Cautious. Optimistic.

Cautious. Optimistic.

lou_dzierzak_90x110Best Practices by Lou Dzierzak, Lkdcom@visi.com

Thousands attended the 2012 SIA Snow Show on January 26-29, 2012. Snow sports specialty retailers, a key audience at the event, arrived ready to see exhibitors 2013 product introductions first hand, evaluate new technologies and confirm buying decisions for the season ahead.

With more than 900 brands and 3,340 booths, retailer’s daily calendars can be booked from dawn to way past dark. “I thought it was a great show. As far as it being a place where business got done versus a place where a lot of people were just partying it was a much better venue,” comments Kyle Fisher, owner, Alpine Hut, Seattle WA.

Experienced snow sports retailers acknowledge the pace of innovation varies year to year. Rocker ski and snowboard technology introduced last year continues to drive interest from retailers and skiers. This year, hardgoods and apparel brands appeared to focus more on evolution rather than revolution.

“Last year we saw rocker in skis. That trend still has a lot of horsepower to continue to drive consumers to get new skis,” reports Bill Linkenheimer, general manager, Willi’s Ski Shop, Fairfax, VA. “The industry is always innovating. Suppliers need to come up with new products to keep things fresh, stay competitive with other vendors and drive consumers into the store. Although I didn’t see much that totally impressed me as a product that consumers are going to demand, I believe the industry will continue to work toward that goal.”

Jeff Crabtree, co-owner of Skinny Skis, Jackson, WY agrees, “You can’t come out with an entire new line each year but everyone wants the new and better, even if it’s only a little better. Everyone has something new and combined there is a lot of new product to keep the shelves looking refreshed next season.”

New approaches to snowboard bindings attracted attention. “New snowboard binding technology was great to see being explored,” says Raul Pinto, owner, Satellite Board Shop, Boulder, CO. “I think this will allow us to tell a better story and why people should upgrade their 10 yr. old set ups. With the binding, boots and boards all doing new innovative product from brands like DCP, YES, GIGI and SLASH pushing this attitude, this will help all the other brands simply because it is a new exciting story to tell snowboarders.”

The evolution of product makes it valid for consumers to buy new product. “Customers still come in with their first generation shaped skis,” explains Fisher. “The products have changed drastically in the last 10 years if not the last five. With shaped skis and now rocker, the market has evolved in that time as much as it did the twenty years prior to that.”

Although backcountry and AT are narrow niches, new ski, boot and binding product introductions attract attention. “From a marketing standpoint it’s a great idea. It certainly puts a lot of energy into the market. People relate to the idea,” notes Patrick O’Winter, Christy Sports, Avon, CO.” But the reality is backcountry skiing in the United States is always going to be marginal.”

Alpine and Nordic ski equipment brands have succeeded in making equipment lighter without sacrificing any performance. “In AT the new and refined light boots and skis are great for people looking to ‘go light’ in the backcountry,” says Crabtree. He notes that new lighter weight touring boots from Rossignol, Fischer and Alpina have revitalized Nordic equipment sales.

“People will always want to play outside so as long as I can outfit my customer, rent them equipment to play on for an affordable price, then we’ll be in business,” says Sara Nilsen, owner, Mountain Tracks, Government Track, OR. “We’ve been able to expand our business by renting different kinds of equipment like snowboards, alpine, Telemark, cross country skis and snowshoes. We’re thinking about adding Alpine Touring next year.”

Technical apparel trends also elicited reactions from snowsports buyers. “I think there is a little too much European influence in the new offerings,” comments O’Winter. “European lines tend to be a fairly dark in color. For the US market that’s not a very good trend. With the hangover concerning the recession people may be more receptive to a little happier than a dark color.”

Kathy Burke, apparel buyer, Cole Sport, Park City, UT did seek out more colorful options. “We’re seeing very bright colors and fitted silhouettes with lots of 4-way stretch,” she explains.

