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  • Gary Roethenbaugh

Triathlon wetsuit brands navigating choppy waters

The global pandemic has presented numerous challenges to all corners of the endurance sport industry. One area that has had its up-and-downs is the triathlon wetsuit space.

The widespread cessation of racing in 2020 had a notable impact on wetsuits and apparel sales. Athletes clearly buy more apparel, including wetsuits, when races are in the pipeline. Across the Northern Hemisphere in particular, the cancellation of triathlons and open water events saw a drop-off in demand last year – specifically for mid-price and premium wetsuits for racing.

Coupled with this, wetsuit brands saw their retail partners forced to shut up shop due to lockdown restrictions. This meant a focus on direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales online. For those brands already geared up with a D2C platform (i.e., website, fulfilment, customer service, etc.) the shift of influence to online sales did reap some rewards.

Selling direct-to-consumer, of course, typically offers a better bottom line for a brand owner – due to the elimination of retailer or distributor margins.

Then, last summer and into the autumn/fall, and winter, of 2020, the wetsuit market experienced an interesting resurgence. Lower cost wetsuits and open water swim accessories saw heightened sales. What was the reason for this perhaps unexpected uplift in sales during a time of year traditionally considered the ‘off-season’?

Pool to open Pool swimmers had a frustrating time in 2020, with extended pool closures in many countries around the world due to lockdown. Over the course of the year, these swimmers started to embrace open water. The transition to open water swimming in seas, lakes and rivers in-turn meant demand for wetsuits.

This has accelerated even into the colder months – as the lure of open water swimming continues to be a draw for those unable to hit the pool.

Despite very cold temperatures, a hardy proportion of the open water swimming community has embraced the great outdoors. The result is an uplift in sales of thermal products, as well as consumers embracing other swim accessories.

While the ‘new generation’ of open water swimmers migrating from the pool is comprised of male and female participants, there is a notably strong female open water swimming community.

John Duquette, CEO at blueseventy, gave some background. He said “The pandemic has certainly made planning a challenge for 2021. But, we come into this year on the back of some very strong performances. Q4 2020 was the biggest fourth quarter in the history of our company.

“For the first time ever, we sold more women’s wetsuits than men’s. It’s so encouraging that our business has thrived as we’ve adapted to changing purchasing patterns.

“Female open water swimming has really built momentum. This trend should continue into 2021. We’ve seen strong uptake from pool swimmers transitioning towards open water. With pools shut, these consumers are really embracing lakes, rivers and the sea.”

How to plan for 2021? As the market was undoubtedly ‘buoyed’ by a shift into open water swimming by a resilient and dedicated base of former pool swimmers, the next challenge facing wetsuit brands was how to plan for 2021.

Angus Greenwood, owner at Yonda, said “Covid has brought about a new, embryonic market of open water swimming in the winter. Pool swimmers are getting out there into cold water, which has kept up demand for product – particularly thermal wetsuits and accessories.

“Looking at the year ahead, the key question that we face as an industry is: will we get a full year or a half year race season? This is the big unknown, which makes planning such a challenge.”

Given the lead-times on wetsuit production, most brands placed their orders for 2021 in the summer of last year. This means that forecasting demand correctly was crucial to ensure that products will be available for established, and new-found, consumers.

With a hope for a return to racing (even if a delayed return in some instances), and with a strong momentum behind open water swimming, an optimistic outlook for 2021 might be possible. Yet, the next challenge facing wetsuit brands is a dire global transportation situation.

Starting in 2020, and continuing into this year, a shortage of shipping containers in Asia has put an upward pressure on freight costs. The pandemic has ripped through the global logistics industry upsetting the supply and demand of containers. Coupled with this, poor weather in Asia at the back end of last year disrupted shipping.

The end result is a significant uplift in shipping costs. This impacts all products shipped out of Asia – including wetsuits and swim accessories. Brands are facing surcharges to guarantee that products will be shipped, alongside increased fees from shipping firms. These fees may be up to three to four times usual shipping costs.

Angus Greenwood at Yonda explained “All wetsuit manufacturers will of course have put in their orders for 2021 back in the summer of 2020. The lead times for wetsuit delivery are long; and the early part of the New Year is always a tense time as we wait on shipments to arrive.

“There is so much demand for container slots out of Asia that surcharges may be required to guarantee a slot. Coupled with this has been a rise in transportation costs. The wetsuit industry, like any other industry, is grappling with the unprecedented demand for ocean and air freight.”

Reasons to be cheerful Despite the logistics issues, there are reasons to be optimistic about demand in 2021. A return to racing should bring established, experienced athletes back on-course alongside lapsed athletes and new starters.

Ian Clarke, Brand Manager at Orca, said “Triathlon does appear to be well-placed this year in terms of market demand, but there is still a lot of uncertainty around racing. The sport usually does very well in an Olympic year; yet, it is still unclear if the Tokyo Olympics will be able to go ahead.

“New starter triathletes are certainly motivated in an Olympic year. Given the year that we’ve just had, it’s likely that many well-established triathletes will be raring to go as soon as racing gets under way. This should certainly support the sales in mid-priced to high-end apparel and wetsuits, which are likely to be embraced by athletes getting back into racing.

“For new starters, it is more of an uncertain year. Although, the long-term prognosis for triathlon looks very good. Lots of new-found single sport athletes will likely consider racing multisport events in 2022 and beyond.

“One of the main challenges this year facing the industry is the ability to get supply running smoothly. The supply out of Asia is perhaps one of our biggest issues for the first half of the year.”

James Lock, CEO and Founder of Zone3, said “As a brand we are in a strong position. We decided in 2020 to be bold in our forecasts for 2021, and therefore have ordered sufficient stock quantities to hit forecasts.

“We did presume a resumption of racing this year, which is clearly now more uncertain. However, while high-end race specific products may see lower demand ahead of a restart to the race season, we do expect very high uptake for entry to mid-level products and accessories.”

He continued, “As a brand we have seen a push into open water, from male and female athletes – particularly driven by new female open water swimmers. With this influx of new athletes, when we were ordering stock for the 2021 season, we did have an option to create more basic, entry level, cheaper wetsuits.

“We could have gone this route but did not; and we will keep focused on our heritage of performance. So, for new starters in open water swimming and triathlon we would encourage entry level products with performance features.

“After all, the open water athlete’s experience will be affected by factors such as warmth, comfort, buoyancy and fit. Any products that compromise in any of these areas could impact the first impressions that are so important when someone first enters open water.”

Dean Jackson CEO at HUUB, said “We’re finding unprecedented demand for wetsuits and open water swim accessories. The biggest issue is getting products out of Asia to meet this demand.

“In order to plan effectively for this year, we are taking orders from retailers six to nine months out. We’re no longer able to hold stock in the way we were before – as the business has to service a daily need from online sales.”

He continued, “Heavy discounting in 2021 is probably unlikely, due to high shipping costs for this year’s stock. It is costing the industry a premium to ship out of Asia. Demand for wetsuits and accessories from consumers is also high. So, it’s going to be a challenging but fun year ahead!”

[This article first featured on our sister site]



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