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Exclusive: Where Ski Retail Is Headed in the New Normal

Retailers are heading into this next season with a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Covid-19 has changed everything in our life, our livelihood, our passion ... aka the ski industry. There will be a new normal, but it will be far from any “normal” that we have experienced before. There is no playbook to get through this, nothing we can look back on as a point of reference -- just nothing. Retailers are going on gut feelings because we have even less of an idea now what will happen than we did when the industry closed down one Saturday last March.

We have been attending numerous industry webinars, and underlying the discussion is the sobering opinion that Covid-19 didn’t change anything that wasn’t going to happen to the ski industry eventually, it just accelerated the process by a few years. There is a sentiment that the ski retailer purely as a commodities mover is a dying model and the only way to survive will be to adapt and focus on service (this will be the topic of Part 2). This reshaping of the industry was to be a gradual change over the next few years, but the events of the past 120 days have turned it into a complete shift that must happen as soon as now.

While retailers were writing their 2020-21 orders, the entire ski industry came to a screeching halt. Not only did shops lose those orders, they also lost their spring sales, A ski shop's financial timeline goes something like this: Most retailers are on extended terms with their suppliers (the manufacturers). The gear that they receive in the fall and sell over late winter is paid for in late winter. Spring is when shops hope to bring in revenue that will be their profit. The income from these sales is what most retailers use to pay the last of their bills for the season. Think “Black Friday” for the industry, not as in a big sale for the consumer, but when retailers go into the black and start seeing a return on their year-long investment. But Covid hit, and shops lost those spring sales, which are vital to their financial stability.

Because of new buying trends in an Amazon-fueled era of two-day shipping and instant gratification, “click and add to cart” retailers will need to adapt and adapt fast -- as in immediately. If a retailer does not have an interactive website and either an online presence or access to the virtual consumer, they might as well plan on an exit strategy. What got them here in their business -- ie, waiting for consumers to walk in the front door with cash in their hands -- will not be getting them where they need to be to survive moving forward.

I reached out to retailers, buyers, and industry insiders; all have different philosophies with their orders for the coming season. Some are very calculated, some are all in, still others have just whipped out their trusted Magic 8 balls. Some have even thrown in the towel, shutting the doors and getting out of retail completely.

Let’s look at the spectrum here. One of the largest retailers, Vail Resorts, canceled all of its pre-orders, and we are hearing it is abandoning its retail stores as we know them. Yes, that is huge news … but this is an industry-wide change, not just one retailer, even as large as Vail Resorts Retail is. Canceling everything? Well, that is a very conservative (or is it risky?) path; VR is one of the most financially diverse organizations, so it can afford to take this direction. Next are the service-oriented shops acting on the safer side, which means just trimming their orders and banking on skis and boots that have been tried-and-true sales successes. They are adjusting the variety of their selections and not really focusing on the depth of a model collection. Other shops think there will be excess production from these previous models and expect that there will be demand, that affluent skiers will still be buying gear and will need a place to do it.

The one thing that most shops agree on is that they need to change how they access and interact with their customers, and how they get product to them. More now than ever, a retailer's online presence is paramount. This can be either through their own database or through sites and communities such as Pugski.com. Skiers will be making purchases, but many will be unwilling to come into a shop. Curbside pickup, shipping, and any other “hands-free” method of interaction will be more important than ever. These past few months have shown that a sale is made before a consumer ever enters a store via independent reviews, interaction with influencers, and a click of the mouse.

The question I have for every retailer and supplier reading this: Are you ready, and what have you prepared moving forward?

Disclaimer: This research was compiled over a weeks at the end of last season. Think about what we thought we knew a month ago as compared to what we know today, and remember that what we think we know today will be different than what we will know next month.
About author
Philpug
I started skiing in the mid-70s in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania; from then on, I found myself entrenched in the industry. I have worked in various ski shops from suburban to ski town to resort, giving me a well-rounded perspective on what skiers want from their gear. That experience was parlayed into my time as a Gear Review Editor and also consulting with manufacturers as a product tester. Along with being a Masterfit-trained bootfitter I am a fully certified self proclaimed Gear Guru. Not only do I keep up with the cutting edge of ski gear technology, but I am an avid gear collector and have an extensive array of bindings as well as many vintage skis.

