Being a third-generation scouts enthusiast meant that Colin Lye spent quite a bit of his time outdoors as a child.
At any random time, his father would exclaim: “Let’s go camping this weekend!” And the family would pack up, pop into the car and drive off for a weekend in the outdoors. That happens at least twice a month, says Lye.
These days, he makes do with selling others camping equipment.
“I’ve slowed down, you know, corporate work,” he offers.
Where Lye, chief executive officer of Camps and Apparels Sdn Bhd, is doing less of, he hopes to make up for it by providing others with the tools and equipment to enjoy the outdoors.
Camps and Apparels owns the Deer Creek brand which develops and retails outdoor products. It has some 300 stock keeping units (SKUs) - including sleeping bags, tents, camping stoves, collapsible containers and cutlery - under its belt.
The company also owns the Outpost Uniform franchise.
The company was founded by Lye’s grandfather as a uniform retailer in Klang in 1961. Business grew by leaps and bounds in the late 1990s when the Education Ministry made it compulsory for every student to join a uniformed society in school.
In 2009, Lye saw a need to support these uniformed societies - most of which organise camping activities - with basic equipment like camping stoves and such.
Camps and Apparels started off by bringing in generic products until it had sufficient volume to dictate its own specifications and develop products under its own Deer Creek brand.
Product development is looked into by a team of three to four people, all of whom are camping enthusiasts, adds Lye.
He notes that the management’s background in scouting as well as the development team’s hands-on experience enables them to produce a range of outdoor goods that are functional, cost-effective and made to suit the local climate and requirement.
According to its outdoor division assistant manager Cheng Shan Chung, its products are priced three to four times lower than those offered by international outdoor brands, which are dominating the local market at the moment.
“Our target market are beginners, families and students. They are not the hardcore campers but would like to give it a try. So they don’t necessarily need equipment with such high specifications or the premium brands yet,” Lye shares.
And if these beginners find that camping is indeed their thing, they can always upgrade to a more premium product.
“The challenge for us is mostly on the price point. Because these are for beginners, they are more sensitive to pricing. And we work with schools, so the price point is important.
“If you want to start camping and you see that you have to fork out about RM300 for some equipment, you might think twice about whether to pick it up or not. So we are just giving them an avenue to start and pick up this interest,” says Cheng.
While there are no official numbers on the size of the market, Cheng estimates that it is a sizeable market that is growing.
Notably, more outdoor events are being organised on a weekly basis, including camps and marathons. And these events are gaining visibility with the involvement of large corporations as sponsors.
A shift in trend towards a more balanced lifestyle is also helping to spur interest in the outdoors. People are willing to be more adventurous.
The demand is there, says Cheng.
Additionally, Malaysia has seen the entry of large retailers like Decathlon and Sports Direct, which are looking to aggressively expand their market share. This signals the potential that is present in the outdoor space.
Camps and Apparels is expanding its reach by partnering organisations such as Malaysia Nature Society.
Such partners make good brand ambassadors, says Lye, as they have members who are either avid users, who can attest to its quality, or casual campers, who fit into the company’s target market.
“It helps with the education process on camping,” he says.
Deer Creek products were previously only available at its Outpost shops, but in 2017, the company secured an agreement with Aeon to retail its products at the departmental store. It currently has 80 SKUs available through Aeon.
“They saw that we are a unique and local homegrown brand. In Malaysia, there isn’t really a homegrown outdoor brand. And they gave us that opportunity,” Lye shares.
Last December, the brand further expanded through Tesco outlets with 17 SKUs.
Lye notes that Deer Creek’s products have the price point and specifications that were suited to the hypermarket’s customers, which is family-based.
The company is looking to develop more lightweight and compact products like bags and pillows as more and more campers seek convenient and comfortable items to enhance their camping experience.
He is also eyeing the regional market as its products are suited for the climate.
Lye thinks there is an opportunity to ride on its partnership with Aeon and Tesco to penetrate into other countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. He expects this to happen over the next two to three years.
He notes that there is big potential in Vietnam as the tourism market there is growing very fast.
“The tourism market in other countries is something we can look at because these are tourists who may need replacement products or equipment while they are travelling,” explains Cheng.
For now, though, Deer Creek’s only international markets are the Maldives and Singapore where it supplies directly to the Girl Guides and Scouts organisations there.
“If we appeal to them, that means we are doing something right. They are the right users. A lot of brands out there are meant for four-seasons climate. Ours is developed to suit the tropical climate. For example, we require more ventilation. So we want to market to the region,” says Lye.
Of course, big retailers are also looking to Asia for a growth story and that means Deer Creek will have to compete with other players, big and small.
But Cheng is optimistic about its push out of the country as he notes that the company has a wider distribution network that it can tap into.
In 10 year’s time, Lye hopes the brand will be present in the Asia Pacific region to make outdoor equipment more accessible to consumers.
But locally, there is still room for growth as awareness about the great outdoors increases and the local community of hikers grow.
“Previously, they didn’t really think about camping. But more and more people are exposed to this lifestyle thanks to the media, travel shows, or people who have studied overseas and came back with this interest.
“Also, schools are exposing students to camping activities through uniformed bodies. And here, they get to pick up skills that they don’t usually get elsewhere,” he says.
Like most industries, the local market faces challenges from generic Chinese products. Lye eyes this with caution but he is confident of Deer Creek’s quality.
He adds that the company provides a warranty for its products, emphasising that that is proof of its reputation.
“People are often surprised that Deer Creek is a local brand, when they find out, because the name sounds like an international brand. They find it interesting and people are very positive about it. So it’s good to know that people are accepting the brand,” says Cheng.
“Our role is to create opportunities for beginners to try out camping. It is up to them to take that next step,” says Lye.