Protest was one of the companies that drew throngs of visitors at a large stand at Ispo Beijing earlier this month, as part of the fair's bustling action sports area.
The Dutch snowboarding brand teamed up in China two years ago with BTS Shanghai, which operates as a licensee. The two companies are working together in a very flexible manner, allowing BTS Shanghai to sell its lifestyle garments more than its technical snowboarding apparel.
The Chinese partner, which operates independently but has the same owners as a large-scale Taiwan-based apparel company, has several ranges of Protest clothing adjusted to the varying sizes and tastes of consumers across different regions of China. BTS Shanghai said that nearly 80 percent of its sales came from lifestyle products.
Part of the brand's Chinese plan calls for the development of its own retail network. While the brand is hardly represented in multi-brand stores and in ski resorts, there are now six Protest stores in the country and the company wants to open another 30 this year.
The action sports market is still under construction in China, partly due to low participation rates in skateboarding and other activities. There is hardly any dedicated infrastructure in China, and participation is hampered by the anxiety of parents about the safety of their child – nearly always singular.
However, several specialist distributors displayed action sports products at Ispo Beijing, partly as a means to develop the market. They are confident that action sports sales will pick up as consumers will seek an alternative for the sports brands that have been ruling the business for many years, and the outdoor brands that are now flooding the Chinese apparel market.
An interesting example is Beijing XWing Distribution, a firm that belongs to the same group as Cold Mountain, a small chain of multi-brand snowboarding stores. XWing was spun off to deal with the distribution of several snowboard brands, like Nitro and Battaleon, as well as yet more specialized products such as longboards.
The distributor's marketing investments include generous financial support for websites like longboard.cn, which help to raise awareness of such activities among Chinese consumers. XWing has even set up clubs and courses to “teach youngsters how to play,” showing them how to cruise downhill with a longboard.
Another stand that stood out for its loud music and sometimes even louder designs was that of Auric Sports. It sells 18 snowboarding and skating brands, like Bern head protection gear, Pow gloves and Westbeach apparel, and three months ago it started selling Volcom in China.
The company acknowledges that the Chinese skate market is small, estimating that only about two million Chinese regularly practice skateboarding and 300 stores sell specialist skate products. There is little scope to open stores for such brands as yet – even if they are well known to young Chinese skateboarders, like Volcom. The plan is to start opening stores in about three years' time.
Apart from larger brands like Protest, which target a wider group of consumers, action sports brands operating in China are more likely to focus on snowboarding, for which there is a slightly more established infrastructure, particularly in the north of the country. However, our research on the snow sports market at Ispo Beijing found that the number of regular snowboarders in China was still almost insignificant despite Burton's commitment to change that – as detailed in one of our upcoming issues.