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When the founders of Bluehouse, a boutique ski brand based in Salt Lake City, launched their company in 2005 they decided on a radical new approach to sales: forgo ski shops entirely. The markup shops charge would make their skis too expensive, they reasoned. The solution: sell 100 percent online, direct to consumers.
“By cutting out the middleman, we can pass along those savings to consumers,” says co-founder Dan Nebeker. Bluehouse skis cost $199 to $479, which Nebeker says is half the price of comparable competitors.
Bluehouse, which sells through its website, Factorydirectskis.com, is on the cutting edge of the new era of ski e-commerce. Approximately eight percent of skis are now sold online, a small figure compared with the transformation in other industries, such as music, in which online sales have just about eliminated neighborhood stores. Online ski-gear sales are growing every year—totaling nearly $74 million last winter, up from $41 million in 2008–09, according to SnowSports Industries America. Major online sellers include Backcountry.com, Evo.com, REI
.com, Altrec.com, and Skis.com.
For skiers, the advantages of buying online are availability and convenience. “In Texas, there aren’t many shops and the skis are pretty picked over,” says Bobby Baker of Houston, who has bought multiple pairs of skis and boots from Skis.com.
Gear prices are typically not lower online. That’s because ski manufacturers strictly control pricing. “We are held to stricter pricing parameters than brick-and-mortar stores,” says Hud Knight, director of hardgoods merchandising for Backcountry.com.
Instead of battling with prices, online outlets compete by offering deep inventories, free delivery, and generous return policies—all from the convenience of your home. Online retailers are now challenging specialty ski shops on their greatest strength: personalized service.
“Customers want easy-to-understand information that helps them find the right skis at the right price,” says Brad Kopitz, director of e-commerce marketing for Skis.com. To that end, Skis.com strives to function like a media outlet in addition to a retail business, offering gear reviews and using its three-man video production crew to create videos of every ski it sells.
But industry experts don’t expect neighborhood ski shops to sink into the tar pits just yet. “The internet has changed the way people get information and make choices,” says Kelly Davis, research director for SIA. “For innovative specialty retailers, e-commerce is an opportunity, not a threat.”
Ironically for Bluehouse, whose sales have grown every year, selling direct has created a need to physically get their skis in front of consumers. The company offers rental shops demo skis free of charge.
Many manufacturers see online retail as a delicate balance: provide ample information to consumers and sell some product, but also motivate a majority of customers to visit shops. “K2 does a very limited online business, as we prefer to support our brick-and-mortar retail partners,” says Jeff Mechura, VP of global marketing for K2.
Buying ski gear is fundamentally different from purchasing books or music. Bindings need to be mounted, skis tuned, boots fitted. “The Web is no panacea,” says Tim Petrick, president of Rossignol North America. “If specialty retail were to go away, the sport would go away.”