Editor’s note: Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Jeff Harbaugh is one smart cookie with insights, found in the Market Watch column of SNOWboarding Business, that are often prophetic.

But his upcoming Market Watch column, quite frankly, says a few things we doubt a lot of people in the industry would agree with.

The vague undercurrent we were left with after reading the article was that the excitement in snowboarding has died and that the snowboard business has gotten boring.

But, as we’ve said, we’re not one to discount Harbaugh’s opinions out of hand (at least not too often). So, here’s the story. Read it and then join the fray with your opinion by e-mailing: sean@twsnet.com

The Retailer’s Dilemma

Are There Any Snowboard Shops Left?

By Jeff Harbaugh

Used to be that I’d scurry home from Vegas in March with my extra backpack full of snowboard-dealer packages and, like a kid at Christmas, throw myself into them to see what was new. It still takes an extra backpack (though a smaller one¿fewer brands but a lot more pages per brand), though this year there didn’t seem to be the same urgency to review them. In fact, I didn’t get around to really reading them in detail until, well, actually, late June.

I’ve also been thinking lately about what “the snowboard industry” is now and how things have changed for retailers. That thought process, and finally reading the new product packages, led me to think about retailer strategies and product purchasing. Retailers, I think, have to make buying decisions differently and look at snowboarding as just one piece of their selling strategy. Here’s why.

The Snowboard Industry¿What Is It?

Five or seven years ago, snowboarding lead the way, representing an emerging demographic of young people interested in individual sports. Posers were disdained. If you didn’t snowboard, you shouldn’t have been wearing snowboard clothing. Margins on hardgoods were a lot higher, and retailers could build credibility around snowboarding.

Today, thank God for posers. They buy a lot of high-margin softgoods and accessory items. They aren’t even posers anymore. They’re just people who want to wear stylish, functional softgoods. After all, we all have to wear something.

Retailers carry hardgoods because they legitimize them as an action-sports lifestyle store and because customers ask for them. But they’d much rather sell shirts, jackets, or jeans that earn them a 50-percent-plus margin than a snowboard that earns them a 33.

I’m not suggesting that retailers don’t care about hardgoods, or that selling them doesn’t make a contribution to a store’s overall success. But retailing is a very tough business, and my hat’s off to those who succeed at it. Selling higher-margin items to a bigger potential customer group is a significant chunk of the success equation.

And it’s not just true in snowboarding. There’s not a lot of margin in skateboards, wakeboards, or surfboards (or skis or inline skates) either. In all these sports, the brands produce the hardgoods and support the teams, advertising, and promotion to legitimize the sport and (maybe more importantly) the lifestyle image with the target audience. But it’s the softgoods players who grow like mad and make a lot of the money because they can sell to a bigger group of consumers.

Retailers who are still in business figured out a long time ago that they can’t just sell snowboard product. They’ve got to have year-round cash flow because their overhead goes on all year, and they generally don’t have the balance sheets to support a long period of low sales. As larger corporations and the media have grabbed hold of action sports and the demographic it represents, the lifestyle has come to be, for better or worse, more of a focus than the sport in the larger population that represents a large chunk of retail sales.

Surfers skate, skaters snowboard, snowboarders surf. A skate shoe compa I know does snow-influenced clothing. The commonalty isn’t the equipment, it’s the attitude, music, clothing, lifestyle. The equipment is just a tool. It used to be more of a statement. The equipment makers have contributed to this by making lots of quality equipment that’s often hard to tell apart and then endlessly trying to distinguish it by claiming various technical innovations that most of the time aren’t significant. When they are significant, they are drowned out by the promotional noise.

If you want to know what’s happened to the snowboard retailers who’ve fought this trend, check out your local court’s bankruptcy filings.

But why should they fight it?

A shop may have its roots in snowboarding, but here’s its chance to sell higher margin product to a larger customer base year round in more than one sport without the former danger of being seen as “selling out.”

