Snowboards from Afar; The Potential Impact on Retailers

In the early 90’s, when snowboards started pouring into the U.S. from the Austrian ski factories, there were claims that consumers wouldn’t accept boards labeled “Made in Austria.” Mostly, those claims were made by U.S. factories threatened by foreign production. If there was a marketing advantage to a board “made in the USA,” it didn’t last long, and smaller inefficient U.S. producers went out of business.

In our consolidated, mature industry, brands are taking the next and inevitable step of looking for ways to cut production costs while maintaining or even improving quality. Boards have and are coming in from China, Tunisia, and Spain, and we can reasonable expect to see numbers from lower cost countries grow.
In seeking lower cost product, what are the issues the brands have had to consider? What’s in it for the retailer?
The Cost Equation
There are four basic components to the cost of a snowboard- materials, direct labor, factory overhead and allocated overhead.
No matter where you build it, Tunisia, China or Tierra del Fuego (uhhh, there are no factories in Tierra del Fuego as far as I know) the materials that go into the board are the same. You have the same choices of where to buy them. If everybody buys their materials from the same suppliers, the material cost of making a snowboard will be more or less the same for everybody. Would it make sense to start your own factory to make, for example, cores in a low labor cost country? Maybe. If you have enough volume. If you can get the right wood. If you could actually make them for less than it would cost to buy them from an efficient, established source.  
Direct labor is often the major advertised justification for making a snowboard outside of Europe or the U.S. Let’s say that you’re paying somebody $13 an hour, including taxes and benefits in the U.S. to make snowboards. If they work, for example, eight hours a day, 25 days a month, labor cost is $2,600 a month.
For sure direct labor is cheaper in China. Jim Ferguson, the President of Heelside doesn’t make boards there, but he’s a thirteen-year veteran of China, lived there, and has a boot factory there. “You don’t pay an hourly wage in China,” he said. “You pay monthly and the cost includes room and board.” He estimates his average cost is $150 per worker per month, and indicates that he’s more generous than many employers. But from his point of view, he more than gets it back in continuity and loyalty.
 Well, even without a calculator, I can tell that $2,600 a month is more than $150 a month. A lot more. So clearly if you compare the cost of a worker in a less developed country with the cost of one in the developed world, you’ve got a savings that’s somewhere between significant and huge.
Hold on. It’s not quite that simple. There are two related issues. Training and productivity.
If it took 11.33 (2,600 divided by 150) workers in China to make the same number of boards that one worker in the U.S. could make in a month, then there would be no direct labor cost advantage to making boards in China.   Both factories would spend the same amount of direct labor money to make a given number of boards. And maybe, when you first open the doors in China, that’s the case. Don’t underestimate the labor training costs in a new manufacturing operation. It’s easy to find people to make skate shoes in Korea. They’ve been making shoes there a long time. Out in the fabled Isles of Langerham, though, they’ve never heard of snowboarding.
Let’s also dispose right now of a common delusion about labor. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t usually mean that if one worker isn’t doing the job you can throw ten more at it and fix the problem. It may be true in ditch digging, but not in snowboard manufacturing. Only one person can work a snowboard press at a time, and ten untrained people can’t resolve the problems caused by one who doesn’t know what he’s doing. 
Having said that, it’s important to recognize that a lot of complicated products are produced perfectly well in so called third world countries and making a snowboard ain’t rocket science.
Things start to get really interesting when you look at overhead. Here in the States, if we want to start a factory, we see either a contractor or a commercial real estate agent, tell them what we want, and they either build it or find it. Maybe we’ve got to make changes or improvements in a rented facility, but we can generally assume that the place will have a level floor that isn’t dirt, and that water and power is easily accessible. We probably count on a road. 
All the money you have to spend to get the place the way you want it is called leasehold improvements. It gets amortized over time on the income statement. It can be a huge number in a low labor cost country.   
What does it cost a brand to have managers live in third world country? Maybe it’s only temporary until things are up and running smoothly- like a year or two. Who will perform maintenance and repairs on complex machines? How long does it take to get parts? In the States, you get them by FedEx the next day. In a low cost labor haven, you may have the expense of keeping a big inventory to keep things going.
