Inside look: The future of specialty ski retailers

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Inside look: The future of specialty ski retailers

Gear shortages, trailhead crowding, ski shops closed… We take another deep dive into the crystal ball for the 2020-21 season and examine the repercussions of the pandemic on ski retailers.

All summer long we’ve been asking the question, what will the 2020-21 ski season look like? We’ve talked to industry organizations, local ski bums and brand leaders to try and discern some answers, for our own good and yours. This week we took a look at the place where all the on-the-ground magic happens — ski shops. I’ve always said that specialty retail is the backbone of this industry, and until one of you walks into a shop and throws down a credit card, none of us have jobs. So let’s see what the reality is facing shops right now.  

Looking back: When the wheels fell off in March

“Everyday was like our biggest day on record. We did that every day for about 10 days after the resorts closed, and that ended with a two-month shutdown of all business,” said Doug Stenclik of Cripple Creek Backcountry, which started in Carbondale nine years ago and does nothing but sell ski touring gear year-round. “Then it was mid-May and they were shutting down trailheads and the stay at home orders were the bottleneck, otherwise I think we would have kept that going for another month.” 

Down the road in Aspen, the Ute Mountaineer said every day after the resorts shut down was like Christmas and people were just buying anything they could, something, so that they could continue to get out. 

“This is some of the most interesting forensics and modeling I’ve ever had to do with our business,” explained Don Bushey, owner of Denver’s Wilderness Exchange Unlimited. “We had to close our physical location on March 16 after a record season of backcountry ski sales and rentals. Fortunately, we were able to leverage online sales , as our e-commerce business was deemed essential by public health orders and remained in full operation, and this allowed us to liquidate the remainder of our ski inventory. We saw a huge spike in demand after the resorts closed early.”

Like other shops, Bushey saw the summer camping and backpacking demand beyond his ability to keep up. Yet, behind every silver COVID lining, lies an ugly truth. “In climbing, traditionally our strongest summer category, we saw steep declines in sales. Climbing gyms are responsible for almost all new participants, so the gyms shuttering had a massive impact on our sales. Apparel was also significantly down,” said Bushey.

Similarly, businesses that offer retail in addition to guide services and expeditions barely offset their lost business, and many trip operators spent a lot of time not only trying to navigate COVID, but giving people their money back. For the most part, shops that were already well-positioned online were able to stay the course, even though they were competing with Amazon and their own suppliers without being able to offer their core differentiator: in-person service. 

John Weir is the Events and Marketing Manager for Golden, Colorado’s Bentgate Mountaineering, one of the premier backcountry and climbing shops in the state since 1994, and a stalwart of the specialty outdoor retailer scene. “When resorts closed their operations for the season, we saw an influx of customers looking to upgrade their equipment to access the backcountry,” he began. “Within a week of the shutdown, we had sold through our remaining inventory of climbing skins. We were required to close our doors for in-person traffic soon after, which effectively put an end to the majority of new gear purchases.”

At this point back in the spring, many major ski retailers started cancelling orders, putting reps and brands in a serious bind, which trickled down the supply chain. Brands weren’t getting paid, factories weren’t manufacturing at the same rate and, despite a perception of increased consumer demand in outdoor channels, many people were out of work. In many cases goods were stuck on ships at sea or couldn’t be transported, and the only shopping available was online.

Pro Ski Service was founded almost 30 years ago in North Bend, Washington, 30 miles east of Seattle. Martin Volken is the founder, owner and also the lead guide at his adjacent Pro Guiding Service business. “What I never expected happened—our business surged,” he told me. “All of a sudden everybody wanted to become a backcountry skier, because all the resorts were closed. People just wanted to get outside. They were pretty bummed. So they started using the ski area as a training ground, which… is a gateway for becoming a more serious backcountry skier.”

Resort gear went immediately on sale at a very low margin, even though at that time of year everything was on sale anyway; but it took on a much more aggressive tone, according to Volken. At the same time huge stores were cancelling orders and people were getting let go. “Conversely, there was a high demand for backcountry gear in all of the different subsets. All the ski mountaineering equipment just carried on as per usual because people were getting ready for a big high-alpine and volcano season anyway. But the other stuff, like the Freetouring gear—products like Marker Kingpins and Black Crow Freebirds—flew out the door.” 

Not every ski area remained open to uphill traffic, however, and popular parking areas and easy-to-access backcountry trailheads quickly became problematic, a trend that is likely to continue into this coming winter.

What’s happening at shops now: Backcountry gear will likely sell out

“It’s still early in the sales season, but it’s safe to say we’re selling over twice the volume of skis we did at this point last year,” said Xan Marshland, director of brand development for online ski retailer WNDR Alpine, based out of Utah. “We’re selling a lot of touring bindings and pre-cut skins included with our ski orders. It’s a pretty clear implication that more people are going to be venturing into the backcountry.” 

“I think we’re going to see the same thing we saw in the bike industry over the summer,” said Stenclik of Cripple Creek Backcountry, with stores in Aspen, Avon and Carbondale. Over the summer, mountain bike sales skyrocketed; retailers couldn’t keep up with customer demand and many online shops had no inventory. “It’s exciting, but it’s still a small blip in the world of skiing, these manufacturers would have needed to start making gear last January to keep up with increased demand.”

“We are pretty bullish on the backcountry ski market even considering that we will continue with reduced store hours and customer occupancy,” continued Bushey. “We also see increased opportunities in cross-country ski and snowshoeing. We’re looking for the winter equivalent of the stand up paddleboard. I’m glad we’re not invested in the Alpine ski and apparel markets right now.”

