An email from the CEO of a premier US performance apparel brand, Ibex, rocked me today. The company is closing. Outdoor adventurers know the technical benefits of breathable Ibex merino wool. It doesn’t become smelly like synthetics, their pieces wash and dry beautifully, and they hold their colors and shape indefinitely. It costs twice as much as synthetics but it lasts ten times longer. I like it so much we launched some of their performance base layer pieces to the Daily Grommet audience back in 2010.
My hiking buddy friend Jill introduced me to the brand before we attacked the Scottish West Highland Way in 2002. Today we exchanged alarmed alerts when we saw the closure news. I told her I was writing this piece and she said, “Please express my agony. Wahhh.”
She wasn’t being dramatic. It’s painful to see a company you respect, admire, support, and adore simply evaporate. Quality companies and products are not plug and play. Brands like Ibex become part of your life and adventure history. Jill’s husband can travel for two weeks at a time with a small back pack because of Ibex’s functionality. It’s a big loss to him too.
An article from last month presaged the Ibex demise and the line that caught me was:
Ibex is being buffeted by changes in consumer buying habits and bankruptcies among large sporting goods store chains such as Eastern Mountain Sports, Sports Chalet and Sports Authority that have shrunk shelf space.
When we lose quality retailers we lose quality brands, pure and simple. A brand like Ibex could never get credibility by launching on Amazon. They present every product in the same dispassionate flat way: from a commodity electrical extension cord to a silk skirt. So a company like Ibex relies on local specialty stores and chains like Eastern Mountain Sports to build a long term company with a differentiated brand.
When we rip out retail (by buying on Amazon) we rip out our own ability to have quality choices. Ibex’s closure is barely registering in the news today–as a niche technical product, it’s too small to really cause a ripple. But each of us has a small brand or two that we adore. Sometimes they are the only company in the world producing a particular item. Some of these business owners foolishly decide to abandon quality retail to sell on Amazon where they can build short term revenues. It’s a deal with the devil. Amazon recruits a sea of Chinese counterfeiters who aggressively muddy the waters between real and fake. Amazon wins all the Google searches and sales for the fake products because they are priced lower than the real products available on other sites and at retail. The counterfeiters make a quick buck. The cheap products fail and no one blames Amazon–because the customers think they got the real deal. There goes the little (and sometimes big) American business with the quality product. Amazon just moves on to the next unsuspecting small company with an innovative product.
As we lose quality retailers we cut off the supply of future Ibex’s. As much as Grommet can help these little companies, we can’t get to them all and specialty retail really matters. Ibex mattered.