Steamboat Springs Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series exploring the ski and snowboard retailing business.
When sales tax collections attributable to sporting goods stores in Steamboat Springs were up for the second straight month in March, local government officials were taken aback.
And so was Keith Liefer, chief operating officer and a partner with Christy Sports. His company has 40 ski shops scattered throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
“I was as surprised as anyone else,” Liefer said. “We don’t sell anything people need. But the people involved in winter sports are passionate. They’ll save 51 weeks of the year to spend a week in this environment. There has been innovation in ski and snowboard equipment, and this is where they choose to spend their disposable income.”
Like other ski shops, Christy Sports cut its early season order from suppliers (known as the open to buy) in 2008. But business in the ski retail industry already has turned around.
“We prepared for the economic downturn, and because of that, we survived,” Liefer said. “We were back to 2006-07 levels last winter.”
Despite his responsibility to 40 ski shops with a combined rental and demo fleet of 40,000 skis, Liefer continues to make his home in Steamboat Springs, as does Director of Mountain Operations Bob Dapper. Steamboat is where Liefer got his start in the industry in 1973, adjusting bindings as a rental technician in the flagship SportStalker store in Gondola Square.
The SportStalker at the base of the Steamboat gondola, originally founded by Ben Hambleton in 1972, continues to lead the Christy Sports group in terms of gross sales and profitability. But the iconic ski shop is about to give up its brand, and the sign out front will be changed to Christy Sports on Monday.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Liefer to make, though he saw it coming years ago.
“I’ve been saying for five or six years, ‘We’ve got to do this,’” Liefer admitted. “You know, Ben Hambleton is a lifelong friend, and a lot of people in Steamboat came through the Stalker and were touched by its culture.”
Longtime store manager Chuck O’Connell said he and Liefer finally had to acknowledge that loyal Christy Sports customers, who came to Steamboat for the first time and struggled to find a Christy Sports at the base of the gondola, were confused by the holdout Stalker. And similarly, loyal SportStalker customers who made a trip to Vail didn’t realize what they really were looking for in Lionshead was a Christy Sports outlet.
So how did SportStalker get the unusual name that has persisted for 39 years?
Hambleton opened the store in 1972 after leaving the banking industry. He wanted someone he could rely on with ski retailing experience and called in longtime friend Gary Stalker, Liefer said. Stalker owned a shop called the Ski Stalker in Sacramento, Calif., and knew the intricacies of the business.
Hambleton adapted the name and hung the sign on his new ski shop in Steamboat, which was just beginning to grow its national reputation as a ski destination.
In 1989, Hambleton sold 60 percent of Stalker Inc. to a French company headed by Patrick O’Winter, and within four years, it had grown to a group of 18 stores. In the meantime, Christy Sports, started by Lakewood couple Eduard and Gale Crist, also was on a growth curve, expanding to 14 stores after the company was sold to Paul Ulrich and Hays Busch.
After the merger, the name recognition of Christy Sports in the Denver metro area dictated that almost all the stores be rebranded to the Christy name. O’Winter remains the CEO of Christy Sports.
Changing ski retailing
Ski retailing has changed dramatically with the positive influence of snowboarding that has driven so many technical innovations, the move to the Internet for ski rental reservations, the move of soft goods manufacturing offshore and the aging of the baby boomer generation.
“This industry is so dynamic, it’s crazy,” Liefer said. “It’s what keeps it interesting.”
Now, echo boomers are buying twin-tip skis and coming back to the ski resorts with their own children, he said.
Christy Sports’ team of buyers is preparing for December and January merchandise shows so they can place their orders for clothes that will be sold in winter 2012-13 to meet the needs of leading clothing manufacturers like Spyder, Descente and Mountain Hardware.
The schedules of sewing factories in China have power over the annual rhythm of placing orders and taking delivery of ski clothing, Liefer said.
At a store like SportStalker, situated within steps of the Steamboat gondola, sales of accessories — goggles, gloves, hats, helmets and sunscreen — are strong. When vacationing skiers find themselves in the middle of the powder dump they’ve dreamed of all year and their old goggles let them down, they don’t hesitate to walk in SportStalker and purchase replacements, Liefer said. But it’s very important to continue to sell those kinds of merchandise at fair prices, he said.
“We want to provide them with quality products at a range of prices, and we don’t mark prices up beyond normal,” he said.
Staying tight with locals
Liefer said he and Dapper are proud of the relationships they maintain with the other ski shops as well with other tourism-based businesses.
“We’re all a link in the chain of customer service,” he said.
In that regard, all of the tourism-based businesses in a resort like Steamboat are interdependent, relying on one another to create positive guest experiences.
SportStalker and Christy Sports always have done that by empowering their employees to show unexpected generosity toward guests.
“No one is ever going to get fired if they spot a family that’s struggling a little bit to (launch their vacation) and offers a child a pair of (free) goggles,” Liefer said. “The value for Christy Sports is not a one-time event. We want to engage our customers in winter sports, and the value is realized when they come back.”
Dapper likes to talk about the times a Stalker employee has looked out the window, spied a vacationer tugging broken rental equipment through Gondola Square and comped that guest a week’s use of skis, boots and poles, regardless of where the original rentals came from. The initial reaction from guests who receive that kind of treatment is momentary disbelief that soon translates into loyalty.
“We want to let those people know that, ‘We’re going to take care of you. It’s going to OK,’” Liefer said. “For me, that’s the fulfilling part of this business. It’s the fun part of the business.”
O’Connell said he’s proud of his managers at SportStalker, who have helped the store win Ski Magazine Gold Medal Ski Shop awards in 2000, 2001, 2002 and again in 2010.
“The name will change, but I would expect our reputation for customer service will remain the same,” he said.
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com