I shivered with anticipation as I stared at my new snowboard boots. No, I didn't just go into some store and buy them off the rack. They're the Reaper model for the Clicker HB binding system and I actually custom-ordered them factory direct from Shimano. And when I say that I ordered them factory direct, I mean it–I actually went to the Shimano headquarters in Japan and then to the manufacturing facility in Korea, picked out the colors and fabrics I wanted to use, then pretty much stalked the staff as they built my boots.
I decided that the boot's model name is the Limited Edition John Stouffer-signature Shimano Reapers (or the JS Reapers for short) and this is the day-to-day account of how they were made and the company behind them. Please follow along for the next several days as the story unwinds.
Japan First My mission wasn't actually to design my own signature model boots (but I will accept the royalty checks if they make it in next year's line). It was to do the story about where snowboard boots actually come from. The simple answer is from factories in China, Korea, and Italy. But like I said, that's the simple answer.
I set up the trip with Shimano, a company well known for its expertise in bicycle parts. In the early 90s, it got together with K2 to launch the Clicker step-in boot and binding system. Shimano actually makes all the bindings for the system in its factories.
As a goal of offering the consumer more boot-model choices, Shimano also developed its own boot line to be sold in conjunction with K2's models.
Setting up the trip was characteristic of what the company is all about. First, I started with John Telfer who runs the U.S. operations from Shimano's headquarters in Irvine, California. After he got approval from his boss in Japan, he handed me over to Brian Dennis, the company's U.S. boot developer who lives outside of Hood River, Oregon. Dennis spends his time testing boots and running the team house in Hood, and e-mailing test results, ideas, new designs, and just about anything he can to the Irvine, Japanese, and Korean offices. He also travels to the factories several times a year to work more directly on samples and final production models.
After I contacted him, we exchanged several weeks of e-mails to the factory in Korea to arrange a good time for everyone. Visiting the China factory was suggested, but required a lot more time and effort than anyone had. It'll be another trip.
Finally, on Sunday, August 24 after month of planning, trip leader Brian and myself landed in Osaka, Japan to tour the Shimano world headquarters and learn a lot more about the company. But since it was Sunday, Shimano's Snowboard Director Shinpei Okajima decided to take us around to seven local snowboard shops. Although on the early side of deliveries, what we saw was telling of the market.
Burton rules. Six out of seven of the shops were stocked with what appeared to be a third to a half their total inventory with Burton. Okay, maybe Burton was the only snowboard company that had shipped large amounts of product, but it was a huge impression as entire walls and sections were filled with boards, boots, bindings, clothing, and accessories from the Big B. Point-of-purchase displays were executed beautifully. There only appeared to one hitch with Burton's deliveries. One shop had a sign that said step-ins would be delivered September 7 and 27.
Other companies that had shipped product included Salomon, K2, Morrow, Sims, Nitro, Forum, M3, and MLY as well as a sprinkling of Japanese brands. Prices were a little higher than in the U.S. once you figure out the exchange rate (something like 110 yen to one dollar). Balances and Customs were priced at 86,000 yen, while a Salomon FS 550 was right behind at 85,000 yen. Burton Motions were 69,000 yen and a Charger was priced at 59,000 yen.
One store was tinyy and was a snowboard-only, but all the others were either department or multi-sport stores that occupied several different floors of buildings. Snowboards were usually found on at least one floor and the signs in the elevators usually marked which floor had Burton on it.
A shop called Action Sports Retailer was truly one of the best-stocked and merchandised surf shops I've ever seen. So what if its name and logo is a direct rip-off of the trade show that happens twice a year in San Diego and Long Beach. Japanese consumers would never know.
One floor was dedicated solely to surf and was a cross between Huntington Surf and Sport and Hansen's, with a mixture of long and short boards, all the hottest brands such as Volcom and Lost, and the latest movies from the U.S., Australia, and everywhere else.
After shopping and eating a traditional Japanese dinner, I was ready to give in to my trans-Pacific jet lag. Tomorrow we were touring Shimano and I was looking forward to seeing where Shinpei works.
Check back tomorrow for a tour of Shimano and seeing how the Clicker bindings are actually made. Then we head to Korea for boots.–John Stouffer, reporting from Osaka, Japan.