it has in recent years.
RS: What did you learn from those failures and how will you adjust this time around?
YK: We are learning as we go by adjusting our course to align with successful strategies in the US market. Facing the challenges that the US market presents has taught us a lot and we’re making improvements with each attempt we make. We are approaching every day with the spirit of a startup, which is another positive opportunity as a newcomer in a different country.
We’ve adapted our marketing and communication strategies to better explain why our products are great and have made changes to find new ways of distributing our products through different channels. With the hiring of our new CEO, Barbara Martin Coppola in early 2022, I am confident that we will continue to grow our brand name and market share in the US with new strategies coming from the highest level. We have a big task ahead of us to bring more people to sports — while taking care of our planet — and therefore finding innovative solutions for products that reduce environmental impact while helping us grow our business in the US.
RS: How does your discounted snowsports gear (including the skis and boots) stack up against other popular skiing giants like Rossignol, Nordica and Blizzard or even smaller ski brands such as Armada, Blackcrows and Line that have more of a cult following here in the U.S.?
YK: The term “discounted” often implies a negative image, or lesser quality, but I can confidently say that our products are in-line with the best of our competitors. When you compare our product to the brands you mention, they are every bit as technical and sometimes more so for the same or at a lower cost. Decathlon is known for providing great value to the customer without sacrificing quality or performance.
We produce our boards, skis, ski boots, snowboard boots and beyond in the same factories as our most technical competitors (same skill level of workers, same materials being utilized, etc.).
Breaking through to brand loyalists is both a challenge and an opportunity. One tactic we’re utilizing to continually improve our product performance is working with world class athletes such as professional snowboarder Enzo Valax, or free ski athlete Ben Buratti. These riders are helping us co-develop our gear to be the best that it can be. We still have a long way to go in co-developing gear with US riders, specifically, but we’re putting the pieces in place to build their confidence with us so we can continue to progress with their input.
RS: How have your skis been received among Americans?
YK: So far, our skis and snowboards have been received positively in the US. We have had some great reception with various test reviews, such as earning a 2021 Freestyle Favorite Award on TheGoodRide.com as well as earning an Editor’s Pick award with Freeskier Magazine for our Wedze Slash FR500 freeride skis. The team at Curated.com have also trusted us with our gear, and their experts are selling our product to US skiers and riders who are very happy with them — a couple of our snowboard models are best sellers there.
We are also starting to work with local talented riders like Sam Wallace, who loves our gear after years riding with our competitors’ products. The biggest challenge again, is to find a way to communicate the capabilities of our products to consumers but when Americans try our products, they love them.
RS: Do you think skiers and snowboarders will buy into the discounted models that Decathlon is known for?
YK: With snows ports wearing a higher price tag to entry than many other activities, Decathlon’s gear lives in a unique place that offers both new users and experienced skiers and riders premium quality at a much better price.
For many, seeing is believing, so if someone can try our gear at a demo or if someone they trust in the US shows them they are great products, we know that more skiers and riders will begin to buy our products. When a professional skier or rider can also showcase what our gear is capable of doing, this further adds to our image and we hope to start seeing a shift in thinking that putting so much money towards their usual gear may not be as worth it as they originally thought.
RS: How do you combat the stigma that lower price tends to mean lower quality?
YK: This is quite possibly one of the biggest hurdles to clear with US consumers and there is no magical recipe for that. Our opportunity to educate new customers is one way we can combat this, explaining the value proposition of our products, including quality, technical features and the savings benefits of buying a product that is made of the same materials and in the same factories as our competitors.
By partnering with our growing team of skiers and riders to co-develop our products, we hope to make the quality of our products more known in the US. It is also in our DNA at Decathlon to provide the best customer service, and even though we have started small in the US, the aim is to bring what makes people love us in Europe the same here, while not sacrificing our level of service to the customer.
As a product manager, I talk to 100% of my customers worldwide, and every time a customer has feedback to share or has found a problem with a product, I work to find a solution straight away or integrate his or her feedback for continuous improvement of our product. With time, we’re confident that users in the US will see our approach and be excited to be part of the journey to making our products even better, while staying true to our mission of offering them at a fair price, no matter their experience level.
Wed’ze Powchaser FR900 More Than Just a Powder Ski
There hasn’t been a ton of pow chasing this winter here in the East. Nonetheless, I put these bad boys to the test in one of our semi-deep snow days and found them well worth it. Billed as a powder ski, the Wed’ze Pow Chaser FR900 was certainly as advertised. While on trails with some fresh, they were quite stable and slashed through the deep-ish pow like a hot knife through butter. However, what really surprised me was how reliable this ski was on other surfaces.
The versatility of the Powchaser could be a direct result of the medium flex. This made for an extremely forgiving ski, especially when not as engaged as I should be. Getting up on my edges to carve turns was also relatively easy and made for a consistent ride on groomers that was fun and playful. The width of the Powchaser was also a nice component in non-pow situations, blowing through conditions that were a little chewed up by day’s end.
Ultimately, for the price, you cannot beat the Powchaser. It is a highly versatile ski that performs as advertised. The Powchaser works equally as well for intermediate skiers looking for an inexpensive powder day ski as it does for advanced skiers who are looking for a consistent ski to ride the deep stuff a little more regularly.
It’s this sort of high-performing, versatile, budget-friendly mentality that Decathlon is aiming to capitalize on as they continue to attempt to grow their presence here in the United States. Will it work? That remains to be seen. However, there is certainly a place for Decathlon’s “make sports accessible for all” mantra, particularly in conjunction with the mega-pass craze that attempts to do the same.
Rich Stoner is the founder of the après-ski lifestyle clothing and media brand, All About Après, and the co-host of the Beyond the Après podcast. No stranger to the ski and après-ski scene, Rich has been a long time contributor for many publications on topics like skiing, gear, beer and food. However, his passion is on the slopes and enjoying good times with good people. You can find him perfecting his craft carving turns and drinking beers in the Green Mountains of Vermont. @allaboutapres