Eli Robertson has some sobering words for independent sporting goods retailers in Steamboat Springs that are anticipating the arrival of Gart Sports:
"Be prepared to sell things for less than you can buy them for."
Robertson owns Virgin Islands Ski Rentals in Silverthorne, not far from the Gart Sports that opened in Dillon six years ago. His store has been able to withstand Gart's arrival, but he said his is a special case. Gart made a determined effort to hurt its competition in Summit County, he said.
"They tried to control the market," Robertson said. "They came in here and rented snowboards for $8 a day. You compare that to what snowboards rent for in Steamboat."
Robertson said his research indicated the $8 snowboard rental offered six years ago was below what the company charged at other stores in the chain. This season, Powder Pursuits Snowboard Shop in Steamboat rents boards and boots for $24.95.
The regional manager for Gart in the Colorado Rockies acknowledged this week he thought Robertson's store might be one that would go out of business as a result of his company's arrival in Dillon.
"I've got to tell you, from what I saw (in Dillon), we haven't caused anybody to go out of business," Gart's Bill Hancock said. "Virgin Island Rentals is one that I thought might. But he's still there going strong."
When Gart merged with the Sports Authority in August 2003, the two companies became the largest chain of sporting goods stores in the United States. Combined, they have more than 400 locations.
Their sheer size adds up to challenging competition for mom-and-pop sporting goods stores, Robertson said.
"They set the price, like Wal-Mart does," Robertson said. "A mom-and-pop (store) doesn't get that price."
Robertson said his store (he owns one location) was able to survive because after 28 years it has been able to establish a very high volume and a low cost structure. The 6,000-square-foot store offers several thousand rental units, he said. And it enjoys strong repeat business.
"We are serving second- and third-generation customers," Robertson said. "When Gart began renting for $8, (customers) were getting an $8 board. They came back to us for a better board. Without quality follow-up, (Gart) did not have a long-term effect on us."
Robertson said Gart was tougher on less established businesses.
One of Gart's newest stores in a Colorado mountain town is its Avon store near Beaver Creek Ski Area. Gart Sports opened the 33,000-square-foot store in a shopping center almost next door to Christy Sports in November 2003.
Gart Sports in Avon is flanked by Pier 1 Imports and Office Depot. Outback Steakhouse is nearby in an attractive building with residential condominiums on the upper floors. The big chain steakhouse is surrounded by smaller restaurants offering ethnic cuisine. There is a Fiesta Jalisco, Panda City Chinese restaurant and Masato's, offering Japanese cuisine and sushi. Across the street is a Mojo music store, Carlson Wagonlit travel and a "Doctors on Call" medical office.
Management at Gart Sports acknowledges the mountain stores deliberately are planned to differ from their urban counterparts. The Avon store had about 15 people working on the floor on a moderately busy Wednesday afternoon.
Assistant Manager Matt Diamond said his staff is encouraged to send customers to nearby stores, such as Christy Sports, when they can't meet their needs. If they are out of high-end demo skis for rent, Diamond said, they don't hesitate to send them across the street.
One of Diamond's department managers said Gart Sports in Avon does not have a strong selection of ski and snowboard helmets. When the staff cannot give a customer the proper fit, the department manager said, they send them to Christy Sports.
Gart doesn't carry telemark equipment. When a customer comes into the store looking for tele equipment, they send the person to an independent shop called "Banana Pack."
A quick survey of merchandise in the Avon Gart Sports shows that the store hits varying price points in categories of merchandise.
The store sells a large line of spinning rods for fishing, but puts little emphasis on fly rods. The rod-and-reel packages, priced as low as $89, are strictly for casual, entry-level anglers. However, it's another story across the aisle, where customers can pay up to $3,000 for a shotgun.
A large area near the front of the store has been devoted to golf clubs all winter. Customers can pay $150 for a set of Adams irons, or they can save $300 on full retail and pick up a set of Wilson Fat Shaft III's for $299. If they want to go big, they can pay $799 for a set of Nike Slingshot irons.
Ski rentals at Gart Sports in Avon begin at $16 for a basic K2 package including boots and go up to $25 for a high-end pair of Salomon skis and boots. An independent retailer in Steamboat might go as low as $16 for a basic package and $28 for demo skis, but those prices might not include boots.
Gart cannot discount everything it sells -- for example, Spyder ski wear would pull its merchandise from Gart if it caught the large chain discounting its jackets, one Gart manager said. SmartWool socks also seemed to be priced close to full retail (hiking socks -- $15.99 and ski socks $17.99).
There are some small items that seem to be steeply discounted from Steamboat prices. A colorful Nalgene one-quart water bottle that would retail for close to $20 here is $7.99 at Gart. A Camelbak "SnowBowl" 1.5-liter hydration pack looks like a good buy at $39.99.
Gart has almost everything under the sun in its Avon store, from Diamondback mountain bikes to lacrosse sticks. The emphasis this time of year is on ski and snowboarding equipment.
Nordica Smartech 12 men's ski boots are priced at $300 down from $600, the Salomon X-Wave 6 is $200 and children's boots can be purchased for as low as $60.
Among the ski selections, a pair of Rossignol Bandit B1W is on sale for $320 and the Bandit B3, originally $640, is $420.
Robertson acknowledged he has a bias against big-box retailers. First, he said, they compete with his business. Second, he said, he doesn't like the impact they have on small business communities.
"The mom and pops are more or less gone (in Silverthorne)," Robertson said. "I'm a proponent of keeping the money at home. The profit that a big-box retailer takes out of your town, it never reappears. When you have business owners who live in your town, it's a significant difference from big corporate entities."