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US Manufacturing, Unique Philosophy Help NW Alpine Deliver to Specialty Retailers in Midst of Historic Product Crunch

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When Bill Amos founded NW Alpine in 2010, his mission was to support domestic manufacturing by making functional, simple, and light climbing clothing of the highest quality, right here at home. 

For a little over a decade now, the brand has been churning out products that meet all of the aforementioned superlatives, despite costing less than similar items from legacy outdoor brands. By making its products in their Salem, Oregon factory, NW Alpine has created a local economy worth millions. 

Bill Amos has seen the advantages to manufacturing in the United States for a long time. Shorter lead times, less pollution, better quality control, and the heightening consumer demand for products Made in the USA were just some of the reasons Amos cited when he wrote an opinion piece urging outdoor brands to search for domestic manufacturing partners in 2017. Unfortunately, few listened.

The outdoor industry appears to be on the front end of a growing product crisis. The pandemic caused work stoppages and employee reductions worldwide, bringing production to a crawl. On top of that, the shipping industry is in the middle of a container shortage. Even when a brand has product to ship they might not have a ship to put it on. Lastly, ports all over the U.S. are backlogged. When ships do arrive on our shores they often have to wait weeks before being unloaded, which only adds to the container shortage and creates a larger backup of goods waiting to be shipped. 

But this is how it has to be… right? 

At trade shows like Outdoor Retailer, specialty retail accounts often get to sit down across from the decision makers that plan the futures at their biggest vendors. When retailers present concerns about where these brands are making their products, the rebuttal usually goes something like this… “It’s too expensive for us to make things in the US. Do you think your customers would rather pay an extra $100 for that garment or have us make it in China?” 

We have been told for decades that manufacturing outdoor goods in America is too expensive, and that the extra margin made from producing our favorite pieces of outdoor clothing overseas is what ensures brands will be able to sell them to family-owned brick and mortar retailers. 

So how is NW Alpine designing and manufacturing all of its gear in Oregon, and still charging less than many other well-known outdoor brands for products made out of the same materials? And how is it that NW Alpine manages to sell those products to wholesalers at a keystone margin?

It’s quite simple according to CEO Bill Amos, “Every big apparel brand does not own their factories, and the factory has to make margin to stay in business. Basically, other brands are paying the factory’s overhead, labor costs as well as profits. We can sell at the prices we do because we own our factory which allows us to tightly control production costs. Many overseas factories make up for inefficiencies with disturbingly cheap labor. By implementing modern production systems, we can be competitive despite our high labor and benefits costs.”

NW Alpine knows it can’t help all of the retailers struggling to keep product stocked, but it wants to help as many as it can before it runs out of product in the next couple of months. “We can’t replace large brands in every single retailer that they have left out in the cold, but we can use this as a way to showcase our values. Our commitment to local economies, making things here in Oregon and our transparency as a brand is something we want to share,” says Amos.

In addition to those values, NW Alpine has made pledges to ensure its retail partners never feel like they’re competing with the brand for business. The brand has decided to never let it’s products be sold on Amazon, Backcountry, Moosejaw or any other online warehouse or third-party platform. NW Alpine will also never sell to REI or any other big-box retailer, and the brand will continue to design and produce 100% of its products in the United States. For Amos and his sales team, privately owned brick and mortar outdoor stores are the focus, and they hope to help specialty retailers differentiate themselves from the box stores and online behemoths that are threatening their survival.

“What makes a specialty retailer a specialty retailer if they all carry the same brands and those brands are also sold at REI and all over the internet? Especially if those brands clearly don’t care about them?” wonders Amos.

As some brands begin to openly discuss raising retail prices in response to soaring international shipping costs, more and more specialty retailers are beginning to ask themselves if the current model is a sustainable way to do business over the coming decades. With new stores partnering with the brand weekly, it is clear that some specialty retailers are looking to partners like NW Alpine in an effort to shift the status quo back in their favor.