Who Are Your Customers? And Why Are They Buying From You?

As a snowboard retailer, you have a position in your market. You own it, and it’s yours to loose. The best way to loose it is to forget who your customers are and what they want.

The other day I was in one of these warehouse stores. There was a snowboard with bindings for, I think, $299.00. The board had a full metal edge, the inserts and finish looked fine and the bindings, while nothing to write home about, seemed perfectly functional. The description said it had a full wood core, and most of the other statements about it could have been out of an ad for a leading brand. The brand? At about the point where the number of brands passed 150 the part of my brain that could remember them all atrophied.
It’s enough to strike terror into the heart of a shop owner. If you end up competing on price…. Well, you can’t. 
But there’s hope. Recently, a competing publication (I don’t think they’ll let me say Transworld Snowboard Business here) did a survey of 100 snowboard shops. It indicated that brand name and the sales person were the two most important factors determining a purchase. On a local level, how can you get that kind of information; the kind you can act on?
Rush to your local library or town hall, or log onto the Internet. Dig up the census data for your county or SMSA (standard metropolitan statistical area). What are the incomes levels? Average age? Population density? Where are most of the people you believe are your likely customers?
Are they your customers? Ask questions of every customer that comes in your store whether they buy or not. Get their address, school they attend if appropriate, where they work, what mountains they ride, whatever will help you figure out what they want. This doesn’t mean locking them in a room until they fill in a three page questionnaire. It can be part of an informal conversation between the sales person and customer. The trick is getting it consistently written down immediately after the conversation.
One side benefit is that showing that kind of personal interest in a potential customer may actually increase your chance to make a sale. Listen to your customer. Easier said than done.
Get a map of the area and tape it to the wall. Put a pin in to show the home and/or job and/or school of each person. Is there a pattern to where your customers are coming from? Is it what you thought it was? Does this tell you anything about how to reach them and where you should be advertising?
Pay for gas, food and list tickets for a couple of shop employees on the condition that they come back with information on 50 snowboarders. What kind of riding do they do, how often, where did they buy their gear, and why? Offer to share your data with the mountain if they’ll do the same with you.
It isn’t enough to collect this information on slips of paper or three by five cards, read through it, think to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting” and then forget it. Organize it to see the patterns. On a computer, or on some big pieces of paper taped to a wall. The more data you collect and the more ways you look at it, the more you learn. The magic of being this rigorous is that some of your cherished and unquestioned assumptions about who your customers are and why they buy will turn out to be a bunch of fatuous blather (i.e., wrong).
Assuming that you go through the procedure I’ve described (or a similar one you believe is more appropriate to your market) what’s in it for you? Now you have some harder data on what kind of people are buying from you, what they are buying and why. Tape some more big pieces of paper on the wall with information about your inventory at different times of the year. Given the kind of people buying from you and their reason for buying at your store, should your product mix be different? Are you carrying too much of some items and not enough of another?
How many dollars is it worth to you to have the right inventory at the right time and have as little as possible left over at the end of the year?
If you are a little better able to anticipate your customers’ needs, what kind of return and add on sales does that generate? The process is cumulative and never ending. The better you do, the better you do.
Scurry to the book store and buy a paperback called Customers For Life, by Carl Sewell. Mr. Sewell is the most successful luxury car dealer in the country. The book is about how he gets and keeps his customers. Before you laugh about using the ideas of a car dealer in a shop that sells snowboards, you might take a look at the consolidation going on in that industry. Price competition is intense, the number of dealers has declined rapidly, the survivors are tending to be much larger, and the customers aren’t as willing to be convinced that there’s a significant difference between brands . Recognize any trends you’re worried about?
Your shop is unique. My questions and sources of information may not be the right ones for you, but the concept is right; whether you’re selling cars or snowboards. There’s no more important information than who are your customers and why are they buying from you. In the snowboard industry’s competitive environment, you have to take the time to find out. 



The Joys of Consolidation; Managing the Transition from Growth to Maturity

It happened to skate boards and surf boards. Now, it’s the snowboarding industry’s turn.

