The Dilemma of Being “Core;” Identifying and Managing the Conflict.

A few years ago I wrote a column called “Are there Any Core Snowboard Shops Left?” It generated a good discussion, though I got burned at the stake by quite a few people. Happily, I was wearing my asbestos underwear.

The question, however, is still valid because of some of the problems core shops are having and how important they are to the industry. I want to talk today about why the snowboard business for a core shop is either easier or harder than other action sports businesses and why it may be a tougher business proposition to be “core” in snow than in other businesses.
I also think, much to my amazement, that I’ve come up with a working definition of what a core shop is and I’ll present that to you later. Only took me fourteen years.
Having a definition is important if we want to say anything meaningful about what core shops do, why it is meaningful, and how they might do it better. Like the resorts and the suppliers, they have a role to play in resisting the snowboarding business degenerating into a more and more price driven game and in continually finding new participants. In the long term all three groups have the same interests. In the shorter term, these issues are most important to the shops.
Easier and Harder
Extreme seasonality defines snowboard retailing. You get just one chance. So, if you’re a flinty eyed business person, you order cautiously, thinking that you’d rather be pissed that you didn’t order enough than if you had to pay for it and carry it over until next season. You buy mostly mainstream stuff that you think is likely to sell best, and your selection is heavily influenced by prices, terms, discounts, and other similar goodies. If it doesn’t snow, or doesn’t sell, you discount it ruthlessly and early. It’s got to be gone by the end of the season. Once the season is over, say the early part of February, that snowboard stuff disappears and the floor space is largely filled with whatever season is next.
That was easy, and as low a risk as you could make it. But it was hardly core. We’ll get to the official definition. Among other things being core requires that you carry enough stock in enough brands to really serve serious snowboarders even if they aren’t most of your customers and that you take some chances on brands that maybe aren’t mainstream or haven’t been around long. probably means some other things that increase risk and cost. Like having employees with enthusiasm for snowboarding and its lifestyle. And supporting the local community.
At the end of the season, even a good season, at least some of that snowboard stuff probably still sits there, gobbling up floor space and working capital. It generates some occasional sales, though not near what you could get with different product. But you’re core so you do it and it costs you money. That’s harder.
I’ve illustrated two extremes. The magic of successful retailing, of course, is finding the sweet spot in between those extremes that works for the customers and doesn’t blow your bank account.
Still it’s obvious that being a core retailer in snow is a lot harder than in a retail business where participation doesn’t stop dead for eight months of the year even if it slows down. Like skate or surf. But it’s not only harder because of the seasonality. People who don’t skate or surf still buy skate or surf brands to wear. Certainly some of that goes on in snow, but I suspect that most snow soft goods (or at least a higher percentage than in surf or skate) are sold to people who want to use them snowboarding. That makes for a much smaller possible market.
Which, we can probably all agree, is why shops don’t just do snowboarding anymore. There’s no business model that makes sense. Looking at a single season, it probably doesn’t make financial sense to try to be “core” in snow. It just costs too damn much.
The Definition
A core retailer is one that has a primary focus on customers who are drawn to the lifestyle and keyed intothe trends associated with the activity they participate in. This focus is shared by the shop owners and employees. Many of its customers tend to purchase more often and be less price sensitive than others. Though it is not necessarily true that core retailers are small in size, it is reasonable to say that being a core shop becomes more difficult as your size and number of storefronts increases.
What I’ve suggested above is that, due to being a one season business, and for other reasons, there are some risks and costs to being a core snowboard shop that don’t exist in the same way or to the extent they exist for skate or surf. That’s bad because we need the core shops, we all say. Just to refresh our memories, we say that because they are the first ones to spot trends, have a role in incubating brands, and in creating and maintaining a bedrock of excitement that supports the industry through good times and bad.
Where Do Enthusiasts Come From?
From the womb I suppose. Which is my way of saying that these lifestyle participants we, as business people, depend on tend to be younger. And as they get older, they begin to develop other priorities. What was a passion and a lifestyle becomes a sport. It competes with other uses of time and money and may no longer be the thing they find a way to do no matter what. We can market our asses off, but we’re seriously drinking the kool aid if we believe that any amount of clever marketing will change this inevitable evolution as people get older.
So that’s going to happen? We will lose participants, or at least frequency of participation and people will be less inclined to buy new stuff more often.    And they will have less propensity to buy soft goods if they are participating less. As I said above, I think surf and skate sell more broadly defined soft goods to more former or non participants than snow does. Participation is more important to snow than to skate or surf. Look at the percentage of total surf revenues represented by surf boards.
Well, okay, if snowboarders are inconveniently going to get old in spite of all our outstanding advertising and promotion, where are the new participants we need going to come from?
Like I said, from the womb. Well, this is hardly a surprise. SIA spent a whole lot of money having studies done that, in part, showed the importance of getting participants started young. Resorts and brands both have their parts to play in keeping new, young participants coming into and staying in snowboarding. But so do the core retailers. What should they do?
Action Items
First, it would be good if you stayed in business. That, by itself, would help a lot and is by no means an easy thing to do.
Second, stop agonizing over broader distribution and company stores. It’s here to stay and it’s unlikely you can do much about it, except of course take it into account as you consider how you run your store.
Third, get bigger. The numbers show that smaller shops have higher leverage (risk) and lower returns on net worth.
Fourth, even if your roots are in snowboarding, and you see yourself as a core snow shop, don’t use that as a reason to exclude other products that make sense. Try to limit your financial dependency on snow. You can be a “core” snow shop even when a lot of your total sales are from other products.
Fifth, have a cash flow that makes sense and build it with special consideration for your (I think) less predictable snowboard business. And in that cash flow, plan to pay your suppliers on time. I don’t know why, but they seem to like that. It’s also a big step in accomplishing point number one.
Sixth, though your roots may be in snow, I think retail business conditions require that you think of yourself as an action sports shop. It’s the financial model that works. Treasure the crossover customer.
Seventh, build relationships with winter resorts that help get new participants to the slopes. That’s worth another article. I can tell you from sending a few emails that some of the best stores are already all over that.
What writing this article has made me realize is that there is, in some sense, a conflict between being, thinking, and acting as a core snowboard shop and having a solid business model. Maybe that’s too strong, and I know there are some notable exceptions. Still if success requires, and I think it does, that you are active in areas besides snowboarding, can it be dangerous to think of yourself as a snowboard shop even if that is your focus? To put it in fancy business school-like strategic planning terms, if your mission statement isn’t aligned with your business model, you’re screwed.
Sorry, not allowed. We can’t have the core snowboard shops screwed if they are going to fulfill their role in developing new participants. Think about this possible conflict—we really need core snow shops, but being too core in snow alone may hurt a shop’s chances to grow, succeed, and influence new participants. Where’s the balance for your shop?