--BY NIKEETA GAUTAM
Of late, Nepalis have started to appreciate local production. Thanks to a few local brands which have been focusing on satisfying their customers while maintaining the standard of the products. Sonam Gears is one such brand which produces high quality outdoor clothing products.
Before Sonam Gears, locally produced high-end brands were almost nonexistent. There were international brands like North Face, but not every tourist could afford to buy expensive gear. This market observation paved the way for Tashi Chombe Nepali, the founder of Sonam Gears to bring an international quality alternative with a cheaper price tag attracting trekkers, adventurers and climbers alike. This is how the brand grew.
Prior to Sonam Gears, Chombe Nepali used to produce and retail counterfeit products of North Face brand for eight years. “But I felt I was cheating my customers,” he says.
He had already learnt the know-how of the clothes manufacturing industry and customer choice and started Sonam Gears with an initial capital of Rs 2.5 million.
The brand name Sonam represents mountainous Nepal.
‘Sonam’ which means ‘the fortunate one’ in the Tibetan language, is a very common local Nepali name, especially popular among Sherpas. “As the products are designed for the climbers, we thought of blending their adventure and cultural experience with what they are using,” says Chombe Nepali.
When Sonam Gears began in 2011 Nepalis were also developing interest in trekking and adventure. “When we started, the trend of trekking among domestic tourists had just started,” he says. Gradually, with the increasing popularity of trekking and climbing among Nepalis, Sonam attracted a lot of Nepali customers.
The company imports its raw materials from Bangladesh, India, Korea and China. Chombe Nepali claims that they always use high-end materials to ensure quality to maintain brand value. “That is the reason for importing raw materials. With raw materials available in Nepal, we cannot produce quality accessories for Sonam,” he says.
The company produces 120,000 to 150,000 units every year. Their annual turnover is around Rs 10 million. The company has given full-time employment to 80 and 120 factory workers who work on hourly wages. Among them around 60 staff members are locals. “We don’t have a definite philanthropy strategy. But we focus on giving working opportunities to the locals while also bringing fortune to ourselves,” says Amit Lama, manager at Sonam Gears.
The brand has 18 stores across Nepal including its franchises. The franchises are in Pokhara, Chitwan and Namchhe. Recently, a franchise store of Sonam Gears was opened in Australia. The company has been exporting products to Canada and Australia.
Presently, the company has been focusing on two areas. One is an online presence, and the other is customer experience. Chombe Nepali claims that the company does 10 percent of its transactions through Daraz, an e-commerce site and their website. Chombe Nepali thinks that their brand is yet to be strong in terms of an online presence.
“It has been about four years since we started online delivery. And, we have seen encouraging growth in the last two years.” Manager Lama says that Sonam does not charge anything extra to its customers when they buy online. “Be it online or franchise, the price of Sonam products are the same everywhere,” he says. With this approach, the company aims to reach enough customers online.
Sonam Gears has also been trying to work on improving customer experience in their physical inventories. The founder agrees that salespersons neglect customers in many retail stores of Nepal, “That is why we have been providing staff training about customer care. Customers should always be right. This is what we are trying to instill in the minds of our staff,” says Chombe.
Their marketing strategy aligns with their vision, as Chombe Nepali says, “Producing quality products at an affordable price is our maxim. So is our market strategy.” The products of Sonam Gears range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000. Nepali customers are usually found at Sonam stores, especially during the grand sales. While the company provides a periodic discount, the big sale takes place during March-April, September and December-January.
Chombe’s years of experience in the clothing business has given him a clear idea about Nepali customers. “Most of the Nepali customers want quality products at lesser prices,” he says. One of the main reasons behind the affordability is that Sonam’s factory is in Nepal. When importers bring branded items from another country, two to three agents are involved in the process. This hikes the price. In Sonam’s case, there is no second party. “Due to this, despite the use of high-end materials, the retail price doesn’t skyrocket,” says Chombe.
The founder thinks that their prices are still slightly steep for the majority of Nepalis. “If we produce the products in mass, the price will get cheaper,” says Chombe Nepali. “But what to do, Nepal’s market is small," he adds.
Sonam’s marketing strategy for basic items is quality and affordability. “We are aware that we should leave no room for complaints about our products. We always ensure that customers get back value for money,” he says.
When the brand tries something new, it sends out a sample before producing the product in bulk and checks the response.
The Nepali market has not developed to the extent that it can compete with international brands. In this scenario, it is an opportunity for a brand like Sonam to win the hearts of local buyers. Chombe Nepali is aware that Nepalis are also becoming more brand conscious. “They can distinguish between high and low quality. So, we have to think about international standards while producing,” he says.
Though the Nepali market has been gradually accepting local products for casual purposes, this group is very particular. It has been observed that Nepali brands are passive in marketing its products. Chombe Nepali agrees, “The perception is getting positive gradually with the increased number of customers."
Sonam Gears usually gets feedback through online reviews on their websites, e-commerce platforms and international travel sites like TripAdvisor. Sometimes, they also organise surveys among customers in their various outlets. Besides selling from its outlets, Sonam also manufactures accessories for Multi-national companies, NGOs and INGOs. “We use our raw materials and resources, and print items in their name,” says Chombe.
Chombe Nepali has been planning to expand Sonam's outlets all over Nepal. “First, we should become popular among Nepalis,” he says. To increase production and expand its footprint, the long term plan is also to reach out to the international market.
Also, the company plans to move forward aggressively in terms of marketing. “We need to focus more on our online presence. To grow, we must catch up with the emerging trends,” he says.