But no matter how many pairs of touring skis you can sell, whether online, in person or curbside, that still doesn’t address the service issue. “One of the biggest challenges is to provide the detailed and hands-on customer interaction needed to provide a custom bootfit,” continued Bentgate’s Weir. “We have completely revamped our bootfitting procedures to include intensive PPE measures, sanitation, pre-screening customers, temperature checks and scheduled appointments, to ensure that we can provide the same level of service and expertise that our customers know us for. At this point, we feel that we can safely provide an expert fit or custom footbed to our customer base.”

“We’re already seeing the retail benefit of the fact that the resorts are going to be a mess. We’ve sold a full ski touring package just about every day in the last couple weeks. But that’s also because we are so deep in it,” said Volken. “I’ve seen a lot of other resort shops try to participate in that now and it doesn’t always translate.”

This has done what most experts thought was going to happen to a lot of skiing in the U.S., namely, the explosion of uphill traffic. “Instead of it being a five-year build, where everybody who had a downhill pass would also have a backcountry set up, it’s happening now,” said Stenclik. But what makes Cripple Creek different from most alpine shops is that a lot of its customers are first-time users. And Stenclik says most of these customers intend on using their gear in safe and controlled environments. “That’s been reassuring; there’s a lot more realism than we’re used to hearing.”

“I really do think there’s going to be a crisis for this gear come November,” said ski and climb Hardgoods Buyer and Co-owner of Ute Mountaineer, Maile Spung. “We’ve gone back to every vendor and every order I’ve written and bulked up. Yes, there may be a run on gear, yes the resort could be shut down again, but so could we.”

Predictions for the upcoming season…

“As we’ve seen big increases in participants in camping and biking, we expect it to be a busy ski season. With the uncertainty around daily operations at most resorts, we imagine that we will see a lot of new customers interested in getting into the backcountry,” said Weir, unsurprisingly. “While it would be easy for us to just point them to an expensive new set-up, Bentgate feels it is important to drive home avalanche awareness, education and encourage full AIARE avalanche training with both new and returning customers. We partner with a number of guide services like Irwin Guides and Colorado Adventure Guides that offer AAIRE trainings.”

Bentgate also has a long relationship of supporting organizations like Friends of Berthoud Pass and Friends of the CAIC, which are critical in expanding the knowledge base and providing up to date information about snow conditions and avalanche reporting. In the past they have largely relied on in person events and community nights; this year, they are working with these groups through virtual events and training as well as establishing more information and signage at popular trailheads and backcountry zones. “It is vital for us to be welcoming to new users and capitalize on first interactions to inform and educate,” Weir continued. “Colorado will see a lot of new backcountry skiers this upcoming season and, if we alienate them as a whole, we will miss out on an opportunity to ensure they approach the sport in a safe way.”

“Our biggest challenge this season is the traditional ways we bring backcountry ski community into the shop, like hosting avalanche education, ski movie parties and fundraisers, and speaker series, will not be happening,” colluded Bushey. “This is especially concerning considering the possible level of new participants and the lack of availability of avy education venues, or even introductory awareness.”

But Volken believes there has to be a more nuanced risk management strategy on the part of the resorts; and a better way for them to monetize the uphill trend for the benefit of all stakeholders. “There’s a lot of room in between. A lot of people would support a $100 uphill season pass, or maybe a place you can go that is maintained but out of avalanche terrain. Make it a minimal amount of effort for the resorts but, all of a sudden, there [would be] an extra couple hundred thousand dollars there to support other programs,” he said. 

Compare it to the way resorts had a change in heart about downhill, lift-accessed mountain biking; now that’s a huge part of local summer economies. “When people are taking up parking spots, put a food truck there. Don’t be frustrated that they’re not spending, give them an opportunity to spend money. Become part of it instead of opposed,” Volken said. “The backcountry skiing community needs to understand that there will be no backcountry industry if the resort can’t thrive as well. K2 can’t make backcountry skis if they don’t sell a whole lot of downhill skis.” Oversupply may not be seen in the uphill side of things, but uphill is a minute fraction of the ski business overall. 

But, we discussed, the resort where many learn how to ski, a vital training ground for getting into backcountry terrain. “People are skipping steps. It’s in vogue to be a backcountry skier, but a lot of people enrolling in [avalanche safety] classes don’t really know how to ski,” Volken says. “And you can’t learn how to ski in a backcountry ski course. That fundamental skill is best learned in the resort. It’s astonishing to say, but people are literally trying to skip that step.”

“I think some of the low-hanging fruit is going to be a complete and absolute disaster. But my opinion is, we can almost always get by,” concludes Stenclik. “I think the potential for true backcountry skiing in Colorado is pretty limitless. With everyone breaking trail, you can slingshot past the normal stomping ground and push past the beaten path and use it to get where you’re going even faster.” But, for this to be sustainable, he says, it’s going to take a little while for the ski resorts to realize that this is their customer now.

“As backcountry skiers, we think it’s about growing the community responsibly and supporting each other. This applies whether you’re a brand, consumer, veteran or newcomer to the scene,” said Marshland. “No matter how experienced you are, when you boost your backcountry safety skills and etiquette, the community benefits.” 


Freeskier contributor Aaron H. Bible is a veteran outdoor, ski and travel writer based in Nederland, Colorado. Follow along on his adventures on Instagram.