Warm weather freezes winter equipment sales

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Snow brings relief to northern California resorts while East Coast ski shops eye hopelessly blue skies. Western retailers offer secrets for surviving the lull.

If we could ski like Candide Thovex, maybe we wouldn't be so bothered by the lack of snow.
Along the Atlantic seaboard, joggers and picnickers rejoice in 60-degree days, but snow sports outfitters are withholding their approval.

“We’re just waiting it out and hoping for the best,” says Jeff Cassano of Buckman’s, a Pennsylvania ski and snowboard retailer. “We’ve been running more sales to try to get some traffic on the sale floor, but really we’re just hunkering down. Once the weather changes, everything will pick up like it usually does.”

Though the East Coast has seen reluctant winters before, it's rare - this is the first time Pennsylvania has gotten to December without a freeze since 1939. Cassano says this season has been particularly cruel because it comes on the heels of 2013 and 2014, both of which saw snow before Thanksgiving.

“Seeing snow on the ground is what gets people thinking about going to the mountains and getting their gear,” Cassano said.

Without snow? They’re left with quiet on the sales floor after two bustling holiday seasons. Cassano calls the upswing and ensuing downswing “a double-whammy.”

New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee has suspended snowmaking since Nov. 30. Screenshot taken from its website Dec. 18.

New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee has suspended snowmaking since Nov. 30. Screenshot taken from its website Dec. 18.

Silver lining for Southeast shops

Stores that cater to all-season needs are, of course, sheltered from the brunt of the storm-free season. Southeast chain Great Outdoor Provision Co. specializes in summer sports, and they certainly aren’t complaining about the extended season.

“We’ve been nice and busy, particularly in the boating, hiking, and camping categories,” said Great Outdoor Provision President Chuck Milsaps. Mid-weight layers, fleeces, and down sweaters, all of which are comfortable in a range of temperatures, are still selling, “even at a bit of a lift this year over last year.”

East Coast giant L.L.Bean, based in Maine, also reports that sales of certain product categories are hurt by the balmy weather, but the holiday makes up for it. “The warm weather has softened outerwear sales, but we’re seeing strong sales in things like snow tubes, sleds, and toboggans as well as traditionally popular gift-giving items,” said Mac McKeever, Senior Public Relations Representative at L.L.Bean. McKeever also notes that while blue skies and mild temps may not be good for skiing, it makes for fine holiday shopping weather, and Bean’s retail stores have been bustling with traffic.

The science behind the sizzle

Cherry trees normally bloom in Washington, D.C. in early spring, but this year they're in full bloom in December. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Cherry trees normally bloom in Washington, D.C. in early spring, but this year they're in full bloom in December. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is only partially responsible for the heat. Though NASA temperature measurements show steady increases since the 1980s, 2015 puts a spike in the data. October and November represent the first months that have ever been 1°C hotter than the same months the year prior. December seems to be falling right in line with that trend: the first two weeks of the month tied or broke over 2000 records for daily high temperature.

The sudden blaze of warmth is likely a combined result of a strong El Niño and a low-pressure system trapping cold air around the arctic instead of letting it venture south.

Tourists typically flock to Washington, D.C. for the cherry tree blossoms in the spring, but unseasonably warm weather has them in full bloom right now. For now, that weather also means naked ski runs in the Northeast – not an unfamiliar sight to resorts on the opposite shore.

Making a comeback

“The last 3 or 4 years have been pretty miserable.” -- Patrick Gillick, Tahoe Sports Ltd.

It’s easy for West Coast retailers to put themselves in easterners’ shoes; 2014 was a record low snow year for a number of resort towns. Tahoe City, for example, saw about 140 inches below average during the 2013-2014 season.

“The last 3 or 4 years have been pretty miserable,” says Patrick Gillick, store manager of Tahoe Sports Ltd. But recent storms have put as many as 50 inches of snow on the ground in the area, and resorts expect more by end of week. The snow has lifted spirits as well as sales, says Gillick.

According to Gillick, the key to surviving a lull is accepting the year for what it is. He says East Coast retailers should expect to see a shift in what people are buying. Before the bad snow years, Tahoe Sports Ltd. was selling mainly powder skis and saw lulls in sales of carbon skis and groomed run skis. “But in the last two or three years the carbon and groomed run ski markets came roaring back because people said ‘This weather is what we have to work with, and we’re going to find a way to make it fun.’”

At the end of the day, fluctuations are just part of the business.
“This warm weather has an expiration date,” Milsaps said. It’s just a matter of waiting patiently for it to arrive.

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