US Market Conditions and the Globalization of Snowboarding

Last year when somebody said to me “Write about US market conditions” it was easy. You could think of the US, Japan and Europe as distinct markets and approach the trends in each accordingly. But overcapacity and the slowing of growth have made that harder, and the interdependence of the three markets has become much more obvious.

Let’s at least start in the US at the Transworld industry conference in Vail. We’ll see that the issues on everybody’s mind reflected what’s happening in the US market, but that those conditions are at least partly the result of developments in the rest of the world.          
The 7th Annual Transworld Snowboarding Industry Conference in Vail, Colorado December 11th to 14th reflected US industry and market conditions perfectly. The familiar companies were all represented. But the number of total participants dropped to around 500 from closer to 600 last year with some smaller companies apparently not surviving. The new CEO’s of Morrow, Ride and Sims (David Calapp, Bob Hall, and Jim Weber) attended their first industry conference, highlighting a trend towards increasing professionalization of management.
There were attendees from a handful of record companies, some ski resorts and a couple of winter sports trade associations. They were all there to learn about snowboarding and, hopefully to help snowboarding with its inevitable move into the mainstream.
Presentations and seminars were better attended and the attitude was more businesslike than last year. I’m sure this had something to do with the fact that Transworld decided this year not to have open bars in the back of the rooms where the presentations were taking place. But it also reflected an emerging realization that industry over supply and some slowing of growth were making this a tougher market for everybody and creating survival issues for some.
Europe was represented by Harry Gunz from Rad Air and Charly Messmer from Generics and Blax. Salomon Snowboards had five representatives in addition to a contingent of four from Bonfire. Charly got some publicity for Generics and Blax the hard way, by hitting a rock in deep powder on day three. His board stopped, but he didn’t and the result was one broken ankle and one chipped one. No, of course you weren’t out of bounds Charly.
When last seen he was lying in bed smiling and seemingly unconcerned about the whole thing. I don’t think the pain medication had worn off. Anyway, it’s the time of year when he should be working, not riding.
The conditions in Japan were lurking in the back of everybody’s mind. Oversupply there (an estimated 300 to 350 thousand boards) has made it impossible to look at the three major geographical markets independently of each other. Many US companies had relied on cash deposit from Japan and/or site letters of credit to fund their production. It was clear those days are over for most companies. US retailer orders have to be expected to decline to the extent they represented gray market product shipped to Japan. Airwalk, Sims and probably others I don’t know about have seen some of their product show up in the retail warehouse giant Price/Costco and are moving aggressively to plug the leaks that allowed it to get there in the first place.
Good early season snow conditions in most of the US and mid November opening dates at many resorts are no doubt benefiting sales. My perception is that Burton and Mervyn Manufacturing (Gnu/Lib Tech) are overall the best positioned brands. Morrow, Ride and Sims are all dealing with the results of oversupply to the Japanese market and with management and organizational changes.
David Calapp joined Morrow as Chief Executive Officer only in August of this year and Dennis Shelton resigned shortly thereafter. David is experienced in sporting goods, but not in snowboarding. The brand is strong in the US but faces challenges in Europe and Japan. The recent announcement (during the Vail conference) that the company would not achieve its earnings projections for the year caused the stock to fall 27% in one day. Morrow’s response was to announce a buyback of 5% of its stock on the open market. 
Jim Weber, at Sims, has been in his new position almost a year. Like Calapp, he came to the job with sporting goods, but not snowboarding experience. His first major challenge was to prepare Sims to delivery a quality product on time. He believes the company is prepared to accomplish that. The second was to gain control of the brand. The lawsuit against DNR is being settled in Sims’ favor, with the company now controlling its distribution worldwide.
Bob Hall joined Ride as Chief Executive in August, 1996 with a strong background in winter sports including skiing and consumer goods. His immediate challenges were to rebuild the management team and restructure a company that suffered from very rapid growth and losses of key management people in many areas. The restructuring he accomplished quickly. Rebuilding of the management team is an ongoing process.
The major asset of most companies in the snowboarding business is their brand name. Many people, including myself, are of the opinion that a correct business strategy in the current environment is to protect that brand name through better control of distribution even though some sales volume will be sacrificed. Hopefully, the company will be compensated by higher gross margins on a product that is harder to find. As public companies, Ride and Morrow will have a harder time than other companies pursuing this strategy with shareholders looking for growth.
But don’t despair if you are a shareholder. The issue of which companies will be among the leading brands in the US is largely decided. They may fight for position against each other, but they will be here. It’s the smaller companies who have been dependent on Japan, who’s product lines are incomplete, and that are under financed that may have survival issues to deal with.
Ski Industry America’s retail audit numbers for the period from August through October 1996 seem to confirm these conclusions. They report that specialty store snowboard sales were up only 12% during the period by volume. In dollars, the increase was only 1%, indicating that average retail price of a board is continuing to drop. That average price was $294.00 during this period. 
What we see in these statistics seems to be confirmed by my discussions with retailers. Boards are harder and harder to sell at full margin. There is too much supply out there, and a more knowledgeable consumer has figured out that there isn’t that much difference among the major brands. I’ve heard of brands selling boards in quantity to close them out at $85 a board or even a little less. The result is that price has become a key factor in selling boards in the US.
As I’ve indicated, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate conditions in one market from those in another. That’s made very clear by an excellent report prepared by Robert C. Marvin and C. Heath Glennon of The Seidler Companies in Los Angeles. It’s called The Snowboard Industry 1996/97. You can call for your own copy at (213)-624-4232. Since I couldn’t say it any better than they do, let me quote them at some length.
“We estimate that the number of snowboards shipped (excluding OEM boards) to retailers by the five major manufacturers will increase about 26% from 1995/96 to 1996/97 and that the top five will account for about 45% of total boards shipped worldwide as compared to 35% in 1995/96. This should mean trouble for many of the other 200+ snowboard companies.”
“Unfortunately, it does not appear that the excess inventory problem will end with the 1996/97 season. We believe snowboard production for the 1996/97 season will again approach 1.9 million units. Add the 425,000 units of 1995/96 inventory that are still around and there will be about 2.3 million snowboards available for sale in 1996/97. Even if demand grows 25% to 1.5 million units, there will be 800,000 units left over in March of 1997.”
The report goes on to produce a similar analysis of boots and bindings, and concludes that there are excess inventory problems in both these categories and that “…snowboard boot inventories at retail were an even bigger problem than board and binding inventories.”
My own analysis suggests that board production this year probably exceeded 1.9 million and that production capacity may be close to 3.0 million boards.
This article started in Vail, Colorado but ends with a focus on snowboarding as a maturing, global business.  The markets can’t be viewed in isolation of each other any more. They never could, I suppose, but the illusion that they were separate was fostered, to some extent, by a demand that exceeded supply. Obviously, that period is over. Welcome to the world snowboard market.