Replies

Thanks for sharing the perspective, Phil.

I think that the key issue for retail shops in the times of COVID-induced demand shock is try to get the inventories out as fast as you can through e-commerce channels. This means deep discounts and working capital call to pay for next years stock - but the alternative is being stuck with 19/20 collections and no money for finance the next seasons purchases.

From what I can see happening in my country (I am not from the US), the likely winners are smaller stores, which (a) are focused on a few categories, (b) create a lot of "push" thru online channels, and (c) discount heavily to get the much needed cash (by "heavily" I mean $350 for a pair of Kastle FX 106 HP and $250 for Marker Kingpins).

I know this hurts if you are a store owner, but there is always a silver lining. COVID will go, and the economy will recover - sooner or later. Learning the online game the hard way could be a worthy investment, especially if you take the necessary steps to build a loyal customer base for the days to come.

One more thing: direct-to-customer models (e.g. J Skis) could be big winner going forward.
 
"One of the largest retailers, Vail Resorts, canceled all of its pre-orders, and we are hearing it is abandoning its retail stores as we know them."

This is very interesting to hear and is starting to make sense. The Epic Mountain Gear stores in the area have not opened yet, including most of the former Bicycle Village Stores. While most cycling shops cannot meet demand, Bicycle village remains largely shut. I think they are doing some services Th-Su, but that's about it. They are not very responsive, even in social media as when they will re-open.
 
IMHO, the only thing that's going to survive in any recognizable form are boot fitting (and various degrees of sales stock), and to a less extent, ski tunes, care, and mounting... maybe special orders like race day events, but all in all, skis, bindings, poles are goners. And we haven't even mentioned the whole mess with instore softgoods and fitting while there's no vaccine yet.
 
... weird, can't edit my post. Rentals (think demo clubs) though will expand across the full range of available product.
 
Decent take on the problem. Vail are probably being smart not compounding their risk if next season is FUBARed ops wise.

Retailers of course don't get that hedge and there is a tide of pain to wash over those that call it wrong. Let's hope that those who do it right and invest in quality of advice stay in there. Hardgoods is a minefield anyway. Maybe the industry needs a year's fast to flush the system of its hangover inventory and NGT skis.
 
From my understanding it is not just Vail that has made large changes in their retail buy, but also Christy's, REI, and various other large scale retailers. Many of these institutions did not get the chance to liquidate product in the spring, so they are sitting on product that they will then sell at a deep discount in the autumn. New product will be much thinner in depth and they will have to rely on services that they can muster. Top speciality shops where retail products are sold almost like a service, ie. ski bootfitting, high end skis, demo fleets, will likely be able to tread water and maybe even bank some solid profits (provided it snows), as long as they work hard to promote exceptional customer service and lean into their immediate demographic to shop local. None of this matters if ski areas cannot operate or are limited to the point of being unsustainable.
 
Well I just went through a purchase. My usual process for many years has been
1. Research online, narrow choices to a few models based on my needs/wants, reviews, etc. There is always more than one appropriate option in my experience.
2. Shop local - I always attempt to support local retailers/ service providers. Who has the best deal on what I’m looking for? Who provided me the best shopping/service experience during my in person visits?
This time around, and for the first time, I bought from a large chain vs small independent retailer. Why?
The staff at large chain was more than happy to dig out buried ski equipment from the back room and show me what they had. The little guys acted as though I was inconveniencing them, almost annoyed that I’d ask about skis and that I wasn’t there for a bicycle. One suggested I wait for them to deal with their “urgent bicycle customers” and come back in a few weeks. One is simply closed, even though website said it was open. I wasted time driving there. The others basically just blew me off. This, after waiting in line to go into the stores (Covid safety measure limiting customers).

So, big box store got my $. They employ locals, donate locally etc etc like everyone else. And this time around, were far superior in customer service.
 
