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Duluth Pack factory still in business after 126 years

By ACHILLES SANGSTER
DCN Correspondent

In West Duluth, the Duluth Pack factory hums and grinds as workers sew together their patented luggage packs. After thick layers of canvas are custom cut to the type of pack being made, they are handed off to a seamstress – or seamster, in the some cases – to be sewn into more recognizable and usable shapes. Some workers wear headphones, listening to Harry Potter books-on-tape to drown out the noise.

Despite pressure to modernize the way the company operates, Duluth Pack is still using the same methods that they've been using since the company's founding in the late 1800’s.

Each sewer specializes in making his or her own type of Duluth Pack. One employee, Sue Oja, removes her headphones and says to a supervisor, "Just finished four Cruisers."

Another, Renee Bergren, pushes a piece of khaki canvas through her industrial sewing machine. She's making a deluxe clip bag, a type of pack that can cost upwards to $210.

Around the corner, where the noise slowly drowns out, riveter Brian Santti is listening to a small stereo playing "Dani California" by Red Hot Chili Peppers. He grabs leather and brass buckles and sorts them by matching thickness and color, taking extra care if he's riveting several packs for the same customer.

Santti places brass rivets into small holes in the leather, by hand, and throws his hammer down three times for each rivet. "Just pound her right down into the wood," he says. He explains that he has only been riveting for six years, but that this is the way that Duluth Packs have been riveted for 126 years.

On the opposite end of his counter, he points out a mechanized riveting machine. Santti says that using the machine takes too long, and that his predecessors have riveted by hand longer than the machine has been used.

But if the company wants to keep up with their internet sales – which, according to manager Jim Haegerl have skyrocketed this year – they might have to start using that riveter soon. Haegerl says that Internet and catalog sales have been “holding their own? against the store, making just a little over half of the company’s total revenue.

With an increase in online sales, Duluth Pack has been trying to compete with larger online retailers like REI and Gander Mountain that provide similar products for lower costs.

The company's president, Tom Sega, says that they are currently trying to move more sales towards their website, and that their brand is now found on every continent on the planet. He points out a photograph on his wall of a man holding a Duluth Pack catalog in front of a research facility in Antarctica.

"We go through the history of what sells, what sorts of things actually move" says Sega. "We've added close to 30 new products that we manufacture in the last 18 months."

Sega says that Duluth Pack pays attention to what's new and in demand, like new kinds of bags. The new style, he says, is messenger bags, and so they have increased production of their sling bags.

Duluth Pack has even revamped their website – twice since the beginning of Autumn – and added 500 products once unavailable online. That means more products than can be ordered through their paper catalog or their store.

They are also bidding for keyword searches on Google, so when customers accidentally type in a misspelling of the company name, such as "Deluth Pack" or "Duluth Backpack," their website will be the first page Google recommends to web-surfers.

Despite a push to increase Internet sales, Duluth Pack as a physical location still draws customers in.

Their store in Canal Park, for example, still attracts local Duluthians and visitors alike, earning about half of the company's revenue. One such customer is Jeff Washburn, a visitor from St. Paul who grew up in Duluth who says that he always tries to think of a reason to go to the Duluth Pack store in Canal Park whenever he makes his annual migration to the Northland.

"I like the way the company is set up," says Washburn during a stop by the store on Black Friday. "We've been in the BWCA, hiking, backpacking, and it's always been a part of who we are. So the fact that it's still going after all these years is great."

In another section of the store, Steve Erickson was at the store looking for a hammock with his son, Dylan.

"I do very little shopping," says Erickson. He has rarely come to the store itself although he lives in Duluth. He says he used to regularly shop at Duluth Pack when their factory housed an open storefront as Duluth Tent and Awning.

"Duluth Pack has a great story," says Erickson. "The Duluth Pack itself lasts forever. And I know it's a little pricy, but I'm okay with that. It's priced correctly."

Store manager Jim Haegerl says they want to have at least 2/3 of the company's sales come through their website and catalog, and only 1/3 through the brick-and-mortar store. The concern is not so much with production, but with storage.

"We'd like to become a multi-million dollar corporation like Gander Mountain or REI," Haegerl says. "But at the same time, we need the capacity to stock and store as much stuff that can end up in demand for the catalog and web-orders."

With a different business model, which Haegerl called a distribution center model, a single building would contain the overstock of the company's packs that can be more easily shipped out for online or catalog orders, and taken to the store when shelves need refilling.

When larger retailers reduce prices on their products, Duluth Pack has to convince their customers that the quality of their products comes not from their price, but from the work that goes into them.

Back at the factory, next to the customer service desk where Internet and catalog orders are processed, is the shelf where orders for repairs on Duluth Packs are made.

One pack bears a stamp reading "Monarch," a brand that has not been put on a Duluth Pack in almost 30 years. It is at the factory because the leather buckles have crumbled into dust and the pack can no longer be sealed shut.

“The only time the leather ever needs to be replaced is when people don’t condition it,? says Solberg.

Molly Solberg holds the pack, which she says might have even been willed to its current owner by a now deceased grandparent, with pride. Over the pulsating noise of the sewing machines, she says that customers see the work that goes into the packs. Sue, Brian, and Renee put a part of themselves into each pack, whether buyers realize it or not.

"I've had a lot of customers ask, 'Why spend $100 on a Duluth Pack when you can go down to Wal-Mart and get one for $15?'" says Solberg.

Haegerl agrees. He says that there are two kinds of consumers in today's market.

"One is the type that goes to K-Mart and Shopko because it's cheaper," says Haegerl.
"But there are also a lot more people who are quality driven. We have a lot of products that we make that stand up to the test of time."

Comments

Nothing beats the quality of products produced by the hands of artisans - who in this case are sewers and riveters. The author (my son) presents Duluth Pack and its products in a manner that produces images in my mind of the best-of-the best like Orvis for flyrods or DeBeers for diamonds. The only thing that will end the longivety of this class of companies will be a decision by the owner(s) to just quit...faulty economies in their case, could never cause them to cease. So from backpacks to diamonds, and everything in between, "price" is just sliding-scale word for quality that endures.

Oh, yes, and guess where I'm going when I next visit Duluth?