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Abominable cooler: It isn’t the Cadillac, the Yeti is more like the Ferrari of cool

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island Police Chief Mike Fanning doesn’t like to see a Yeti cooler sitting unattended.

He warns vacationers not to let Yetis get out of sight because thieves prize them for their resale value. Thefts have dropped, Fanning said, from about a dozen last summer to just one this year.

Fishing guide Steve Thomas, gets a discount for being part of the Yeti guide program, but he won’t put a Yeti sticker on his truck’s window. “They send me all kinds of stickers,” he said, “but I do not use them. If you put a Yeti sticker on your window and park your truck in the Wal-Mart parking lot, your cooler won’t be there when you get back. I purchased a tumbler, and had it two days before somebody took it out of my truck.”

The Yeti is beyond the Cadillac of coolers. It’s the Ferrari. Its capacity to keep ice for a week or longer is akin to being able to hit 200 miles per hour on the highway. It’s a lot more cooler than most people need. Yet they are willing to pay $250 for a small size and more than a thousand for the bigger models to know their coolers are bear-proof. On Yeti’s official website, customers can watch videos of grizzly bears trying unsuccessfully to pry a padlocked cooler open, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has given Yeti its official “Grizzly Proof” seal of approval. Marketers call that the “aspirational use.” Yeti says most of its consumers will never need all the cooler’s benefits. However, they appear to be the rugged outdoor types who do. “I don’t know how they do it,” said Adam Hoffmann of Palmetto Ace Hardware. “It’s the name.”

The Yeti name is so cool that stores prominently display hats and T-shirts advertising the brand. In the beginning, Yeti included a hat with every cooler. Now, it sells branded hats, T-shirts, bottle openers and other gear — often to consumers who don’t own a Yeti cooler. And forget about the new stainless steel tumblers and beer can insulators. Hoffmann said Palmetto Ace can’t keep them on the shelves.

“You can put Yeti on just about anything, and it will sell,” Will Tayloe of Pawleys Island Outdoors said.

Named for the abominable snowman, Yeti is designed for extreme conditions. Tayloe said fishermen can stand on the coolers to cast or pole from a boat. Other high-end coolers tend to bend and buckle when treated that way. Thomas said people who buy a cheaper knockoff are almost always disappointed. The price for a Yeti is secondary because it delivers on its promise of toughness. Dean Williams, an employee at Palmetto Ace, said he’s had a Yeti for four years and it’s still as good as new.

Thomas said his customers expect him to have top-of-the-line gear. “I got it,” he said, “because I like to cater to high-end fishing clientele. People ask if I’d recommend Yeti. It’s the best cooler I’ve ever had. It should be for the price. It will hold ice in the hot sun for five to six days if you cool it down before you start to use it. I fill it with ice and let it stand for four or five hours. Dump that out and put another bag in and it stays in there.”

Fishermen Ryan and Roy Seiders of Austin, Texas, ruined a lot of cheap ice chests before they built their first Yeti cooler and founded the company a decade ago. With their box design and white paint job to deflect the sun’s rays, the coolers have become common on construction sites, farms and ranches. They’re also popular with the military. Legend says they’ve been used to transport organs for transplant.

Thomas said they are more practical in places like Alaska — he’s worked as a guide there — where clean ice is not convenient.

Tayloe said a Yeti cooler is an investment. He owns three in different sizes and will never have to buy a foam cooler from a convenience store. Proof they are an official fad is that Yetis are showing up in high school parking lots. Although they’re made largely of the same materials as normal coolers — plastic walls and polyurethane foam, just a lot more of it — the coolers are a status symbol because of price. Yeti’s Tundra line comes in 11 different sizes, ranging from $229 to $1,300 for the Tundra 420, a 110-pound ice chest designed for marine expeditions and commercial fishing charters.

While Yeti is best for his purposes, Thomas said his wife doesn’t like it. “No. 1,” he said, “it’s too heavy. No. 2, the vacuum seal is so strong she can’t open the lid. I have to really jerk on it sometimes. I’ve learned to turn the drain plug, let in some air and the top will lift.”

Recognizing those drawbacks, Yeti introduced a soft-sided cooler called the Hopper for picnics, the beach and traveling by car. It’s lighter but every bit as rugged — and expensive — as the ice chests. The zipper on top of the insulated bag is haz-mat quality. The bag is so air-tight, Hoffmann said, users are warned not to put dry ice inside because the gas will accumulate and cause the bag to explode.

Tayloe said he sells as many as eight to 10 Yeti coolers some days. If a hurricane threatens, he thinks he’ll sell out in no time. In addition to his job at Pawleys Island Outdoors, Tayloe is a firefighter with Midway Fire and Rescue. He’s already telling firefighters to bring their Yeti coolers to the station if electricity is interrupted for an extended period. The station has just one refrigerator.

The firefighters were sold when they went to a fire in North Litchfield this summer and a pickup truck with a Yeti cooler in the bed was parked under the burning house. The heat blistered the top of the cooler but didn’t melt the ice inside. Yeti has donated a big cooler to Midway Fire and Rescue.

“I was kind of skeptical,” Tayloe said. “Wow, who’d spend that much money on a cooler? Once you buy one, you are pretty much sold on it.”

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