Hung Over, Jet Lagged, and Sleep Deprived; A View of the Industry from 37,000 Feet

The specialty shop in Vienna was all snowboards and snowboard products. It was mostly last year’s stuff and was all on sale. Word was that financial problems were preventing them from getting new stuff.

Over at a big Intersport store, there was just as much space devoted to snowboard products and the deals were just as good. I’d estimate that roughly the same amount of space was devoted to snowboarding. Thought under construction for the upcoming season, it appeared well laid out, and the people I spoke with seemed knowledgeable.  New product was arriving, and it seemed that only Burton had any hope of holding high price points. New product board pricing for many brands was either at the high or the low end. Last year’s product is apparently taking over as the mid-price product, and there were a couple of boards of almost any brand you could imagine (Heavy Tools lives!)
I’m crammed in this tourist class sardine can with circulation to my butt cut off, and for reasons explained by the article title, only half my neurons are firing, but I don’t think the retail situation in the US is much different from what I observed in Vienna. And it’s consistent with what the textbooks and my own experience tell me happens in a maturing industry. Brands either become specialty players with clear market niches or they are larger volume, lower cost producers. If you get stuck in the middle, you’re, well, last year’s board in perpetuity.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Apologies to Clint Eastwood, but sometimes when an analogy fits, you just have to steal it. In no particular order we’ve got four classes of snowboard companies right now. Morrow, Ride and Sims are one class- the three companies that are arguably large enough and have enough brand recognition to survive all as specialty brands.  Burton is a class by itself. Third are the brands owned by large companies; K2, Salomon, Rossignol, Nitro and Mervin. Apologies to anybody I missed. Finally, there are the smaller brands that I won’t list. In my judgment, most of them are looking at the same fate at Lamar or Silence. They have enough brand equity to be milked, but the time when they could hope to grow and prosper independently is past. A couple have always focused on being small niche brands, and may be succeeding at that.
Morrow, Ride and Sims (place politically correctly in alphabetical order) have all had well publicized financial, management and brand positioning issues. During the feeding frenzy of a few years ago, they all sought to increase their market shares by rapid expansion of distribution. In the process, either by use of multiple brand names or sales through the wrong channels, they got some volume but reduced their brand strength. The impact on their brand’s market positions didn’t become apparent until growth slowed and the torture of consolidation set in. They tried to get big and they tried to be specialty brands. It turned out to be hard to do both.
Burton is both large enough and well enough established as a brand that it’s fairly secure as the industry leader. The word “fairly” is thrown in there in recognition of that the fact that although Burton is by far the biggest snowboard brand with the most brand equity, it’s still tiny compared to some other companies involved, or trying to be involved, in snowboarding.
Burton did a lot of things right, but two things stand out. First, they were well capitalized when most of their competitors were struggling to find enough dollars to print a decent catalog. Second, the expanded their franchise quickly into soft goods and are shielded, as a result, from some of the hard goods pressures even they aren’t immune to.
The smaller brands I didn’t list fit into one of two groups. The ones with a problem are those who use to be more visible in the market, but tried to grow and compete- to be a Morrow-Ride-Sims you could say. Now, they don’t have the money to market their brands and grow. It may be too late to succeed at that strategy anyway. At the same time, price pressures have pushed down their margins, and they have to increase volume to be profitable. They are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
A couple of smaller brands, like maybe Never Summer and Glissade, have always been focused on being smaller niche players. With a connection to a particular kind of rider or a geographic area, they never tried to be big and so don’t have to be. Consistency in your approach to the market continues to be critical for success.
Being a snowboard brand owned by a larger company offers both some opportunities and some challenges. On the one hand, you have the “security” of being part of a larger organization. You share overhead. You don’t need your own warehouse and computer system. You can earn lower margins and still be successful. You have access to some distribution channels that may help make it a little easier to increase sales.
On the other hand, you are not one hundred percent a snowboard company and are, to a greater or lesser extent, subject to the ebbs and flows of the overall company’s fortunes. Snowboard brands owned by ski companies have been directly impacted financially by the declining fortunes of the ski business. At least they are still here as snowboard brands. But they aren’t snowboard companies, and it’s likely that there will continue to be some “creative tension” between the snowboard and ski sides of the business. Skiing and snowboarding still seem to be separate changes that don’t entirely understand each other. Some things never change.
Which gets us, happily, to the point of the article. As an aside, I’d just like to say that it’s always gratifying to get towards the end and find myself somehow wandering towards the point I started out to make.
Snowboard industry evolution is not going to go the way of the ski industry. That is, I don’t expect the industry to work its way down to only half a dozen brands. Snowboarding may have become part of the winter sports business, but it still has some uniqueness to it. Unlike skiing, it’s still driven by lifestyle issues. Music, clothing, attitude are all part of snowboarding. Companies that have ignored that have gotten their asses in a sling. Witness the rise of Forum. Theoretically, it shouldn’t have been able to get started against all the large players in the industry. It is apparently adequately capitalized, is growing at a manageable rate that insures some artificial scarcity, and has a focused market strategy. Confusion, chaos and mistakes by other companies created a market niche for Ride when that brand was created a few years ago. Trying to grow too fast, in my judgment to meet the demands of wall street, cost it momentum and legitimacy in the market it had originally succeeded in.
Now other company’s mistakes have created an opportunity for Forum. It will be fun to watch and see if they have learned anything from history- like not to get too greedy. Brand success in snowboarding seems to require meeting the market’s expectations, but not exceeding them. You have to leave the customer just a little hungry.
The other reason there is room for more than a handful of companies is demographics. In spite of crossover, in spite of the increasing age of the average snowboarder, this is still a youth driven business, and the demographics suggest it will stay that way for at least the next five to seven years.
Retailers probably have to not get too comfortable with the brands they are carrying. What’s hot and what’s not will keep changing. Brands have to keep focused on snowboarding no matter who owns them. People who write columns for trade magazines will have lots to write about.
Over the last couple of years, the term “core” is perceived to have lost some of the passion, importance and legitimacy that was once associated with it. But the sport still has its roots there. And it looks like it will for the foreseeable future. Successful companies will have to sell beyond that core, but always have a focus there. That’s our biggest challenge and the reason snowboarding won’t become the ski business.