The Retailer’s Dilemma; Are There Any Snowboard Shops Left?

Use to be that I’d scurry home from Vegas in March with my extra backpack full of snowboard dealer packages and, like a kid at Christmas, throw myself into them to see what was new. It still takes an extra backpack (though a smaller one- fewer brands but a lot more pages per brand). This year, though, there didn’t seem to be any urgency to reviewing them. Not having to make buying decisions, in fact, I didn’t get around to really reading them in detail until, well, actually, it was late June.

I’ve also been thinking lately about what “the snowboard industry” is now and how things have changed for retailers. That thought process, and the realization that it hadn’t mattered that I waited to June to read the new product packages, led me to think about retailer strategies and buying decisions. Retailers, I think, have to make buying decisions differently. And they look at snowboarding as just one piece of their selling strategy. Here’s why.
 
The Snowboard Industry- What Is It?
 
Five or seven years ago, snowboarding lead the way, representing an emerging demographic of young people interested in individual sports. Posers were disdained. If you didn’t snowboard, you shouldn’t have been wearing snowboard clothing. Margins on hard goods were a lot higher, and retailers could build credibility around snowboarding.
 
Today, thank God for posers.   They buy a lot of high margin soft goods, shoes and accessory items. They aren’t even posers anymore. They are just people who want to wear stylish, functional soft goods. We all got to wear something, after all. Retailers carry hard goods because they legitimize them as an action sports lifestyle store. But they’d much rather sell shirts, jackets or jeans that earn them a fifty percent plus margin than a snowboard that earns them a thirty-five.
 
I’m not suggesting that retailers don’t care about hard goods, or that selling them doesn’t make a contribution to a store’s overall success. But retailing is a very tough business, and my hat’s off to those who succeed at it. Selling higher margin items to a bigger potential customer group is a significant chunk of the success equation.
 
And it’s not just true in snowboarding. There’s not a lot of margin in skateboards, wakeboards, or surf boards (or skis or roller blades) either. In all these sports, the brands produce the hard goods and support the teams, advertising, and promotion to legitimize the sport and, maybe more importantly, the lifestyle image with the target audience. But it’s the soft goods players who grow like mad and make a lot of the money because they can sell to a bigger group of consumers.
 
Retailers who are still in business figured out a long time ago that they can’t just sell snowboard product. They’ve got to have cash flow year around because their overhead goes on all year, and they generally don’t have the balance sheets to support a long period of low sales. As larger corporations and the media have grabbed hold of action sports and demographic it represents, the lifestyle has come to be, for better or worse, more of a focus than the sport in the larger population.
 
Surfers skate, skaters snowboard, snowboarders surf. A skate shoe company I know does snow influenced clothing. The commonality isn’t the equipment- it’s the attitude, music, clothing, lifestyle. The equipment is just a tool. It use to be more of a statement. The equipment makers have contributed to this by making lots of quality equipment that’s often hard to tell apart and then endlessly trying to distinguish it by claiming various technical innovations that most of the time aren’t significant. If they are significant, they are drowned out by the promotional noise.
 
If you want to know what’s happened to the snowboard retailers who’ve fought this trend, check out your local court’s bankruptcy filings. But why should they fight it? A shop may have its roots in snowboarding, but here’s its chance to sell higher margin product to a larger customer base year around in more than one sport without the former danger of being seen as “selling out.”
 
Retailers can’t set the general trends- they can only recognize and take advantage of them. Since they are operating in an environment where there are, frankly, more of them than the market can reasonably support, recognizing and taking advantage of trends is a critical thing to do.
 
I hate this, but snowboarding has become a cog in the great corporate, action sports, youth demographic, marketing machine with the result that snowboard retailers have to approach the sport differently. The sport is still distinctive, but what it represents isn’t.
 
Retailer Challenges
 
With this background, I’ll try and put myself in a snowboard retailer’s shoes for a minute. I have the privilege of ordering in March or April something I won’t receive or start selling until late summer or fall, and have only three or so months to sell at full margin. If it doesn’t snow, I could be screwed, but that’s life. The hard goods margins aren’t that great, and I’ve got to work the system for all the discounts, free POPs, and show bonuses I can get. I know all my choices aren’t going to be right, and the probability is very high that after Christmas, or even before, I’ll have to offer some discounts. I feel better than I did a few years ago that the stuff will show up more or less when I want it, but I know there will be some delivery glitches.
 
Where I am right on the product I choose, I may not be able to get any more of the hot selling stuff when I run out in early December. My flexibility in ordering is constrained, to some extent, by brand requirements that I take product in certain proportion, by minimum order requirements, or by the space I have in my store. My ability to grow my order may be reduced by the brand imposed credit limit.
 
Boy, life was almost better when you couldn’t get enough product, it was always late, and the quality was suspect. At least you could count on selling it all at a good margin.
 
Back to the Brochures
 
There you sit, having gone (or not gone) to more trade shows at the worst time of the year than you could possibly have a use for. Before you is a pile of paper two feet high with catalogues, price sheets, credit applications, terms and conditions and order forms. These are just the official snowboard brands. Now what?
 
My recommendation is to always begin with the Mervin catalog. At least you their narrative will keep you grinning as you review their product line. And it might ward off the depression you feel when you see some brands have the ski and snowboard prices in the same place. But shortly reality and inertia set in. Reality is:
 
·         You’ve got to carry the right hard goods mix, but really want to leave as much room as you can for the higher margin soft goods.
·         Your customers are probably a more diverse group, and you may not live and die by snowboarding like you use to.
·         All the major brands offer monster products lines that start, after a few hours of study, to look a little too much like the others. They all cover all the price points, have comparable terms and purchasing programs, and similar advertising and promotional programs.
 
Inertia comes from the fact that you’re already carrying – what? Burton, one or two other major brands, maybe one of the few surviving niche brand where you don’t have too much local competition, and one of the former high flyers that tanked and has been sold to somebody who’s trying to capitalize on any left over brand equity as your el cheapo model? Five brands is about the max I’d say. Merchandising them all well is going to be an effort. Three brands would be better.
 
What’s going to make you change brands? The rep from a brand you don’t carry has pictures of you at that Vegas party you don’t want to see the light of day? Okay, that might do it. A major customer service or delivery snafu? Maybe. Prices and terms are pretty comparable. A lot of kids asking for a brand you don’t carry? Yup, that would do it. Major technological differences among product? In your dreams.
 
The bottom line is that with five or even three brands, you’ve got all your bases covered. If I were a retailer, I’d try to pick brands that helped me sell soft goods, though I admit to not knowing exactly how to do that.
 
Hard goods have become props to support the apparel and shoe sales that I suspect provide more than half the revenue and gross margin a typical store earns. It doesn’t seem to me like successful retailers are in the snowboard business anymore. They’re in the lifestyle, action sports, soft goods business.