New to the outdoors: Korea’s Kovea looks to light up U.S. sales

In this reoccurring series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.

One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.

Korean stove, lantern and torch company Kovea is ready to light up the U.S. camping market. And it’s hoping to draw in retailers like a moth to the flame.

Although Kovea is only recently making its debut in the states, it’s been around since 1982, founded as an original equipment manufacturing (OEM) company. When the brand began taking ownership of its name a little over 10 years ago, Kovea decided to focus on the Korean market since “it was … exponentially growing in the outdoor industry,” said John Park, Kovea’s international business manager.

Today, Kovea is one of the top outdoor brands in its home nation, selling $120 million in Korea alone, in addition to branching out to 39 different countries.

“The U.S. is one of the last (markets) that we haven’t tried to get into,” Park said. “The competition is so difficult; it’s so tight. In order to successfully get into it, we needed a good product and innovation to even attempt to get some hold in the U.S. market share. We wanted to establish the brand first.”

And now it has.

Among the establishing products is the Kovea Spider stove. At 168 grams, Park calls it the “most compact, lightweight backpacking remote-canister hose stove out on the market right now.” But it’s still touted as burly enough to support heavy pots and pans.

Kovea Spider

Park noted that many retailers currently have the Spider on backorder. So many in fact, that on his last flight back to Los Angeles from Korea, he crammed 30 of the backpacking stoves into his suitcase alongside t-shirts and toothpaste to help, albeit marginally, ease the demand. He would have brought more had the customs restrictions not been so stringent, he said.

Another of Kovea’s innovative products is its Giga Sun Heater, winner of a 2014 ISPO Gold Award. Blasting warmth in a 360-degree radius, this mega-heater powers out a whopping 23,814 BTUs when at full blast. And with safety features to automatically shut itself off if it tilts or tips over, or when carbon monoxide levels get too high, the Giga Sun is optimal for car camping outings — at 13.2 pounds, it’s not a great choice for backpackers.

Kovea Giga Sun

The bulk of the Korean market isn’t looking for light products, Park said, rather, for them, comfort is a key part of camping.

“They have a different camping culture. There’s no such things as ‘roughing it,’” Park explained. “They basically bring everything they have at home and take it with them. They want the top quality (products): stainless steel pots and pans, stainless steel cups. They don’t care about weight because they’re throwing everything in their car.”

The Giga Sun won’t yet be making a big debut in the lighter/faster-loving U.S., but Park said that he hopes to “get a few out here to test the market to see how things go.”

Making a name for itself in the U.S. market thus far has been a little difficult, Park said, especially because a couple Kovea products look suspiciously similar to items already here. He noted that his brand’s history as an OEM “sort of confuses the people in the market now,” leading them to think that Kovea is copying its competitors when “in actuality, we’re the ones who originally made that product.”

But as Kovea makes its way into brick and mortar stores (a selling arena Park is looking to grow), the hope is that customers will be able to “touch and feel” the difference in the quality of its products.

“It’s really hard to see our product on a picture and say it’s different from somebody else’s. If you pick it up, you’ll see the quality and design,” he said.

Courtney Holden

Does Kovea have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.