A cottage gear manufacturer is one that manufactures their own products, rather than outsourcing them to a contract manufacturer. In the backpacking industry companies like Mountain Laurel Designs, Tarptent, ULA, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Yama Mountain Gear, ZPacks, Elemental Horizons, and Superior Wilderness Designs design, fabricate or sew all of their own products in-house. Most of them also sell direct to consumers over the internet.
There are some companies in the backpacking market, like Gossamer Gear, Six Moon Designs and Hennessey Hammocks, that were cottage manufacturers earlier in their history, but have since moved their manufacturing off shore to Mexico or Asia, in order to lower their costs and keep up with demand. They’re often grandfathered-in and referred to as cottage manufacturers, even though they’ve outgrown the label.
In some ways, being a cottage manufacturer is a lifestyle choice. There are some companies that have resisted expanding their production capacity because they like things the way they are. Others prefer to put their time into new design innovation and marketing and are willing to outsource the production details to others.
Advantages and Disadvantages for Consumers
The upside of buying gear from a cottage manufacturer that makes their own products is that you can often have it customized for a small fee. The downside is you often have wait for several months to have your gear made, since many small manufacturers have such long backorder queues. These smaller companies don’t have the business experience or cash reserves to pre-buy large quantities of fabric or to hire and train part-time workers to help expedite orders during periods of high demand.
Cottage companies also innovate much more quickly than larger companies because they don’t have to buy huge lots of materials in advance that they get stuck with if they make a change. While that can be good for consumers, you might not get the same product that your buddy bought 6 months ago. Not all innovations are “good ones”, if you follow me.
One thing to watch for when buying products from cottage companies are their return policies and warranties. This isn’t REI. If it’s custom-made, you probably can’t return it if you don’t like it. If it’s not, the return policy is still going to be a lot more strict than if you buy it at a big retailer. Pay attention to this! The same holds for warranty guarantees. While most cottage companies will go out of their way to keep you satisfied if a product you’ve purchased fails catastrophically, they’re likely to charge you for any self-inflicted repairs.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear is in an old restored mill building in Biddeford, Maine
The upside of buying from a small manufacturer that offshores the manufacture of their products is that usually have more inventory available and can ship it out to you more quickly. The downside is that it’s strictly off the shelf, since they lack the ability to do any customization.
Bigger Gear Companies
Some cottage gear companies “grow up” and become industry giants, like Osprey Packs, Gregory Packs, MSR, and others. But in doing so they outsource most, if not all, of their manufacturing to others and run lean design and marketing staffs. They also stop selling direct and begin to sell through retailers, like REI, Backcountry.com, and others. For example, REI buys a huge lot of goods from these manufacturers, usually at a 50% discount, and then sells them to consumers at full MSRP. This results in much slower new product development cycles because retailers have to sell off old models before they can buy new ones. If a manufacturer were to release a new product before the old ones are sold out, their customers…the retailers, get screwed selling older model products at a discount.
The upside for consumers is that REI and larger retailers will take product returns 6 months out, no questions asked, which is not an insignificant benefit. The downside is that their store staff usually lacks the expertise or motivation to make sure you choose the right gear and get fitted properly for your adventures. Can’t have it both ways.