Sales for the winter sports market grew 4.1 percent last winter to $2.2 billion, and neither skis nor snowboards were the story.
"The strong apparel and accessories sales in specialty stores helped make this the fourth best season ever for the winter sports industry," said Julie Lynch, director of market research for Snowsports Industries of America, a not-for-profit trade group.
Alpine ski sales nationwide were up a healthy 4.3 percent last winter to $206 million, the SIA reported. But apparel accessories alone -- hats, turtlenecks, winter boots, gloves, socks and neck gaiters -- easily outpaced sales of skis. Apparel accessories grew 23.6 percent to $295.4 million. And that doesn't include ski jackets and ski bibs.
Sales of other ski and snowboard accessories also compared favorably to ski sales. Goggles and helmets accounted for more than half of the dollar volume of skis last winter.
Goggles were up 42 percent in dollars to $55.2 million, and helmets were up 28 percent to $61.1 million.
While virtually all categories of snow sports sales were on the rise last winter, snowboard equipment sales fell for the second straight winter. The sport that has driven a shift in the design of skiing equipment for at least five years is no longer keeping pace, at least in terms of sales of new equipment.
Snow sports retailing veteran Bob Dapper of Steamboat Springs said national retailing trends don't necessarily hold true in the mountain towns and that the snowboarding scene in Steamboat isn't reflective of what is happening nationally. Dapper is director of mountain operations for Christy Sports, the largest specialty ski and snowboard retailer in the country in terms of dollar volume. Christy Sports operates 35 stores.
"We have a lot of local snowboarders," Dapper said, "But snowboarders today account for about 11 percent of the total at destination resorts. Snowboarders are found on either coast just like skateboarders. At the beginning of the influx of snowboarding there were a lot of people who needed snowboards. In those huge population bases, snowboard sales are reaching some level of saturation."
Harry Martin of Steamboat Ski and Bike Kare said he has seen a mini-trend of snowboarders getting back into skiing. He thinks terrain parks explain that trend.
"What I've seen in the last couple of years is snowboarders who used to be skiers returning to skiing. They've been snowboarders for eight or nine years. Last year, customers came into the store and bought whole new ski packages."
The new twin tip skis that allow skiers to perform snowboard-like tricks on rails and in pipes are part of the reason, Martin said.
John Kole at One Stop Ski Shop said the new mid-fat skis that accelerate the learning process and more comfortable boots are making it easier to sell the sport of skiing as well as skiing equipment.
Mid-fat skis, which allow people to turn easily without the need to have an aggressive forward stance, accounted for 50 percent of all national ski sales last winter. Dapper said the mid-fats are here to stay.
"The market is in mid-shaped fats," Dapper confirmed. "In the last three to four years, we've learned that ski works extremely well in all conditions."
Kole said modern equipment allows his staff to concentrate on selling the joy of the sport rather than focusing on the technical features of the equipment.
"The industry is finally listening to customers and what they want," Kole said. "The best thing is the new boots. They're more comfortable right out of the box with less custom fitting. They're also easier to put on because they open wider."
When customers try on boots in his shop now, he often hears audible sighs because they are so much more comfortable than they used to be, Kole said.
Destination resort ski and snowboard shops diverge from the national trend in helmet sales, Dapper said. Although helmet sales are booming nationally, they have begun to lag in Steamboat.
"Destination skiers already have their helmets," Dapper said.
Accessories such as helmets account for 74 percent of all units sold in the average specialty ski/snowboard shop and 34 percent of dollars, according to SIA. Accessories also reflect some of the strongest markups.
Martin, who is looking forward to moving into a new store about a year from now, will have more space for the important apparel and accessory lines in the future.
"Our store is backwards," Martin said. "We sell more hard goods than soft goods right now."
Intrawest, the publicly held resort village developer, spelled out the dynamics of snow sports retailing in 1998 when it acquired the Breeze/Max chain of stores that focuses exclusively on rentals and accessories.
"Rentals and accessories are very high-margin businesses," an Intrawest spokesperson wrote. "Typical ski retailers who carry large inventories of skis, outerwear, etc. are operating at about 40 percent margins. By contrast, rental shops are enjoying margins in excess of 80 percent and accessories operate at margins ranging from 50 to 60 percent, all with very low inventory risks."
The risk on accessories is lower on soft goods than on hard goods such as skis and boots, Martin said, because it's easier to carry gloves, socks and hats over to the next ski season.
"People are really sensitive to this year's and last year's models of skis," Martin said.
Dapper said ski rentals continue to be a very strong profit center for his company's stores, but it's a more expensive business to take part in than it was a decade ago, or even five years ago when Intrawest acquired Breeze/Max.
"In the old days, in was like catching fish in a pond," Dapper said. Today, he said, ski rentals are a better deal for the customer and the ski shops. Although the price of skis -- at $800 to $900 -- has outpaced inflation by a substantial margin, Dapper said, they are a better value today than ever. Thanks to skis that are more stable and easier to turn, vacationing skiers are now able to ski all over the mountain in areas where, previously, only advanced skiers dared to venture.
Selected Christy Sports locations, including the Gondola SportStalker store in Steamboat, will increase their inventory of high-end demos this winter to meet demand, Dapper said. An affluent vacationer spending $5,000 to $10,000 on a family ski vacation doesn't hesitate to rent a high-end demo for four or five days at $40 a day. And the renter who spends $32 for a performance package also is getting a lot of ski for the money, he added.
"The consumer is the winner, as we want them to be," Dapper said.
Martin agreed that there is an increasing trend toward vacationers arriving without skis and renting performance equipment. It just makes sense for people who cannot ski every weekend all winter.
"If you ski 30 days or more a winter, it makes sense to buy skis," Martin said. "People understand that if they buy skis and ski less than that, they'll be out of date long before they wear out."
Dapper said he believes part of the reason sales of accessories are so strong is that customers can make a big impact on their skiing day at a much lower price point.
"Ski accessories have come so far in terms of value, and you can afford to keep up with technology."
Customers who purchase a neck gaiter that keeps them warm without fogging their goggles, even when strapped over a new helmet, are happy customers, Dapper pointed out.
Kole points to his line of Dalbello boots, which are wired for footbed warmers, as a great example of the trend Dapper described. For an additional $69, customers can buy a small battery-operated heater that attaches to their boot. Or, for $99, they can purchase a rechargeable heater. They'll never have cold feet again.
Dapper cautions against concluding from declining snowboard sales that snowboarders aren't vital to the industry.
"Snowboarders are great buyers," Dapper said. "But they are very picky. They're very brand specific, and they won't settle for something else."
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