The transition from a fast growing, hot trend to a mature industry is about more than consolidation to fewer players. It means lower margins, slower growth for many companies and aggressive competition increasingly based on price and service, not to mention savvier consumers who may care less about image and more about price. This transition will happen quicker than in most industries due to a lack of entry barriers (low capital costs, no patented technology) and be accentuated by the financial burden imposed by extreme seasonality.
But change produces opportunities whether you’re a retailer or distributor if you have perspective to recognize them and willingness to do things differently. Some companies will refuse to recognize the new circumstances and insist on business as usual. Acting irrationally, they will fight for sales as a temporary survival mechanism — even at the expense of future fiscal viability.
Realize you may not be able to count on the fast growth and high gross profit margins the industry has historically enjoyed. Your break-even point will be higher, a larger investment will be required, and payback will be further down the road. Check out Ride’s public offering prospectus and read the six pages of single spaced, small type “risk factors.” And that’s for a company that just completed a year with nearly $6 million in sales and over $400,000 in net income.
No matter what end of the business you are in, take a hard, realistic look at your numbers. As your margin goes down, your break-even goes up. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re immune from these trends. Where are you going to get the additional working capital? Can you compete? I don’t know who they are, but there are some companies who should be getting out of the business. Actually, they will be getting out. The issue is whether they walk or are carried feet first.
Think you can outlive the competition? Here’s a partial survivor’s checklist.
If you’re a distributor:
·         Sharpen your pencil and look closely at the gross margin of each product. There’s been a tendency to look at the overall margin and let the higher margin products carry the lower ones. Obviously, there are some good marketing reasons to do that, but the competitive environment that is emerging may not allow it. Do you really need all those T-shirt colors and designs?
·         If you do find yourself with too much product, write it down and move it fast. There’s never a good time in a seasonal business to get stuck with close-out merchandise but tying up working capital in bad inventory is an even worse idea than usual when an industry is maturing. The longer you kid yourself about what it’s worth, the less you’ll get for it.
·         When you do your financial planning, allow three percent of cost of goods sold for uncontrollable things to go wrong. Last season, I cleverly chose to ship a container of boards by train across the country rather than by ocean carrier through the Panama Canal. The goal was to save a week to ten days in shipping time. Great analysis, good plan. Then the freight company called to announce that the container was “lost” in the midwest due to the floods. Three weeks later, it showed up.
·         If your product is priced in currencies other than the dollar, hedge. You’re trying to make money in snowboarding, not currency speculation.
As a retailer:
·         Buy from companies you can count on. Competition is going to be based more on price and service. Deal with companies who provide them. That will often mean larger, better established companies who own the manufacturing plant or have a long term relationship with the manufacturer. A small company with presses in a garage can supply a small number of boards either because their costs are low or because they don’t really know their costs. With growth, it will run into the same cost curve as every other manufacturer, but be on the wrong end of it. Either they will raise their prices or go out of business, leaving you with an interesting warranty problem.
·         Give some thought to the relationship your supplier has with the manufacturer. If a manufacturer is making 1,000 boards for one customer and 10,000 for another, which one do you think is going to get the best prices, service and attention? Who is he going to keep happy when something goes wrong?
·         Retailers can expect margin pressure as more product is available, the consumer gets smarter, and chains push prices down. The good news is that leverage with suppliers should increase. Use your leverage to build cooperative, rather than confrontational, relationships. If you’re getting your budgeted margin from a supplier, don’t push for an extra point just because some other company offers it. You’ll get it back in service and responsiveness.
·         Retailers shouldn’t have a hard time getting product this year, though not always from the company you want. But even with free freight, great terms and a big discount, don’t buy it if you aren’t sure you can sell it.
Going into a business because you are excited about it is a good idea. Going into it without adequate capital and with unrealistic expectation of risk and return can get you unexcited real quickly. Fast growth and high margins cover up a variety of business sins. Nobody likes to change, and doing “more of the same” is the usual response. If you expect to be one of the survivors, focus on costs, build your balance sheet, make a profit even at the expense of growth, and actively select a strategy that fits your market position and financial capabilities. Lots of companies, new and established, are going to make it in this industry. But counting on selling more at higher margins may no longer be a viable strategy.