Skilife: In Search Of skis.com

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Call them conservative, protective or merely behind the times, but ski retailers—and therefore ski manufacturers—haven't yet jumped on the e-train. In the next few years, as web technology advances even further, industry experts predict that's all going to change. This transformation could lead to added convenience, selection and value for skiers—but it may also shut down the neighborhood ski shops that have introduced millions to the sport and provided the hands-on service that skiers need and deserve.

E-commerce was the hot-button topic when manufacturers and retailers gathered last spring at the annual ski trade show in Las Vegas. Both groups worry that Internet sales will boil down to one and only one thing: price. Manufacturers are, for the most part, preparing to embrace the inevitability of e-commerce. And while most retailers see the benefits of expanding their own sales through the Web, they realize that competing against massive, low-overhead e-businesses on cost alone is a losing proposition.

Buying ski equipment, alas, takes much more than a click of the mouse. "People want to touch and feel and talk to someone," says Ken Gart, who operates 68 specialty ski shops, including three of SKI Magazine's Gold Medal Shops. "Even if they buy on the web, the equipment has to be fit, then skied, then fit again."

So at the Las Vegas show, manufacturers heard a subtle but strong message from shop owners—allow Internet sales and we'll look to your competitors to get our skis, boots and bindings. "About 96 percent of my retailers would go ballistic if I allowed Internet sales," explains Mike Noonan, general manager of Völkl skis.

As the top executive at K2, one of the largest ski companies in North American sales, Stuart Rempel has to be prepared for the onslaught of e-commerce—though he is not necessarily thrilled by it. Rempel can envision a day when skis, boots and even bindings are sold on the web—both by retailers and manufacturers—and he can also see potential advantages. Mostly, though, he worries that e-commerce could doom the "brick-and-mortar" system that has thrived for many decades—but that has shown recent signs of decay.

"If we lose the retail presence, I fear we will have fewer skiers and sell fewer skis," says Rempel. He draws a parallel to the plight of independent bookstores fighting the chains, including those who do business on-line. "We have a rule in my family," says Rempel. "We buy half of all our books from the independents."

Salomon, which has emerged as an industry leader in e-commerce, has developed a strict policy as it tests the electronic waters. It allows only skis and skiboards to be sold over the web (no boots or bindings), and only permits established Salomon dealers to do so. Salomon also reserves final approval over all retailer websites, requires 24-hour customer service and a state-of-the-art encryption service for credit card safety.

The site with perhaps the broadest inventory in ski hardgoods—skiershop.com—operates in something of a gray market. The one-year-old site is overseen by extreme skier Dan Egan and Woody Jones, a veteran and respected retailer who operates Ken Jones Ski Mart in Manchester, N.H. Jones buys the skis through his retail shop, then offloads them for sale on skiershop.com—in some cases against the manufacturers' policy. When K2's Rempel logged onto the site, he was surprised to see his brand for sale. After he sent in an order for a pair of K2s under his name, Egan got the message—and removed K2 from the site.

Current manufacturers' policies aside, Egan says skiershop.com fills a necessary and valid niche. "Consumers are on-line, and retailers need to realize that," says Egan. "You can go onto a site for Vail or Okemo and book a vacation. Why shouldn't you be able to buy skis?"

Egan personally answers customers' cyber-questions on equipment. "People who come to our site are mostly expert skiers. And they know they'll get expert aadvice here," says Egan. He adds that on-line ski purchases aren't for everyone, but they do serve a need—particularly for skiers who live in regions where specialty ski shops are rare or for those looking for hard-to-find gear.

In the long run, industry experts predict the true revolution will come not at e-retail but when a manufacturer breaks the mold and goes factory direct, effectively eliminating both the sales rep and the retailer. This could be good news for the skier: It presumably would allow the skimaker to cut some 30 percent off the price of equipment while maintaining a higher margin. The renegade supplier would lose some of its dealer base and there would be other business impacts, such as carrying the cost of shipping equipment to customers and increased marketing expenses to create brand awareness. Yet the upsides of factory-direct sales are still compelling, especially as once-successful ski retailers struggle to build a viable business model for the next century.

With ski sales plummeting over the past decade, many ski retailers have their backs against the wall. Experienced staff is difficult to find, profits are off, the weather has been uncooperative and the sport is not exactly enjoying a growth spurt.

"That group of retailers who did so well in the Seventies and Eighties—primarily city shops with multi-locations that dominated the local market—is now under siege," says one ski company vice president. "As their volume of ski sales declines, their purchasing from us declines. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if they can't carry our products, then we have to find another mode of distribution—the Internet."

The establishment of factory-direct sales could itself close some stores. Mass-market chains, who compete solely on price and offer little service, would be the first victims. The best specialty shops that emphasize quality advice would be the likely survivors.

"Could the U.S. eventually be populated by a bunch of bootfitting and mounting centers?" asks K2's Rempel. Yes, answer e-commerce proponents, who say that all the hardgoods could be ordered over the Internet and then taken to a service center for hands-on work. But there might not even be a need for that. Skis could go the way of snowboards (with pre-drilled mounting platforms) and sophisticated, do-it-yourself bootfitting kits are available on the Internet today.

Völkl's Noonan isn't sure how distribution will sort itself out. "We need the ski areas," he acknowledges. "We need the skiers. They need the equipment. It's just a matter of how they all come together."

The vice president of another ski company, who requested anonymity for obvious reasons, was more to the point in assessing the realities of the 24-hour-a-day computer culture of the 21st century. With upcoming improvements in computer technology, he believes ski suppliers will be able to flood consumers with inspirational messages and information. Skiers will be able to log on and ask the brand's designers and famous athletes questions about a model's performance traits, insights they previously heard filtered through a salesperson in the corner ski shop.

"Factory-direct sales over the Internet are imminent," says the executive. "Ski shops, other than the very best ones, have been a necessary evil. Now they're no longer necessary. I just don't see a downside to the manufacturer," he says.

"Unless, of course, nobody ever leaves the computer to actually ski."