But then, there are those costs for workers again, so it doesn’t cost much to keep the place clean. Or maybe you don’t have too. No Environmental Protection Agency after all.
Putting It All Together
Obviously, there are cost savings in making many products in low labor cost environments. Everybody’s doing it. In making the decision to go for it, the brands are asking the following questions:
·         Is the product already being made in the country I want to produce in? If so there’s probably already some experience there, and it’s easier to get going.
·         Can I just buy from an established producer, perhaps helping them improve their technology and processes, rather than starting my own factory?
·         Am I in this for the long run, and can I build enough volume? There will likely be some surprises and additional costs, both ongoing and of the one time startup nature.
·         Are those seductive, loudly trumpeted, low worker costs enough to make up for the additional expenses and surprises? As much as anything, that comes back to the issue of volume. There has to be enough volume so that the direct labor savings per piece are greater than the additional overhead costs.
The Retailer Perspective
Assuming that, in fact, it turns out to be cheaper to produce a board (or other product) of the same quality in these new locations, what benefits can the retailer expect?
For a start, it should be clear from the above discussion that production in low labor cost countries is not the magic potion of higher margins. Obviously, the benefits are expected to be there. But one manufacturer I spoke with described the years it took to get it right.
Also, remember that the brands aren’t necessarily rolling in dough. It’s not easy to make a buck in the snowboard hard goods business right now whether you’re a retailer or a brand.
So what retailers shouldn’t expect is to see sudden, big price reductions on wholesale product prices.
This is especially true because not all of anybody’s boards are likely to be made in lower cost countries. Marketing and research and development considerations suggest that production at traditional sources will continue. I’m sure we can all hear it now. “Well, yes, we’re making a few boards in Nepal, but our high end stuff still comes from our hi tech factory in the states and all our R & D is done there.”
But retailers may benefit in other ways. If there is, indeed, more margin for brands, you could see some of that show up as better customer service and expanded advertising and promotion by the brand. Part of the extra income may just stay on their balance sheet as additional profit, making it easier for them to make and sell the retailer boards they often don’t get paid for until six or more months from manufacture.
Often, the relationship between the brand and the retailer, at least in terms of product wholesale pricing, seems like a zero sum game. One wins, one loses. In this case I don’t think that’s true.
Assuming that the brands did pass through all of their supposed cost savings realized from moving production to low labor cost environments, retailers would inevitably, in the normal course of competing with each other, begin to lower prices. Each would know they didn’t really want to do it, but would feel the competitive situation required it.
Do you think that such cost reductions would make your sales volume go way up if your competitors had reduced prices in the same way? My guess is no.
Would you rather earn your usual margin on a $400.00 board, for example, or a $300.00 board?
If you sell the same number of $300 boards as you were selling of $400 boards, your total margin dollars decline. That’s a bad thing.
Cost reductions from new production locations won’t happen overnight. When (if?) they do happen, I’d select certain select, gradual price reductions to be passed on to retailers because the brands compete with each other in the same way that the retailers do. Overall, my hope is incremental profit for the brands goes into supporting the sport and the retailers. Maintaining brand image is key to everybody making a few bucks.
Check out the table below, taken from U.S. government data, showing snowboard imports from selected countries in 1999.
Country                      Units                           Value                         Cost Per Unit
Austria                       198,535                      $14,587,818              $ 73.48
Spain                          39,679                      $   3,771,523             $ 95.05
China                          67,765                      $   3,379,457             $ 49.87
Taiwan                        39,676                      $      623,477             $ 15.71
Tunisia                           4,600                      $      581,826             $126.48
Canada                      230,326                      $12,033,129              $   52.24
Some caveats and warnings about these numbers. Call me naïve, but I just have a hunch that all those boards coming in from Canada aren’t made there. I also suspect, especially in the case of the product coming from Taiwan, that the goods aren’t all what we’d call snowboards. Just materials for a real board cost several times the unit cost of $15.71.
As a retailer, you should keep in mind that these prices include second qualities, closeouts, kids stuff, and snowboard like products you wouldn’t be caught dead with in your store. So don’t look at any of these unit costs as necessarily indicative of what you’re favorite brand is getting the new season’s first quality boards for.