Columbia Sportswear Muddies the Waters


Five years ago, while spending a winter in Alaska, I relied on a standard fleece and shell combo from Columbia Sportswear (NAS: COLM) . I had purchased the jacket at a local gear shop, but when I returned down south, I was amazed to find Columbia clothing at various mid-market department stores and discount retailers, frequently on the clearance racks.

In an attempt to spin back from their not-so-distant deep-discount past, Columbia's done a 180, announcing the launch of a high-end, luxury clothing line that will be sold exclusively at a New York City boutique and five Nordstrom (NYS: JWN) locations.

Striving for exquisite
The new line, which its describing as an "exquisite line of ultra-premium outerwear and footwear," will feature four pieces of outwear and one boot. Ranging from $180 to $495, the pieces will be offered at the same price point as many of Columbia's existing outerwear products. The press release identifies the line as "impeccably appointed, outdoor-inspired pieces." Which sounds strange when describing clothing designed to protect you from hypothermia.

Why it's risky
Currently, there is no market for high-end luxury clothing for the outdoor set. Sure, dedicated outdoorsmen and women have always paid for performance. However the concept of luxury goes against the rough-and-tumble nature of us outdoor folk, whose idea of "luxury" is bringing along a Thermarest on a camping trip. But if exquisite outdoorwear is the next big thing (and that's a big "if"), Columbia is low on the list of retailers who could pull it off.

Instead, Patagonia, with performance pieces often priced out of the casual hiker's range, would have a much shorter leap to elite clientele. Eddie Bauer sells its First Ascent line of traditional outdoor gear alongside higher-fashion street essentials, including suede ballet flats and blazers for women, and a look for men that says, "Sure I'm at your parents' place for dinner, but I just came from sheep wrangling."

Timberland (NYS: TBL) is also a viable choice, with cargo pants and button down short sleeve shirts that work well both for the trail and for the summer office set. Its pending acquisition by North Face parent company V.F. (NYS: VFC) could provide room for Timberland to branch out and try new things.

And The North Face, that bastion of all things outdoor? Probably not anytime soon. Its idea of a tuxedo is an all-weather one-piece bomber.

Will it work?
In short, no. Columbia's history of deep discounts, poor brand management, glut of inventory, as well as its P/E of 26 make it a risky stock choice. While it would be nice to think Columbia could be an innovator and that its competitors would rush to fill this newly created market, the odds are more likely that these pieces, too, will show up on the racks of The TJX Companies' (NYS: TJX) Marshalls and TJMaxx stores come spring, or at Nordstrom's own discount outlets.

Columbia Sportswear is releasing its second-quarter financial results today. I'll be on the conference call and will follow up next week. You can keep up to date on Columbia in the meantime byadding it to My Watchlist. Think I'm wrong about Columbia? Tell me why below.

At the time thisarticle was published While her wardrobe contains pieces from all the companies mentioned, Fool contributor Molly McCluskey holds no financial position in any companies mentioned here.The Motley Fool owns shares of Timberland.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Timberland. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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