Like many sports retailers, Colorado-based Christy Sports Ski and Snowboard had a great summer.
The retailer, which has 65 stores in four states, saw brisk sales of its key summer categories of bicycles and patio furniture.
When the pandemic first hit in March and there was so much uncertainty, Christy’s had taken a conservative approach to winter orders for the upcoming season.
“We did adjust orders fairly significantly, but we didn’t go as far as cancelling everything,” said Thomas O’Winter, the longtime VP of Merchandising. “We found that the manufacturers were willing to work with us and be more creative with our winter prebooks which allowed for more flexibility if demand developed.”
By October, the team was feeling more bullish about the potential for winter and increased its inventory position in hardgoods.
“Clothing seemed to have stronger headwinds because it’s sold in so many channels so we were more nervous about that category,” Thomas said.
Most years, Christy’s has a large fall sale to kick off the winter season, which generates a lot of revenue. The company decided not to hold the sale this year in stores because of the COVID-19 risks. Christy’s moved the sale online instead, and while it did extremely well in that channel, “it was not nearly the volume we would typically see through our brick-and-mortar channel,” Thomas said.
In addition to not generating as much revenue, the absence of the big kick off event also made it harder to forecast where winter sales were headed.
“It’s usually a nice early indicator, but this year we did not get a good gauge,” Thomas said.
In addition, October was drier than last year and the company was up against a strong number from 2019.
But in November, business took off and has been fairly strong since then.
“We’re feeling pretty bullish but we’re not fooling ourselves – a lot can change really fast,” Thomas said. “Christmas is the most important inning for us, a lot of people usually travel into the resorts for the holidays and we know that will look different this year.”
The good news is that customers are definitely interested in buying new products and are interested in participating in snow sports.
“That’s encouraging for sure,” Thomas said. “But what happens with December travel and March travel is to be determined. December is shaping up nicely, but it’s going to have to be a balancing act to keep our staff and guests safe, we are going to try to thread the needle the best we can.”
The biggest surprise so far has been the willingness of customers to come in for boot fittings, Thomas said.
“We had thought boot fittings would be vulnerable because of the proximity issues,” he said. “But we put in good safety protocols over summer to address issues in this area and in our stores overall, and now that people have grown more comfortable with wearing masks and shopping in this new environment, we see guests still come to us for best-in-class service.”
As expected, hardgoods are selling much better than softgoods.
For the most part, Christy’s has the inventory it needs, though it has been hard for some backcountry vendors to keep up with skyrocketing demand. That market is small compared to the overall winter sports market, and it’s a big ask for those vendors to ramp up production so quickly, Thomas said.
While Thomas thinks resorts and most mountain retailers will be able to navigate the challenges this winter, he’s really worried about lodging and restaurant businesses.
“I know many of them have changed how they do business but it has to be very difficult for them,” he said. “We are certainly seeing some people have a very tough time. We’re embedded in a lot of these communities and it’s really worrisome. Our hearts go out to them.”
Christy’s last fiscal year, which ended in April 2020, was hurt by the closedowns in March, which is the second biggest sales month for Christy’s after December.
“That put a big stress on different parts of the organization, including with cash flow,” Thomas said. “We still had a good year – before the lockdowns, business was really, really strong.”
I asked Thomas if he thinks annual sales could possibly rise this year.
“It really depends if we have a normal 12-month cycle free of any shutdowns like we saw in March,” he said. “Given the COVID environment, I never would have thought I would be saying it’s possible, but we are off to a great start so far.”
“The consumer demand is there, so you never know. In the meantime, we are still going to be cautious in the right places and take advantage of the opportunities we see.”
SIA is the trade association of the winter outdoor industry. Through SIA membership, brands, destinations, retailers, service providers and nonprofits solve immediate business problems, adapt to changing pressures, save and grow. #TheBusinessofWinter.