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Inside Camper: peasants’ triumph

Shoe chain Camper breaks all the rules – but it’s been doing so since 1877…  

Retail businesses aren’t meant to thrive through four generations of family ownership.

But peasants aren’t supposed to become global brand names either.

Welcome to the world of Camper, the slightly esoteric Spanish shoe maker with stores slowly spreading throughout the globe.

It breaks many of the conventional retail rules.

Most significantly, no two stores are alike. Sure, the red colouring and the bold Camper logo can be found in them all, but after that each has its own minimalist shopfit.

Secondly, it’s only ever had one family owner – since Miguel Fluxa Orti’ great grandfather, a peasant from Majorca scratched together enough money for a passage to England in 1877 and returned with a machine to start Spain’s first shoe factory. In reverence to the company’s roots, Camper – a brand adopted only in 1975 – is a Catalan word meaning ‘peasant’.

“This word defines our way of walking through life,” Pelatos told participants in the Westfield World Retail Study Tour in Barcelona.

“In 1975 Spain was coming out of a dictatorship and coming into democracy,” explained Pelatos, who was born the same year. “It had a lot of energy. Young people were trying to do new things.”

In subsequent years the Camper brand has been fuelled by passion, tradition and a dedication by subsequent generations to honour their forefathers’ success. It’s also retained a focus on core brand values.

“Comfort with imagination – this is what defines our product. We try to make shoes that are comfortable and with modernity, technology and some design,” says Pelatos.

Today the factory and 200-strong head office remain in Majorca, but it was in Barcelona the first retail store opened – back in 1981. Where rivals shift production to countries with the cheapest labour rates, Camper has remained true to its Spanish roots.

The brand’s owners recognised Camper offered a unique product – a shoe with a history, hand made with recycled carriage cloth, scrap leather and used tyres. It was already a ‘recycled shoe.’
So with such heritage and point of difference, why not take the brand “straight to the consumer” the family concluded.

Given Camper’s broad international recognition, many people would be surprised to learn the company opened its first overseas store as recently as 1992. But there’s another retail rule broken: don’t box outside your league.

“We are a small company but we wanted to compete with the best and in the best places,” said Pelatos.

It was not easy, especially without the support of a rich, retail giant behind it.

Pelatos describes it as a ‘David verses Goliath’ battle. “The real competition is where the big brands are.”

Between 1992 and 1999 Camper expanded into four countries – the UK, France, Germany and Italy.

“1993-95 were difficult years. We were strong in Spain – we still are. But people outside didn’t know the brand.”

But in the late 1990s a key change occurred: the Japanese, one of the most brand-crazy races on the planet, fell in love with Camper. Sales soared, word spread and the name was cemented on the international retail landscape.

Today, Camper has more than 3000 points of sale globally, with 300 exclusive Camper-branded stores on “the best high streets of the key cities” worldwide. More than 15 million customers visit a Camper store each year and three quarters of the four million pairs of Camper shoes produced annually are sold outside Spain.

Camper runs its own stores across Europe and the US but partners in Asian markets.

“We’re much bigger than a small niche company but if you compare us to a sportswear brand, they’re much bigger.”

The average price of a pair of Camper shoes is somewhere 140 Euros (A$200) which puts them some 20 per cent more expensive than a mainstream sports shoe brand.

Another rule spurned: Camper has no giant flagships with soaring ceilings, pumping pop music and acres of floor space. Its shops are all relatively small – usually with just 40sqm to 100sqm selling space.

“That means our window most of the time is the shop itself,” said Pelatos.

A window into a special part of Spanish retail heritage.

Hotel with a sole…

In an intriguing brand extension, Camper has branched out into the hotel game.

The first Casa Camper hotel has opened in Barcelona. And like the brand itself, it breaks all the rules.

It’s eco-friendly, bans smoking and tips (two equally cursed features of modern society), and has an ‘all-inclusive’ pricing policy.

Guests stay in rooms split by a communal corridor – on one side bedrooms face inwards to a vertical garden with no street noise. On the other side is a living room with a view over the street.

One key opens both doors…

There’s bike rental for eco-friendly city exploration.

The first hotel was such a success a second has been opened in Berlin this year.

Camper also has a farm in Majorca where a school has been established to teach people organic growing techniques.  They boast 120 varieties of tomatoes.

 This feature first appeared in Inside Retailing Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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