Well I just went through a purchase. My usual process for many years has been
1. Research online, narrow choices to a few models based on my needs/wants, reviews, etc. There is always more than one appropriate option in my experience.
2. Shop local - I always attempt to support local retailers/ service providers. Who has the best deal on what I’m looking for? Who provided me the best shopping/service experience during my in person visits?
This time around, and for the first time, I bought from a large chain vs small independent retailer. Why?
The staff at large chain was more than happy to dig out buried ski equipment from the back room and show me what they had. The little guys acted as though I was inconveniencing them, almost annoyed that I’d ask about skis and that I wasn’t there for a bicycle. One suggested I wait for them to deal with their “urgent bicycle customers” and come back in a few weeks. One is simply closed, even though website said it was open. I wasted time driving there. The others basically just blew me off. This, after waiting in line to go into the stores (Covid safety measure limiting customers).

So, big box store got my $. They employ locals, donate locally etc etc like everyone else. And this time around, were far superior in customer service.

In the Seattle area, this would be the an exception as we don't really have any big box ski retailers... maybe EVO, but they're not a true B&M big box retail joint. We're blessed with very good smaller ski shops. How'd the big box do for boot fitting/work? Did they prep your new skis? Honestly curious.
 
I only picked up skis, no boot fitting needed. But the service counter was happy to chat bindings with me and give some perspective from his 20+ years in the biz. No reason to not return there and have him do my mount job, once I get bindings.
 
The staff at large chain was more than happy to dig out buried ski equipment from the back room and show me what they had. The little guys acted as though I was inconveniencing them, almost annoyed that I’d ask about skis and that I wasn’t there for a bicycle.
This has been an ongoing discussion for a very long time. It doesn't matter if your a big box store or a little guy, attitude is everything.
Sorry you met with disappointment in your small shop experience.
 
Interesting article. Some online presence is paramount in this day and age, but my concern from perspective of business owners would be if a customer is ordering online, there's a good chance they're buying from the lowest price they can find. So most physical stores will ultimately be losing if they do too much online business. I'd argue the online presence should entice people to walk in the door, or for clearing out deeply discounted clearance stuff.

Service like bootfitting and tuning is key. I do try to support those guys, and happy to willingly pay a little more for items at the physical shop. The problem becomes if the shop is significantly more than online, then I will buy online.

One thing you didn't highlight is that I think is important is for equipment makers themselves to care and figure out how to keep as many shops as possible in business. It's not good for the ski equipment makers if it goes too much online as it risks getting their product commoditized where cheapest price always wins. It is also not good if so many retailers go under that sales channel gets too consolidated. Big box and internet giants will then have a huge upper hand dealing with the manufacturers if that happens. Even consumer product giant procter & Gamble shudders when negotiating with Walmart. So it is in the best interest of ski equipment manufacturers to help retailers figure out how to navigate this as well, rather than staying aloof as this process plays out.
 
Interesting article. Some online presence is paramount in this day and age, but my concern from perspective of business owners would be if a customer is ordering online, there's a good chance they're buying from the lowest price they can find. So most physical stores will ultimately be losing if they do too much online business. I'd argue the online presence should entice people to walk in the door, or for clearing out deeply discounted clearance stuff.
This is why there is Minimum Advertised Pricing (MAP), so it is a level playing field for beginning into peak of the season.

Service like bootfitting and tuning is key. I do try to support those guys, and happy to willingly pay a little more for items at the physical shop. The problem becomes if the shop is significantly more than online, then I will buy online.
We will get into this in the next part.

One thing you didn't highlight is that I think is important is for equipment makers themselves to care and figure out how to keep as many shops as possible in business. It's not good for the ski equipment makers if it goes too much online as it risks getting their product commoditized where cheapest price always wins. It is also not good if so many retailers go under that sales channel gets too consolidated. Big box and internet giants will then have a huge upper hand dealing with the manufacturers if that happens. Even consumer product giant procter & Gamble shudders when negotiating with Walmart. So it is in the best interest of ski equipment manufacturers to help retailers figure out how to navigate this as well, rather than staying aloof as this process plays out.
The retail shop is still on the manufacturer's radar and still very important to the sales pipeline to the consumer. But manufacturers are realzing they need to get more direct access to the consumer throught sites like Pugski.com and we see more of that in the coming year without removing the retailer from the buying process.
 
