Tackling The Snowboard Industry Buy/Sell Cycle Are We Trying to Fix the Wrong Problem?

The buy/sell cycle seems to be on everybody’s mind these days. The brands are concerned because the decline of in season orders means they have to take more inventory risk. Retailers, on the other hand, are thrilled to be able to get quality product in season at discounts, though are perhaps concerned that it’s tougher to hold their margins due to oversupply.

Everyone should be concerned; because if we follow this pattern we’ll turn into our old friend the ski industry with everybody struggling to differentiate their commodity products and nobody making much money. You should know at the outset that I’m not optimistic we can avoid falling into that same trap. There’s no reason snowboarding should be different from any other industry as it works its way through its business cycle. If we can it will be because we’re growing as an industry, are willing to ask tough, specific questions and can find some common ground between our individual competitive positions and the good of the industry.
The first thing we might do is to define what we mean by the buy/sell cycle. The term is thrown around pretty loosely. I’ve defined it as the process and timing of product purchases by retailers as it relates to the brands’ order and manufacturing schedule. If you don’t like my definition, please come up with one of your own. The point is that we should agree on what we’re trying to discuss and so far I don’t think we have.
Next, we have to make sure we’re attacking the right problem. As I’ll explain below, I believe the “problem” we have with the buy/sell cycle is really just a symptom of existing industry conditions and until those conditions change, the symptoms we call the buy/sell cycle won’t change dramatically.
I’ve talked about those industry conditions before and have said they are typical of any maturing industry. They include:
·         Overcapacity
·         Slower growth
·         Dealer margins fall, but their power increases
·         Product is viewed as a commodity
·         Competition emphasizes cost and service
·         Industry profits fall. Cash flow declines when it is needed most and capital becomes difficult to raise.
My guesstimate of industry board manufacturing capacity this year is three million boards. That’s not a theoretical, seven days a week, three shifts a day capacity. That’s two shifts a day, maybe five days a week. I’m not saying three million boards will be made, but that they could be. The fact that this capacity has been invested in creates a lot of pressure to put it to use. And to sell those boards to somebody. Cheap.
What’s being sold to retailers in the 1996-97 season? I don’t know, but I’ll put the number 1.2 million on the table. Could be higher, could be lower but whatever the number is, it’s a lot less than three million.
I remember waking up from my nap in an economics class when the professor said “Production increases and prices fall until marginal revenue equals marginal cost.” At the time I was pissed at him for waking me, but it seems he had a point. Each manufacturer is trying to beat out the others for market share and of course each is convinced that they are the one who will be successful. The more they invest to bring their costs down, the better price they can offer. But so can the other factory who is doing the same thing with equally blind faith that they will be the successful one.
Pretty soon there’s all this production capacity.   As they brought their manufacturing cost down, the price at which they could sell the board comes right down with it. Pretty soon they’ve competed their way to the point where they have to sell a lot more boards to make the same profit. And they keep cutting prices until, theoretically at least, they can sell a board for just one dollar more than it costs them to make it; just above the point where marginal revenue (what they earn from selling one more board) equals marginal cost (what it cost to make it).       
Each competitor has done what they perceive to be in their own best interest, and look at the fine mess they’ve gotten themselves into.
Basically, Pogo was right.
We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us.
So before we spend too much time and energy trying to fix the buy/sell cycle, let’s realize that we’re seeing in that cycle the symptoms of some more fundamental industry conditions. The buy/sell cycle problem will exist as long as over capacity exists.
I’ve heard basically four proposed solution to the buy/sell cycle problem. Some have been put forward seriously, and some tongue in cheek. Reviewing them offers us good perspective on how futile it can be to attack symptoms instead of the problem.
·         Establish a fund to purchase and close bankrupt plants.
The scary thing is that this may be the best solution of the four. Unfortunately, bankruptcy laws all over the world seem to start with the premise that jobs have to be saved. So factories have been like nerf balls. You can squeeze them down to nothing, but when you let them go they spring right back up.
·         Cooperation among brands to improve the order flow and restrict supply after the preseason.
Aside from being blatantly illegal, at least in this country, what I call the “You First” principal of business, where no company will do something first unless its competitor is willing to do it, makes it unlikely this can be done.
·         Convince the retailers to cooperate in the long term interest of the industry.
These get more and more unlikely as you go down the list.
·         Tell SIA to fix the problem.
They are trying with the on snow show in Salt Lake. If, as I believe, they are focusing on symptoms and not the fundamental problem, it’s not enough.
So far, most of this article has explained how we’re attacking the wrong problem. It has ridiculed the proposed solutions and expressed pessimism that we can do anything but suffer the fate of the ski industry. If, as a result, you’ve been persuaded to see the problem a little differently, maybe you are ready to consider a different approach.
First, I want to suggest that you support the show in Salt Lake. It’s not “the solution,” but it’s a start and right now it’s all we’ve got.
Second, nobody can measure in any meaningful way how big the problem is and how it has changed over the years. I asked maybe half a dozen snowboard companies “What percentage of your projected annual sales are booked in the preseason and how does that compare to three years ago?” Most didn’t have a specific answer or wouldn’t tell me. Some think it’s less, some more. At a middle of October in Washington State, Dave Ingemie, President of SIA, gave a presentation on sales for this season. He presented clearly the preseason bookings for skiing. When he got to snowboarding, he basically said “Sorry, we don’t have the data yet.”
Lacking good information and the ability to quantify the extent of the problem, it’s hard to see how we can try to manage it, or even say what it is. We’ve got to trust the company that collects data for SIA, or we’ve got to trust somebody else. It’s somewhere between sad and funny that some people are looking to SIA to take the lead but won’t help them collect the industry information they need to develop plausible options.
Third, companies have to look more formally at their volume versus margin assumptions. It may not be in their interest as brands to grab ever last unit of sales they can get in an endless battle for market share. If they can take that approach, then their interests and those of the industry can begin to approach each other a little.
It’s an up hill battle. I’m suggesting we try and do what no industry I know of has succeeded in doing. I don’t know the solution, but I am convinced that without good information we can’t hope to find one.
For example, saying “Let’s fix the buy/cycle” doesn’t lead us anywhere useful. But if knew what the average gross profit margins was by product for each of the last three years, at the wholesale and retail levels, and we knew what total sales by units were, then perhaps we’d begin to be able to have an intelligent conversation about how volume impacts profitability, again motivating a convergence of industry and company interests.  
Making broad generalizations about solutions to the wrong problem won’t get us anywhere. Carefully analysis of higher quality data may lead us to manageable opportunities to make incremental improvements that won’t seem quite so overwhelming.
There’s a lot at stake. I think it’s worth the effort.