Seeland and Harkila’s Simon Esnouf tells Helena Douglas how offering a broad range in a relatively niche market has reaped rewards and how waterproof trousers are starting to find favour with UK shooters.
Winning a UK Shooting Industry Award for best new clothing product is an achievement, but doing so three times is remarkable.
Seeland, a Danish clothing company, has done just that. In 2011 its Harkila Pro Hunter GTX boot won the title; in 2012 the Harkila Pro Hunter Edward Classic jacket won; and in May this year the award went to the Seeland Woodcock shooting jacket.
Seeland, which is owned by its managing director Carsten Norgaard, employs around 120 staff and is Europe’s largest manufacturer of clothes, footwear and accessories for hunting. It has been manufacturing and selling the Seeland range of mid-priced shooting clothing since 1996. In the mid-90s it took over the high-end Harkila brand of clothing, but runs the two brands as separate entities.
Simon Esnouf, one of the company’s two UK sales agents, who before joining the company worked for Barbour, Columbia and Christian Dior (selling ladies’ hosiery), explains. “Harkila and Seeland are two very distinct brands that are owned and manufactured by the same company. We used to produce one product catalogue for the trade and consumers, but from this year we will be producing one for each brand because they are aimed at very different segments of the shooting market.”
Harkila, Simon adds, is predominantly known as a rifle shooting brand, and produces high-quality, high-end products for Scandinavian style stalking (which involves a lot of walking in extreme terrain), Scottish hill stalking and lowland woodland stalking. “We offer a broad range of highly technical and excellent quality clothing for all of those disciplines with prices ranging from £350-£550. Seeland is aimed at the more general rifle shooter and at shotgun shooters and is a more cost-effective brand, but one that still offers excellent quality and a good choice of well-designed, practical clothing.”
Simon notes: “in the clothing business you make 80 per cent of your sales from 20 per cent of your range, but you still need to have those extra products. Companies that pare back what they see as surplus tend to then lose sales in that 20 per cent range, so that strategy doesn’t work. Therefore we plan to continue to offer a lot of choice, but aimed at a relatively niche market. But with all of our clothing we work hard to ensure functionality, reliability and practicality, and both brands are building a good following in the shooting world.”
Part of Simon’s role is to work alongside the design team for both brands, thanks to his longstanding involvement in what he describes as the ‘rag trade’ and his knowledge of shooting. He was a keen air rifle and pistol shooter before the handgun ban, and now enjoys clay and game shooting. “My primary role is definitely sales and marketing,” he says. “I’ve done that type of work for a long time with a number of companies so I know from a shooter’s perspective what works and what doesn’t – which is useful for the designers.
“I also know a bit about the UK market and the subtle differences in what British shooters want. For example, our driven game shooters like breeks, while Europeans prefer waterproof trousers, which until now haven’t been popular in the UK. The big thing in my sales figures is that the Brits are starting to wear waterproof trousers, so last year we introduced a zip-side over-trouser which sold out completely. This year we’ve increased the size range to include extra-small and small, so ladies can wear them too.”
Seeland is a traditional wholesale company and, while never saying never, does not plan to sell direct to customers. It believes in giving each of its retailers enough room to breathe and takes each application to be a Seeland retailer on its merits. “Our primary choice of UK retailer is a gun shop with guns on the wall,” says Simon. “They would always be our core customers. We also use other retailers, such as those that sell country clothing but not guns, equestrian outlets that have a shooting range of clothing, and with the Seeland brand we also have some farming and agricultural type retailers. Then there are some unusual ‘trade’ customers. For example, we are just opening an account with the Royal Parks to supply clothing to their rangers.”
Distribution of the two brands is growing rapidly. As well as its core Scandinavian and UK market the company is also busy increasing its sales overseas, and now exports to markets where hunting is a popular activity, such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy and Canada.
“Interestingly, last year the UK market turnover exceeded that of Norway, making us Seeland’s second biggest market, which is quite a feat,” Simon adds. “Credit for that should also go to Ewen Steele, with whom I work very closely. I manage from the M62 south and Southern Ireland, and Ewen looks after north of the M62 and Northern Ireland. And while we are treated by Seeland as independent agents, we pool our marketing budgets, have virtually equal turnovers and there is an enjoyable element of competition between us.”
Competition between sales agents is not surprising, but Seeland itself is also operating in a highly competitive and crowded clothing market. “Yes we could branch out and make far more products like other shooting brand retailers, but as Carsten says ‘shoemaker, stick to your last.’ We are an outdoor shooting brand and that is what we do first and foremost. We want to stick to our niche, continue to make our name, and I believe that approach will mean both the Seeland and Harkila brands, and the company itself, can enjoy a secure future.”