SIA 1996; It’s Just Business

Business. It was all business.

 
Well, maybe not quite all. The ladies and gentlemen at Mervin Manufacturing were dressed in all white outfits (they claimed not to be angels) and Mike Olsen was shooting money out of a cannon at irregular intervals.   But the snowboard side of this year’s SIA show in Las Vegas showed that the industry is maturing. There were the usual crowds and noise and excitement. But there was also, especially among the larger companies coming to dominate the industry, a more subdued sense of purpose and focus.
 
They weren’t there to have fun; they were in Vegas to do business. 
 
You felt it as soon as you saw the booths. Many were the size of my house, except my house doesn’t have a second story . Now I know why Morrow did a public offering. To pay for their booth.
 
Larger, sleeker, cleaner, sophisticated, with more controlled access and private rooms for meetings and order writing. Less beer being consumed during show hours. No companies thrown out for use of controlled substances. To put it succinctly, snowboard industry leaders had booths that looked, well, like ski company booths; except they were busy.
 
This was the year where it seemed that the ten or so companies that control 70 plus percent of the US snowboard business heaved a collective sigh of relief. They knew snowboarding was here to stay. They knew they were going to have a prominent part in it. They realized that the small, undercapitalized companies not being run like businesses would disappear or, at worst, be like fleas on a dog; occasional and momentary distractions.
 
Their focus was on taking market share before the competitive situation solidified and establishing their positions against the other large players.
 
Their tools were complete product lines, payment terms, discounts, pricing, reliable delivery and customer service coupled with marketing and promotional programs only they could afford. Retailers, nervous after late deliveries, poor and/or late snow in much of the US, and left over inventory didn’t have to have their arms twisted-much. Their interests, and those of the Burton/Sims/Ride/Morrow/Mervin snowboard juggernaut generally coincided.
 
Now under these circumstances, you might expect that the size of the show would have stabilized or (be still my heart) even declined a little. Nope. Booths spilled out into the lobby and took over the meeting rooms on the second floor. I don’t know how much of the growth was the result of companies taking more square meters, but I’d estimate there were a couple of dozen new snowboard companies. Or at least people with boards in booths hoping to become companies. The directory lists about 300 snowboard brands in total.
 
My conversations with them tended to be the same as with other new companies last year. They had limited capital and product lines, no competitive strategy, and couldn’t explain how they were going to differentiate themselves. If I hear “We’re closer to the market than our competition” one more time, I’ll shoot myself (I shouldn’t say that. I’ll be dead at the next trade show.). I didn’t have the perception that these companies were writing any significant orders, though of course you can’t expect anybody at the show to say “We’re doomed” when you ask them how it’s going.
 
There didn’t seem to be much change in board design or construction. What I did notice was the size of the line of some of the players. Between the Ride, Mercury, Liquid and 5150 brands, Ride, if I counted right, had 84 boards. Let’s see a sales rep put all those in his van. Graphics were simpler and colors varied but muted. Yellow seemed popular. As companies go mainstream, the goal of graphics seems to be not offending anybody.
 
Traditional bindings offered incremental improvements. The hot product had to be the step in bindings. In addition to K2’s Clicker, Switch and Device, Wave Rave, Blax and Marker/DNR had models to sell. Burton didn’t have one, but was taking orders anyway. That’s market power.
 
Over 300 companies were listed in the show directory as offering snowboarding apparel. The statistics I’ve seen indicate that Burton and Columbia by themselves account for 50 percent of sales in the US, making it pretty clear that many of these companies have their work cut out for them if they are going to succeed.
 
One thing I didn’t see at the show was the usual number of representatives from Japanese companies frantically looking for new snowboard product lines. This seems consistent with current conventional wisdom about oversupply and general competitive conditions in Japan. As discussed below, it has critical implications for the viability of a large number of US snowboard hard and soft good companies.
 
Essentially, what happened was that companies were pushed down the feeding chain. Larger companies tried to require bigger commitments from retailers, pushing out second tier brands. These brands sold to stores they had not previously done business with to try and maintain their volume. The smaller companies were pushed out of these stores, sometimes leaving them with no place to go.   
 
What was seen at the show has been confirmed in the six weeks or so since it ended. I’ve had calls from perhaps half a dozen smaller apparel companies who did not write the anticipated orders at the shows, and who’s Japanese orders have been significantly reduced or are not yet received. At least one larger apparel company has picked up an additional distributor in Japan because of the reduction in orders from its existing distributor. Where orders have been placed, there’s increasing reluctance to provide the historically favorable financing terms of 50% down and 50% sight letter of credit.
 
In the US hard goods reps for other than the major companies are having a hard time getting orders, and personal relationships appear to be the key factor in determining their success. 
 
Retailers are cautious in their ordering. Often they are already committed to the major suppliers. In addition, some have more stock than anticipated left from last year.
 
A new factor seems to be retailers perception of product availability. Historically, companies produced only what they could sell in the preseason, and retailers were confronted with an inability to get reorders. Late season availability was not a problem last year. Late deliveries and poor snow conditions in much of the country meant retailers were getting called by snowboard companies with product to sell at attractive prices. Combined with the increased availability of quality domestic manufacturing, retailers seem comfortable in holding back some of their open to buy for later in the year.
 
An industry consolidation does not start with a bang at a particular moment in time. However, the SIA show this year made is absolutely clear that the long awaited consolidation isn’t just starting. It’s in full swing.