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126-year-old Duluth Pack continues to thrive

By CORY BELLAMY
DCN Correspondent

Kaytie Chernak walks around the sales floor at Duluth Pack in Canal Park, taking a moment to observe the store’s layout. The flooring is decked out in knotty pine, and there are several trophy animals mounted on the walls. In front of a giant fireplace, a customer sits in a chair and thumbs through a fancy catalog. The main sales kiosk resembles an old cabin, complete with decorative shingles on its roof.

“It’s supposed to feel like it did when it first opened,? Chernak said. “We really try to push the fact that we’ve been here 126 years on our customers.?

The store dates back to an 1882 patent obtained by a Canadian named Camille Poirer. The patent is for a backpack that was simply known as a “pack-strap? at the time. According to the original document, the bag is made from canvas and leather, and is held together by copper rivets. It was designed for use during canoe portages through the rugged wilderness. The pack utilizes a sternum strap for added support, as well as a strap that can be put over one’s head to help distribute the weight of the load being carried, now known as a “tumpline.?

According to a brief historical timeline given to Duluth Pack employees, this invention quickly became known as the original “Duluth Pack.? The document claims that Poirer sold the manufacturing rights to the Duluth Pack to Duluth Tent and Awning in 1911. Nearly 100 years after obtaining the rights to the pack, the company has operated out of the same factory and has made few changes in the production of the bags, despite competing with manufacturers of more technologically advanced and lighter materials.

How can this century-old design of a piece of canvas -- that is less than aesthetically pleasing -- continue to succeed today?

Current Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook offered his insight in a 1983 article which appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Cook raved about the pack’s rich history and representation of the city for which it’s named. “That Duluth pack, faded and friendly as an old pair of jeans, is more than just a way to move gear across portage trails. It's a living piece of history,? Cook wrote.

Tom Sega became the majority owner and president of Duluth Pack in April of 2007. He got involved in the company after spending several years as a frequent customer of the business. He thinks the answer to the success of the packs is quite simple.

“I just got sick and tired of buying my kids new backpacks for school year after year. I knew I was paying twice as much as for other backpacks, but these ones never need to be replaced. The durability in the products speaks for itself,? Sega said, adding that each pack comes with a lifetime warranty on its craftsmanship, including zippers and rivets.

Despite making few alterations to the pack over the years, Duluth Pack has enjoyed prolonged success and continues to grow. The company produced two million catalogs this year, including 750,000 which were recently mailed out for the holiday shopping season.

Sega said Duluth Pack has also begun to enjoy international success. The company now has a distributor in Japan, as well as one in the United Kingdom. He also said shipments were made to all seven continents last year, including Antarctica.

According to an Associated Press story written in 2007, the store grossed over $5 million in sales in 2006. The article states that many of the company’s sales generate from its web site, a trend that has helped create the potential for new store locations. Some possible destinations mentioned in the piece are Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle and Denver.

Even with the growth Duluth Pack continues to enjoy, the production quality of the famous backpacks will always play the biggest role, explained associate manager Katie Houman. She explained that each bag is handled by a particular sewer from start to finish. Once a bag is completed, it is shipped out with three tags attached to the inside. One tag denotes that the bag was made in the United States, a second shows the Duluth Pack seal and the third is marked with the sewer’s signature or initials. Houman said the sewers came up with the idea eight years ago as an added incentive to take pride in their work.

“We realize that we could be more efficient and produce greater volume,? Houman said. “What we try to do is eliminate extra steps in the production process, while still sticking with mainly hand-crafted materials.?

While looking to expand, and continuing to stand by the quality and durability that made it famous, Sega said Duluth Pack has always operated under the same principle. He said the company has always taken a string of items that mean very little individually to produce something special.

“We take some canvas, some leather, a little bit of hardware and thread, and create value," Sega said.