Well I just went through a purchase. My usual process for many years has been
1. Research online, narrow choices to a few models based on my needs/wants, reviews, etc. There is always more than one appropriate option in my experience.
2. Shop local - I always attempt to support local retailers/ service providers. Who has the best deal on what I’m looking for? Who provided me the best shopping/service experience during my in person visits?
This time around, and for the first time, I bought from a large chain vs small independent retailer. Why?
The staff at large chain was more than happy to dig out buried ski equipment from the back room and show me what they had. The little guys acted as though I was inconveniencing them, almost annoyed that I’d ask about skis and that I wasn’t there for a bicycle. One suggested I wait for them to deal with their “urgent bicycle customers” and come back in a few weeks. One is simply closed, even though website said it was open. I wasted time driving there. The others basically just blew me off. This, after waiting in line to go into the stores (Covid safety measure limiting customers).

So, big box store got my $. They employ locals, donate locally etc etc like everyone else. And this time around, were far superior in customer service.
In the Seattle area, this would be the an exception as we don't really have any big box ski retailers... maybe EVO, but they're not a true B&M big box retail joint. We're blessed with very good smaller ski shops.

Like marko, I have no big box stores near me that sell ski stuff, to speak of.

However, on the little stores, I have had the kind of experience @Justthetips describes way more times than I care to count. Apologies to those who have heard this rant before, but I don't think insiders like marko and especially @Philpug have an accurate perspective on what it's like to come in "cold," as a nobody, to your average independent ski or bike shop. First of all, it's almost certain that the staff knows you already in some capacity, or at least knows OF you. You're regulars or known personalities or both. And if they don't, you know the boss's name and immediately ask if he or she is around. Second, because you are long-time shop and industry people yourselves, you know exactly which magic words to say, which names to drop, and what tone to strike to get respect and open ears out of the gate. Third, because skiing is your main thing and you are at a certain point in your lives, you probably don't have screaming kids or impatient spouses waiting in the car, forcing you to focus on accomplishing the core of the mission in an expeditious and economical way.
 
However, on the little stores, I have had the kind of experience @Justthetips describes way more times than I care to count. Apologies to those who have heard this rant before, but I don't think insiders like marko and especially @Philpug have an accurate perspective on what it's like to come in "cold," as a nobody, to your average independent ski or bike shop. First of all, it's almost certain that the staff knows you already in some capacity, or at least knows OF you. You're regulars or known personalities or both. And if they don't, you know the boss's name and immediately ask if he or she is around. Second, because you are long-time shop and industry people yourselves, you know exactly which magic words to say, which names to drop, and what tone to strike to get respect and open ears out of the gate. Third, because skiing is your main thing and you are at a certain point in your lives, you probably don't have screaming kids or impatient spouses waiting
I know exactly what you're talking about. I know there is a level of recognition when we walk into a shop these days. I will say, that's one of the reasons I got into the business, heck one of the resons I joined EpicSki back in the day, was because I walked into a big box store and had a college kid try to sell me a ski that (in his words) "My mom skis this. You'll love it". I went from there to a locally owned B & M and had the shop manager who knew me from other business dealings. I asked about a specific ski and his response was, "That's too much ski for you." and walked away. If he'd taken the time to actually engage with me or suggest something different, with a realistic conversation, I probably wouldn't have bought the skis off ebay, and I may have never found Epic. Turns out, the guy in the small ski shop was right, the ski was too much for me, but his approach didn't encourage me to get more information from him about another option. These experiences have helped mold me to be better in customer engagement.
 
Like marko, I have no big box stores near me that sell ski stuff, to speak of.

However, on the little stores, I have had the kind of experience @Justthetips describes way more times than I care to count. Apologies to those who have heard this rant before, but I don't think insiders like marko and especially @Philpug have an accurate perspective on what it's like to come in "cold," as a nobody, to your average independent ski or bike shop. First of all, it's almost certain that the staff knows you already in some capacity, or at least knows OF you. You're regulars or known personalities or both. And if they don't, you know the boss's name and immediately ask if he or she is around. Second, because you are long-time shop and industry people yourselves, you know exactly which magic words to say, which names to drop, and what tone to strike to get respect and open ears out of the gate. Third, because skiing is your main thing and you are at a certain point in your lives, you probably don't have screaming kids or impatient spouses waiting in the car, forcing you to focus on accomplishing the core of the mission in an expeditious and economical way.
apathydemotivator.jpeg