Like hardgoods, apparel trends frequently shift between true innovation and presentations of a broader selection of colors. Imitation also plays a role. “Once an apparel brand comes out with something new and unique, it tends to get copied. That brand may have a year of exclusive then everyone jumps on that bandwagon,” says Burke. “There tends to be a lot of product that is similar in the way it feels, looks and the color and material. There’s definitely innovation out there with brands that are on the cutting edge and we’re on board with them.”

Despite the winter of 2011-12 being a slow snow year in most areas of the country, most of the retailers still seemed upbeat. “When you go from the best snow in 38 years to a season with one of the lowest snow years it’s eye opening,” says Crabtree. “Fortunately, we did have snow and consider ourselves lucky this season. I always say I don’t care about the economy, I care about snow.”

New products presented at the SIA Snow Show will clearly attract attention from snow sports enthusiasts. Now if the weather would only cooperate. “Innovative product is certainly important but snow is the deciding factor. In a perfect storm of good snow and new technology sales are phenomenal as a result,” says Linkenheimer. “When new technology is introduced in a bad snow year that can help make it not as bad as it might be.”

O’Winter agrees, “Product innovation is one aspect to growth but not the only one. Weather is 70-80 percent of the equation. If the snow conditions are good people want to go skiing. If the snow conditions are bad there’s nothing you can do to push them to go skiing.”

At the SIA Snow Show, the collective offerings of hundreds of exhibitors are expected to interest skiers next season. “The ski and boot manufacturers continue to evolve. I don’t know that there’s any one thing that will motivate consumers to buy next season but there’s a lot of cool products out there,” O’Winter added.

Looking forward, these retailers are planning more conservative approaches to the beginning of the 2012-13 season. “For the first time in a long time our open to buy dollars will be down next year. We saw a significant decline in demand for clothing and hardgoods. We will have more carryover than normal,” explains O’Winter.

Skinny Skis will also manage 2012-13 orders carefully. “Carryover will be minimal but higher than past seasons. That will translate to smaller preseason orders. We have to realize it’s okay and healthy for the industry to run out of product. A smaller supply increases demand,” says Crabtree.

“This winter season has been slow and steady. Any day it snows, we’ll be busy,” offers Nilsen. “I stick to a tight budget and use companies like Burton, Scott, Dakine and Girothat will have stock so I can make orders throughout the winter or make multiple ship orders and adjust the order as needed before the next ship date I don’t want to be stuck with overstock and have to put everything on clearance just to pay bills during bad snow years. We base our budget on an average year’s sales to start off the season and hopefully I get to make more re-orders.”

Strong relationships between brands and retailers help both partners’ weather poor sales seasons. “We are going to commit to our real partners. The brands that might be on the fringe we may take a year off,” says Burke. “We’re being cautious and trying to make intelligent buying decisions. If we do have two years in a row of bad weather we won’t have a massive amount of inventory we have to dump. We’re willing to take risks and work with brands that we have great partnerships with. As a leader in ski you can’t compromise the direction of your store. You have to move product to make room for the new look for next year.”

Despite less than great snow conditions experienced in some parts of the snowbelt, the SIA Snow Show always leaves attendees inspired about the seasons to come. “This year hasn’t been the most profitable. Sell through in some categories has been better in some categories than others. That affects my open-to-buy,” offers Fisher.

“We find that one season drives the next. This season hasn’t been as bad as it might have been after last year. During this year’s early and preseason buyers were very eager to get their skis fixed up and buy new equipment because they used it so much last year,” reports Linkenheimer. “This year with the lack of snow, people aren’t getting out as much. Next season’s preseason may be a little slower. We need to continue to be optimistic but be mindful about our spending and advertising. We will be cautiously optimistic.”

Best Practices
Managing a successful snow sports specialty retail store requires expertise in an ever-changing array of business operations. Human resources, event planning, marketing, product selection, social media and e-commerce are just a few examples. Lou Dzierzak has written about these topics for over a decade. Best Practices will shorten the learning curve by offering case studies, resources and how-to tips from experts in specific fields. If you have suggestions for future topics, please feel free to contact Lou at Lkdcom@visi.com.