Information is Power
Online Resources Have Created an Informed Consumer
Best Practices by Lou Dzierzak, Lkdcom@visi.com
The first snows of the 2012-13-winter season have arrived. Snow sports enthusiasts are hurrying into ski shops armed with the information about latest skis, boots and bindings from gear reviews, online forums and blogs. With today’s online resources consumers are better informed than ever before.
As a result snowsports brands and retailers have to pay attention to product education processes. “Today’s consumers are better educated than they were 5-10 years ago. After the crash of the global economy, consumers became much more careful about every $100 they spend,” reports Tait Wardlaw, VP brands, Marketing, Communications for Rossignol Group. “Very few people are willing to spend money as frivolously. They are not willing to buy a new ski or snowboard without a fair amount of research relative to what they may have done 5 years ago.”
More information about ski equipment doesn’t necessarily translate to accurate information. “Just because the information is available doesn’t mean they are interpreting it correctly or the product they are researching is best suited for their needs,” says Pat Purcell, senior marketing manager, experticity, the parent company of 3point5.com.
Raul Pinto, co-owner of Satellite Boardshop in Boulder, Colorado believes the glut of online information actually confuses most consumers. “I don’t think many consumers can differentiate technical aspects of hardgood brands,” notes Pinto. “Online resources can have small effects to lure a customer with a “good deal” but there is nothing that replaces a retailer’s service and hardgood knowledge.”
Sales people who are well-trained and understand differences between brands and applications often have to overcome faulty expectations from consumers who come in convinced that one particular product is right for them. “Consumers can also be very misinformed, sometimes it is a matter of correcting a misconception that a customer may have picked up on a message board or perhaps they have identified themselves as a certain kind of user, “ explains Connor Folley, global marketing manager at K2 Sports. “The service really starts at a much more basic level though, because as informed as consumers can be about the model or brand they want, they may have no idea what size they need which will ultimately be much more important in determining their satisfaction with that purchase.”
Every season begins with new products from an ever-increasing number of hardgoods ski brands. Even sales people who feel dialed in about current products need to take time to get caught up with new launches and introductions. Brand marketing teams work diligently to provide accurate, timely information to make the retailer education process efficient.
“The key to education remains the same: consistent, relevant, well-illustrated communications,” reports Wardlaw. “After that, the plethora of vehicles that are available, including various web tools, print, video, or conference programs are all a conduit for the repetition of a consistent, effective message.”
Product education also has to be tailored to the needs of the consumer. Some expect the most detailed specifications discussions while that same information can turn away another customer. “It’s also about keeping your tech story simple, what does it mean to the customer,” explains Folley. “While we are all gear heads and love the tech side of the industry, you need to keep your product message brief and ensure that it resonates with the customer, not just sound techy and cool.”
Skinny Skis uses a combination of approaches such as online, in-store vendor clinics and the store’s own internal discussions and clinics to keep everyone up to speed on Nordic, alpine touring and backcountry touring equipment. “I think it’s more important than ever to have an informed staff one that can communicate well,” says Phil Leeds, owner, Skinny Skis, Jackson, WY.
3Point5 has been a Snowsports Industries America partner for almost five years. More than 500,000 registered retail sales professionals use 3Point5 online training programs. “The need to have a well-educated staff is crucial right now,” notes Purcell. “Consumers will come in knowing as much if not more about the products than the people on the sales floor.”
While online training resources offer 24/7 access to brand information, face-to-face training plays a critical role in product education. “We have an incredible rep force and they are the front line, getting into stores, doing clinics, and ensuring that retail employees are armed with all the knowledge they need to assist the customer in making the correct purchasing decision, “ says Folley. “We provide our reps with innovative and unique clinic tools every season to assist them in educating the shop staff.”
Since many sales people are spending much of their free time skiing or snowboarding their own experiences and biases can influence the presentation of product information. That enthusiasm has to be tempered a bit to ensure the consumer is getting accurate information that addresses the consumer’s specific needs.
“Sales associates need to be well versed in all brands not just their favorite. They can tell the consumer I’ve skied on this ski from brand X and brand Y and here’s my experience. That adds to the expertise of the sales associate,” says Purcell. The 3Point5 training program offer incentives and purchase discounts to motivate retail sales people to learn about a wide range of products.
“We try to talk to retailers every single week from August through January. We try to respect their passions and attention spans,” reports Wardlaw. “We try to share good, intriguing content that helps them enjoy the sport and their jobs as well as be more effective sales people. Our shop employees and specialty retailers are still the single most influential source of information for most of our alpine ski product consumers. They’re the guys at “ground zero” when a customer is about to commit to the purchase. So, effective in-store training and communication is still paramount to a brand’s success within the retail environment.”
At Satellite Board Shop the staff tries out many different brands to find the right snowboard selection for their customer base. “We ride them all if we think they deserve a spot on the wall, says Pinto. “I like to have brands compared against one another and my experiences vs. the other employees. They all contribute to the authenticity of the sales and set-ups we are making for customers.”
The enthusiasm sales people have for skiing and particular brands can be a powerful selling tool. The challenge is keeping that energy focused and accurately presented to customers. “We believe in our products and if we have an advocate on the shop floor all the better,” says Folley. “So long as we are keeping in tune with what their perceptions of our products are, solving any perceived problems, and ensuring our reps communicate back to the shop employees that “hey we listened and changed that”, why not leverage the street cred of those shop employees.”
Offering a range of brands and being informed about the feature and benefit sets across product lines ensures the customer will leave with the appropriate equipment. “We need to remind our staff that our buyers have done their best to provide a solid line-up of products,” explains Leeds. “In many cases there is more than one option within a particular usage or category. More often than not one of our in-stock products will meet the customer’s needs. In fact, they’ll be stoked!”
As the season unfolds, consumers will continue to research skis, boots and bindings before making a purchase. Snow sports retailers that invest in product education will be ready to answer every question thrown their way. “There is a huge opportunity for the sales staff. Even an educated consumer still has questions,” says Purcell. “They can better guide them to the products that fit the experiences they are looking for. They can have a well-versed conversation. It’s never a good when the consumer walks away believing they know more than the sales person.”
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.