I don't get it going into a ski shop, but I do going into a bike shop...but i can tell you I see it when it happens at shops I have been at...even when it has happened to seasoned customers. I recall more than one instance when I was at my second shop in Tahoe. More than one person sought me out and only to say. "I am glad you are here, while we loved dealing with you, we could not tollarate going in that other shop any more." I will say, making a customer feel comfortable and not feel like they are talked down to or mansplained (yes, guys don't like it either) is something I am pretty good at. Honestly, it is one of the things that makes Pugski.com successful it is the way we talk to new readers....that "we" included outstanding members like you too.
 
Tony, I get it for sure. We've had a population surge in the region, so a lot of new folks walking in the door. Its It's pretty clear many have had poor retail experiences in their past. I've spent a great deal of time building repor and trust with new customers who seem very skeptical that we aren't just out to strip their wallets. We have both boot fit and ski performance guarantees. In writing... even then, they're often skeptical and sometimes the regulars will pipe in and say, "no, it's the real deal, they aren't pulling your leg."

That said, several years ago EVO lost me as a potential customer. Why? Simple ageism. The person I was ready to buy skis from without asking a question about my skiing or background steered me away from a ski I had questions about to 'something more suitable' for my age, at the time mid 40's. I shook my head and left. Clearly staff training at that time was lacking. Hopefully this has been corrected as I appreciate their attempt to build and create ski culture.. the trick in all retail is 'inclusion' vs. 'you aren't bro enough cool, dude.' The latter's a destroyer of businesses.
 
Simply, the demise of the ski shop is not the internet, the demise is self inflicted for many of the reasons mentiond here. This is why I said initially, that is happening now was inevitable, it just was excellerated.
 
The person I was ready to buy skis from without asking a question about my skiing or background steered me away from a ski I had questions about to 'something more suitable' for my age, at the time mid 40's.

:roflmao: This post totally made my day.
 
Simply, the demise of the ski shop is not the internet, the demise is self inflicted for many of the reasons mentiond here. This is why I said initially, that is happening now was inevitable, it just was excellerated.
That's a bold statement. We've all had terrible customer service at one point in our lives. If I stopped going to a store due to a bad attitude by an associate. I'd have few places left to shop anymore.

I don't think there is a lot of debate that the Internet is seriously disrupting retail, and ski shops are no exception.

As far as bad customer experience, the Mammut outlet store in Park City was particularly bad as far as dismissive attitude by staff. Like if you weren't a accomplished mountaineer you weren't worthy.

It was so over the top that rather than take it personally I started to have fun with it and would actually go out of my way to enter that store and ask ridiculous questions. Like, yeah but will this jacket be good enough for New York City winter when I have to walk half a mile to work in cold weather. Oh, you think so? Do you know how harsh NYC winters can be? I mean you've spent some time in the mountains but let me tell you, for NYC we need the absolute best to survive since we don't use cars. Or will this backpack be good enough to carry my laptop to work?

The entertainment I used to give myself doing that. A few times I couldn't contain myself and started laughing and the associate then realized I was messing with him. Almost sadly for me something changed and the staff became much more customer friendly. Ahhh, the entertainment value of that store to me used to be absolutely priceless.
 
@Wasatchman I wish you could have been a fly on the wall one day when Phil and I walked into a ski shop. Phil walked over to the wall and picked up an Icelantic ski, for no other reason than it was the first ski Phil picked up. A salesman immediately walked over to him and started telling him about the ski. Most of what he said about the ski was incorrect, down to where the skis were manufactured.
To the salesman's credit, he was friendly and engaging, and for any other person he'd have been great, and probably would have sold some skis, but to someone with Phil's knowledge it was sheer entertainment.
Honestly, friendly and engaging is half the battle.

As TonyS said earlier, we are often recogized when we walk into a shop, but there are many times that we're not recognized.
One time Phil was in a shop checking on a possible demo ski, and the owner asked his employees to come over and said,"This is your opportunity to pick his brain. Ask him anything you want to know about skis and bindings."
This is one of the shops that will survive because the owner's focus is on service and customer engagement.
 

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