Retailers can’t set the general trends, they can only recognize and take advantage of them. Since they are operating in an environment where there are, frankly, more of them than the market can reasonably support (though never enough good ones), recognizing and taking advantage of trends is a critical thing to do.

I hate this, but snowboarding has become a cog in the great corporate, action sports, youth demographic, marketing machine with the result that snowboard retailers have to approach the sport differently. The sport is still distinctive, but what it represents isn’t.

Retailer Challenges

With this background, I’ll try and put myself in a snowboard retailer’s shoes for a minute. I have the privilege of ordering in March or April something I won’t receive or start selling until late summer or fall, and have only three or so months to sell at full margin. If it doesn’t snow, I could be screwed, but that’s life. The hardgoods margins aren’t that great, and I’ve got to work the system for all the discounts, free P.O.P.s, and show bonuses I can get.

I know all my choices aren’t going to be right, and the probability is very high that after Christmas, or even before, I’ll have to offer some discounts. I feel better than I did a few years ago that the stuff will show up more or less when I want it, but I know there still will be some delivery glitches.

If I’m right on the product I choose, I may not be able to get any more of the hot-selling stuff when I run out in early December. My flexibility in ordering is constrained, to some extent, by brand requirements that I take product in certain proportion, by minimum order requirements, or by the space I have in my store. My ability to grow my order may be reduced by the brand-imposed credit limit.

Boy, life was almost better when you couldn’t get enough product, it was always late, and the quality was suspect. At least you could count on selling it all at a good margin.

Back To The Brochures

There you sit, having gone (or not gone) to more trade shows¿at the worst time of the year¿than you could possibly have a use for. Before you is a pile of paper two feet high with snowboard catalogs, price sheets, credit applications, terms and conditions, and order forms. Now what?

My recommendation is to always begin with the Mervin catalog. At least you know itsnarrative will keep you grinning as you review the product line. And it might ward off the depression you feel when you see some brands have the ski and snowboard prices in the same catalog. But shortly reality and inertia set in. Reality is:

à‚• You’ve got to carry the right hardgoods mix, but really want to leave as much room as you can for the higher margin softgoods.

à‚• Your customers are probably a more diverse group, and you may not live and die by snowboarding like you use to.

à‚• All the major brands offer monster product lines that start, after a few hours of study, to look a little too much like the others. They all cover all the pricepoints, have comparable terms and purchasing programs, and similar advertising and promotional programs.

Inertia comes from the fact that you’re already carrying¿what? Burton, one or two other major brands, maybe one of the few surviving niche brands where you don’t have too much local competition, and one of the former high flyers that tanked and has been sold to somebody who’s trying to capitalize on any leftover brand equity. Five brands is about the max¿maybe six. Merchandising them all well is going to be an effort.

What’s going to make you change brands? The rep from a brand you don’t carry has pictures of you at that Vegas party, and you don’t want them to see the light of day? Okay, that might do it. A major customer service or delivery snafu? Maybe. Prices and terms are pretty comparable. A lot of kids asking for a brand you don’t carry? Yup, that would do it. Major technological differences among product? In your dreams.

The bottom line is that with five or even three brands, you’ve got all your bases covered. If I were a retailer, I’d try to pick brands that helped me sell softgoods.

Hardgoods are starting to seem like props used to support the apparel and shoe sales that I suspect provide more than half the revenue and gross margin a typical store earns. It doesn’t seem to me like successful retailers are in the snowboard business anymore. They’re in the lifestyle, action sports, softgoods business¿and they have to purchase and make decisions accordingly to succeed.

# # #


So, What Do You Think

Has snowboarding become, as Jeff says, a cog in the corporate marketing machine? Is it less exciting than the new “free ski” movement? What happened to snowboarding leading the way, bringing excitement and energy to the slopes? Or is it still there, but we in the industry have become so jaded that we fail to see the excitement any more?

E-mail your thoughts to sean@twsnet.com. The best answers will be run in the magazine, the rest on our web site.

