Industry News

The Current State of Snow Sports Retailing – "These are strange and challenging times"

May 9, 2016 | 0 Comments

As the lifts stop turning and shops switch gears to summer, it seems like a good time to reflect on the past season and on the current state of snow sports specialty retailing. Shop owners are all feeling the changes that the current era has brought, and many are finding good ways to roll with these changes and continue to thrive.

We checked in with Bart Pierce, owner of Pierce Skate and Ski in Bloomington, MN, a fourth generation shop that has been in business since 1936. Pierce’s grandfather, Walter, started with skate gear, and Bart’s parents, John and Barbara, added ski gear in 1965. Bart joined full time in 1980, and now he and wife Terri run the shop with son Tyler, rounding out the four generations. The shop’s core focus has been a long-standing and passionate commitment to alpine racing for over 30 years, counting many US Ski Team members as customers as they were coming up through the ranks. We asked Pierce how his season went, and about his philosophy on the changing state of retail.


 Bart Pierce, owner of Pierce Skate and Ski in Bloomington, MN

 How did the season end up for you this year? Did you feel like the conditions on the mountain and the weather patterns reflected your sales?

There were negatives and positives. El Nino affected our weather in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area with below normal snowfall, above normal temperatures and a late start to the ski season.  With the odds stacked against us we “weathered the storm” or lack thereof fairly well.  Business was off from last season but spot on with two years ago.  As to be expected clothing took the hardest hit as cold weather is required to inspire people to invest in insulated clothing and cold weather gear.

The positive effect of El Nino was that the resorts in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming & Montana had excellent conditions throughout the season.  Also, Easter was early this year and many spring break periods straddled both weeks surrounding the holiday.  As such, our customer base was traveling to ski all the way into early April.  Last year, March and late season conditions were marginal at best and many people opted for the beach versus the slopes.

In this new era of retailing, what are your thoughts about how to roll with the changes we’re seeing in online sales and big box retailing? Do you think it’s best to keep sticking with the basics of excellent service and knowledgeable staff to retain loyal customers, or are you trying new things with online sales and social media to pull customers in?

These are strange and challenging times. e-tailers compete only on price, certainly not on service.  I have yet to deal with a customer who has had a truly successful boot-fitting experience via the internet.  One customer showed up with 3 sets of boots that were shipped in from a to pay us to assess what would be best for them.  The answer was none of them, as they all were the incorrect size (too big).  Ultimately the customer sent them all back and purchased their boots from us.  As Dave Hinz, one of our staff members, has always said: “You can get a lot of really good deals on all the wrong products.”

Big-box retailing is “Smart bomb retailing.” The building is standing but all of the personnel and personality have been wiped out, and customer service has been degraded to the point of “Can I ring that up for you?”  Skiing is a life sport and a lifestyle that is driven by passion.   Excellent customer service provided by caring individuals will win over far more customers than “Can I ring that up for you?”

A knowledgeable staff equals retained customers and a wonderful referral base.  Since 1936, the goal of our staff has been “To provide our customers the finest in equipment, clothing & service through our own active participation in and passion for the sports that we sell.”  Everyone on staff is actively involved in the sports that we are selling, allowing us to say that “We have been there and done that and been there and skied that.” This enables us to best relate and respond to the customer’s needs.

Online sales are not part of our business plan as I do not believe that we can deliver a positive buying experience in this manner.  The in-store experience is compelling enough that we are privileged to have customers who drive to our shop from Winnipeg & Thunder Bay Canada, Marquette & Petroskey MI, Wausau-Waukesha-Milwaukee-LaCrosse-Platteville WI,  Cedar Falls & Des Moines IA, Sioux Falls SD and Bismarck-Fargo-Grand Forks ND.  We are also fortunate to have developed wonderful relationships and friendships via our work at summer ski camps at Mt. Hood for the past 18 years with customers in Sherman Oaks CA, Jackson WY, Sandpoint ID, Brooklyn NY to name but a few.

Social media has amounted to assorted Facebook postings, and it has been a growing aspect of our marketing efforts as it is a consistent and low cost means for letting customers know what we are up to throughout the year.  We are also developing a better line of communication with our customers via e-mail.


Pierce Skate and Ski, a fourth generation specialty shop open since 1936

Are there tweaks you’re making to your usual way of doing business to adapt to new generations of customers who may be harder to reach?

A loyal customer base is our best way to reach new generations. One of the most rewarding aspects of running our business occurs when a skier who was introduced to our shop as a youngster now comes in as an adult with their children and continues to do business with us.  This is a double edged sword as it makes me feel “old,” but at the same time it is an affirmation that we helped pass on the passion for the sport of skiing to the next generation.   

Are there changes you’re making to adapt to the way people shop these days in general – both with showrooming (using your shop as a showroom before purchasing online) and webrooming (researching online before purchasing in-store)?

Concerning showrooming, I believe that one of the greatest threats to our business comes from suppliers who choose to sell direct to consumers.  This is most evident on the clothing side of the business as we have dealt with more and more customers who come into the store to try on jackets, pants, suits etc. to confirm sizing and leave empty handed to then purchase on-line; due to the fact that we have limited inventory, colors and sizes.  In some cases it has become so prevalent with specific brands that we no longer choose to sell their product line.  We attempt to seek out new and unique brands that choose not to sell direct but these options are dwindling as direct sales from vendor to consumer are becoming the accepted norm.

At SIA, during a one-hour presentation to our SSL buying group by one of the major hardgoods vendors (who shall remain nameless) the first 20 minutes was spent on apologizing for their “failed attempt” at direct sales.  It was comical listening to their explanation that suggested that they believed that direct sales would ultimately drive more business to their retailers.  I felt fortunate to have not been part of their dealer base.


Pierce Skate and Ski caters to up-and-coming alpine racers, and counts many US Ski Team member families as long-time customers.

Any other observations about retailing in 2016, and predictions or advice for the season ahead?

-Focus on what you as retailer can control. Exhausting emotional resources over things you can not control is a waste of time.  You don’t control the weather and you don’t control what your competition is doing.  If you run your business on the premise of “I hope it snows this year” as well as obsessing over “I am just going to make sure our prices are a little less than ‘so-and-so’s’ prices” you are doomed for failure.  

-Don’t confuse being “small” with being a “specialty shop.”  

-Partner with vendors who value your shop and its role in the supply chain.

-Remember that “profit” is not a 4-letter word.  Customers are willing to pay a higher price if they are provided a compelling reason to do so. This usually comes in the form of being the best at boot-fitting, ski tuning and having a salesforce of truly caring individuals with the best product knowledge. 

-I’ll admit, nothing inspires the true excitement of our sport than snow and cold weather.  When we finally received a significant snowfall on Christmas night (2015) it was business at historical norm.  

-For the past 6 years we have closed our shop for a week in April and our entire staff heads west to Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming for our end-of-season ski testing trip.  On the last day of this year’s trip (April 14th) “The Ghee” received 9-12” of fresh powder.  It was an epic way to end the season and reminded all of us of the following: “This is why we do what we do” and “There are no friends on a powder day…”  

-In closing, don’t forget that we are privileged to be living and selling the best sport on the planet!  

Words to live by! Thanks so much to Bart for taking the time to fill us in on his philosophy about retailing in these “strange and challenging times.” Veteran retailers are an important resource to people in every aspect of the industry, and we love hearing from people who have been around the block, as Bart has been in his many years as a specialty snow sports retailer. Here’s to a snowy and profitable 2016/17 season for him and all the other retailers who help make our industry great!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *