WinterSports Retail Alert: Q&A with SSL buying group’s Steve Rogers

The snow is falling, cash registers are ringing and it's still six weeks until Christmas. With an early mood of optimism in the wintersports arena, SNEWS sat down with Steve Rogers of the Sports Specialists Limited buying group to find out just what retailers are so happy about.
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Following the SSL buying group’s annual fall preview, where ski and snowboard manufacturers give Sports Specialists Limited President and CEO Steve Rogers and his buying group of 54 specialty ski retail shop owners a first look -- and pitch -- on next season’s stuff, as well as a stint on the front lines of the early sales cycle at the Boston Globe Ski & Snowboard Expo, Rogers is exceptionally well-versed on the present -- and future -- outlook for wintersport retail.

SNEWS caught up with him to talk about rocker technology, China’s shipping issues, SIA and the effect of demos on retail ski sales.

SNEWS: Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk. What are the early reports from the frontlines?

Steve Rogers: All the early indicators have been very positive. Whether it was the early Labor Day sales, ski swaps, events with athletes or other special sales -- they were all well received and there is certainly a positive vibe to everything right now. I just got back from Boston, and even though I don’t think the final numbers have been announced, my guess is this was better attended than in past years. The retail portion of it was out of control. These were certainly the people who are looking for the deals, but there’s not a lot of cannon fodder product out there anymore, so they are buying newer and newer equipment. And with how cautiously most guys have ordered for this season, I think that’s a trend that’s only going to continue, as they’re also already starting to sell out of some key gear for this year’s stuff.

Our guys are reading that the tried-and-true customer -- the family customer, the people who have good jobs – they’re ready to pop the purse and have fun again, and they are coming back.

SNEWS: Is there a sense that retail has weathered the storm?

Rogers: What happened two years ago was about the worst possible business scenario for our industry. We had a great 07/08 season where we sold to the shelves and had just restocked and had no idea what was going to hit us in September. The bad news really peaked around Christmas, and it really hurt a lot of our guys. Two people went bankrupt, and there were another three who we had to put our arms around very tight to make sure they weren’t business failures the following year.

So the ones that survived are flourishing right now. The best examples are in Boston, where the end of Boston Ski Market opened a lot of opportunities for others. One of our guys picked up two of their stores, one guy picked up one, and Retail Concepts picked up two -- and they crammed the rent down because the property owners wanted to get someone else in there. Whether it’s Buckman’s in Philly, or Princeton Sports reaping the benefits of being the only game in town, the guys that survived are reaping the benefits of their survival right now.

SNEWS: What is the consumer saying about rocker? Do they understand it?

Rogers: I don’t think the consumer really has a complete understanding of rocker yet. What is still selling are really good all-mountain shaped skis -- Blizzard magmas, Salomon X-Wing, K2 Richter, Volkl AC 30 and 50. Most of the guys recognize you can’t just abandon skis with normal flex. For next season, we’ve seen that everyone will continue to expand their own version of the rocker story, but the consumer hasn’t completely grasped it yet. The brands are all speaking to rocker in their own way, and we’ll find out how much success they are having with the sell-through this year.

SNEWS: There’s a lot of talk about demos killing ski sales. What’s your take?

Rogers: A few of our guys are pretty big in this business. For the mountain guys, it is having an extremely positive effect on the bottom line. While for the metropolitan-based guys, it’s hurting ski sales. Just look at how ski sales have dropped over the past few years.

The airlines haven’t done anything to make owning and traveling with your skis more convenient either. With the costs for extra baggage and weight restrictions, traveling with your skis can be a pain in the ass -- especially when people know that they can just pack their boots and demo the latest and greatest equipment at the mountain. It is more convenient for the consumer.

But in somewhat the same vein, what has done really well have been the junior lease and junior ride programs. Everyone is reporting that this has been a good season for families coming in and planning ahead for their kids as they have ever seen. Frankly, I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough to reinforce the pride of owning your own gear. For those high-end ski sales, we could do a lot more to reach that consumer.

SNEWS: So is hardgoods still a business to be in?

Rogers: Absolutely. Skis and snowboards still provide the eye candy that draws people into and through the stores. We just have to continue to adjust to the new rules of engagement. For instance, you are not going to sell 1,500 skis through Vail like one of our guys used to do. It is probably more likely to be 750, and you have to make the corresponding adjustment to the rental fleet in demos. You have to sell more clothing and more accessories -- especially in helmets.

Leisure Trends is reporting back to us that we are one-third hardgoods, one-third outerwear, and one-third accessories in our overall business right now. So it’s a matter of adjusting your products just like we did with snowboards eight to 10 years ago. It’s a matter of matching hardgoods with other aspects like boot-fitting. All but a few of our guys offer some form of specialized boot-fitting, even in the metropolitan stores. They see a lot of skiers coming back from a trip who want to fix something, and it’s a great way to get them back into the store.

SNEWS: Is the late product delivery crisis over, and what is the long-range impact?

Rogers: It wasn’t really a crisis. It was more an inconvenience. Certainly, more in outerwear than anything else. On the hardgoods side, it wasn’t an issue at all except in snowboard boots. I think what we learned was that for the guys who stuck with a good factory that they could trust and had worked with in China, even if it meant that they were late, there is always a deal that you can work out. It’s better to be late and still deliver quality product.

But the result is the apparel folks are all now saying they need to have earlier orders. They are turning up the timetable, and there will be some pushback from the smaller guys. How can you place your apparel order in October when haven’t started to really sell your goods yet? It is a new world order for some people for sure. But if you want North Face, Columbia or Spyder Kids, you’re probably writing the order right now. There are a lot of orders that have to be written by the end of the year.

SNEWS: And what are you expecting heading into the SIA Snow Show?

Rogers: We expect attendance to be equal to or better than last year. From the directors and management of SSL, we fully believe we need to support a national show even if anyone is not completely sold on if the dates are right. We love the venue. There’s nothing but accolades for the venue, and we understand that the dates will always be something of an issue.

You have to remember that we’ve (the buying groups, including the Snowsports Merchandising Corp.) always had these dates, since 1978. This has been our timeframe for more than three decades, and we’ll continue to find ways to make it as efficient as we can. Our guys can come in on a Monday morning and see every major hardgoods vendor in two days at our buying group show, then go to the SIA Show for two days and get a feel for what’s going on in the industry, and what they need to mark down and get rid of when they get home. But in January or February, they’re still making profitable margin sales, and by the weekend, they really want to be back in their store.

--Peter Kray

On Oct. 6, 2010, veteran journalist Peter Kray joined the SNEWS team and is now editor of the new SNEWS WinterSports channel. We trust you are enjoying the full offering of WinterSports news. Be sure to email your friends and let them know the best WinterSports news has arrived -- just in time for the start of the winter season. Got WinterSports news? Send your WinterSports news to Kray at pkray@snewsnet.com. Subscribers can also post WinterSports news releases directly to the SNEWS website. Email us at snewsbox@snewsnet.com to learn about posting your own news releases, or for any other questions or comments. We love to hear from our readers!

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