The Responses So Far


Denise Ransome

MLY/M3

For us in the industry, hell yes our “sport” is not as exciting as it used to be. Its our job for godsake. Early in our careers in snowboarding we were enthusiasts of the sport. It was not only new to the world, but it was new to us. As we have grown up in our industry it has become a business. It is our job, our career. The corporate involvement has allowed us, the privileged few, to make a living centered around something we love to do and a lifestyle we like to lead. But, as I said earlier it is our job and every job has its doldrums. Sure, we (snowboarding) has become a cog in the corporate machine. But that is necessary for our sport, lifestyle and industry to remain living and breathing.

Now, is the sport still exciting to the rest of the world. Well, spend one hour up at Mt. Hood this summer. You can feel the energy in the air. Snowboarding is very much still as exciting as it ever was. Maybe even more so. The kids (remember that’s what we are in this for, besides making money) are still beside themselves when they see Blaise Rosenthal or Todd Richards walking around Government Camp. With the “cog” effect we have made the sport more accessible to more kids that get even more excited than ever before. The look in that 13 year-olds eye when he lands his first 360 is the same look Andrew Crawford had when he landed his first 360. Snowboarding is fun, it always has been, and with better product, more resorts catering to it and all the corporate driven hype it is probably more fun, and exciting to kids today.

Brad Steward

Founder Of Bonfire, Movie Mogul

I only have two thoughts. 1. I’m not sure that snowboarding ever lead in the manner he describes, sure it was (is) a key component of youth culture, but so were a lot of other things (video games, music and skateboarding, just to name a couple). The impression we made on youth culture expanderms and purchasing programs, and similar advertising and promotional programs.

Inertia comes from the fact that you’re already carrying¿what? Burton, one or two other major brands, maybe one of the few surviving niche brands where you don’t have too much local competition, and one of the former high flyers that tanked and has been sold to somebody who’s trying to capitalize on any leftover brand equity. Five brands is about the max¿maybe six. Merchandising them all well is going to be an effort.

What’s going to make you change brands? The rep from a brand you don’t carry has pictures of you at that Vegas party, and you don’t want them to see the light of day? Okay, that might do it. A major customer service or delivery snafu? Maybe. Prices and terms are pretty comparable. A lot of kids asking for a brand you don’t carry? Yup, that would do it. Major technological differences among product? In your dreams.

The bottom line is that with five or even three brands, you’ve got all your bases covered. If I were a retailer, I’d try to pick brands that helped me sell softgoods.

Hardgoods are starting to seem like props used to support the apparel and shoe sales that I suspect provide more than half the revenue and gross margin a typical store earns. It doesn’t seem to me like successful retailers are in the snowboard business anymore. They’re in the lifestyle, action sports, softgoods business¿and they have to purchase and make decisions accordingly to succeed.

# # #


So, What Do You Think

Has snowboarding become, as Jeff says, a cog in the corporate marketing machine? Is it less exciting than the new “free ski” movement? What happened to snowboarding leading the way, bringing excitement and energy to the slopes? Or is it still there, but we in the industry have become so jaded that we fail to see the excitement any more?

E-mail your thoughts to sean@twsnet.com. The best answers will be run in the magazine, the rest on our web site.

The Responses So Far


Denise Ransome

MLY/M3

For us in the industry, hell yes our “sport” is not as exciting as it used to be. Its our job for godsake. Early in our careers in snowboarding we were enthusiasts of the sport. It was not only new to the world, but it was new to us. As we have grown up in our industry it has become a business. It is our job, our career. The corporate involvement has allowed us, the privileged few, to make a living centered around something we love to do and a lifestyle we like to lead. But, as I said earlier it is our job and every job has its doldrums. Sure, we (snowboarding) has become a cog in the corporate machine. But that is necessary for our sport, lifestyle and industry to remain living and breathing.

Now, is the sport still exciting to the rest of the world. Well, spend one hour up at Mt. Hood this summer. You can feel the energy in the air. Snowboarding is very much still as exciting as it ever was. Maybe even more so. The kids (remember that’s what we are in this for, besides making money) are still beside themselves when they see Blaise Rosenthal or Todd Richards walking around Government Camp. With the “cog” effect we have made the sport more accessible to more kids that get even more excited than ever before. The look in that 13 year-olds eye when he lands his first 360 is the same look Andrew Crawford had when he landed his first 360. Snowboarding is fun, it always has been, and with better product, more resorts catering to it and all the corporate driven hype it is probably more fun, and exciting to kids today.

Brad Steward

Founder Of Bonfire, Movie Mogul

I only have two thoughts. 1. I’m not sure that snowboarding ever lead in the manner he describes, sure it was (is) a key component of youth culture, but so were a lot of other things (video games, music and skateboarding, just to name a couple). The impression we made on youth culture expanded broader than most assumed¿but snowboarding is still something you do ‘on snow’, by and large in the winter. The early moves to define the culture tried to break out of the winter¿summer camp and kicker competitions¿which may broaden the impression. But, then you create an entire generation influenced by salted pipes, and Austrian Kicker heroes? That doesn’t sound too cutting edge to me.

2. Industry people, pro riders, shop workers and magazine editors are the highest developed forms of being a ‘poser’.

Martin Lehner

VP Sales Marketing Elan

Excuse me, in the last fifteenyears snowboarding has always been a “marketing machine for young demographic and posers”. Look at the day-glo images ten years ago, the “Shawn Palmer” punk rock pictures, to the Forum core freestyle image that is leading the way. “It was and it is still all about IMAGE and¿wonder what¿all guys from “self-protrait core-riders” to “posers” are buying it. Difference was¿snowboarding was but no longer really is an unique way of expression.

But isn’t that what the industry wanted to achieve? More professional run companies with a shareholder value approach? Distinctive core-image with higher sales and margins to main public? Yes, this has happened with a big and thankful-media push. Yes, after all this media-driven approach is very similar to all other “action-sports sold passive-hangaround being bought” sports campaings.

This is making the philosophy of snowboarding now interchangeable. And please do not cry about this and make posers or guys that like to wear technical-snowboard clothing responsible for this. Snowboard business and snowboard marketing has to re-invent itself to stay in focus of the dealers¿that need to look always for new things on the market to stay competitive.

Chuck Allen

Mountain High

I work for a winter resort in Southern California and our ratio of skiers to snowboarders runs about 75% boarders and 25% skiers.

The personal satisfaction (or give it another name) that we all got in the early days is still there; embodied in the spirit of boarders of all ages.

I see two levels to snowboarding. One, is the soul thing, just like surfing. Two, is the commercial thing, something that is there, but not for everyone. Nothing is wrong with either one.

I worked many years in the boring ass banking business. The only thing that kept me sane around all the suits, was the fact that I surfed. To paddle out at Huntington, and sever all ties with everything that was on land, was the best feeling in the world. It’s the same with me when I strap in and just cruise; then sit down and take in the wonders and beauty of winter. It’s during that time that things get into focus.

Age bears no factor to the satisfaction of boarding. Boarding with our buds has a place alright, but cruising alone is just as important.

Contests are not for everyone; the pipe is not for everyone; boardercross is not for everyone. What is for everyone, are those moments of peace and reflection and satisfaction that comes form the purest form of boarding.

It has not gone away in surfing; it has not gone away in snowboarding.

Patrick Colton

Onboard Magazine

The soul of snowboarding is still very much alive and well in the hearts and souls of young men and women world-wide. However, their call to freedom has been muted by the deafening blows of greed. Even soulful start-ups like Onboard Magazine have become greedy little whores to the almighty dollar. Does anyone in the industry actually ride snowboards anymore, or are they just corporate transplants who prefer the pubs in Chamonix to the pubs in London?

Fortunately, there are still companies like Billabong Europe that manage to grow, prosper,and keep it real -those boys are the first out the door on a big swell days, and the first to give back to youth in ways that encourage the enjoyment and proliferation of the sport rather than the blatant exploitation of a cool lifestyle.

The only way to keep holy th