Bring ‘Em All In: By catering to more of your potential customers, your shop will be more profitable and competitive

As owner of Salty Peaks in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the best-known snowboard stores in the country, Dennis Nazari has seen the changing demographics in the snowboard market firsthand.

“Over-30 snowboard buyers come in several varieties,” he says. “At the extremes you’ll find the fat guy who hasn’t done any exercise in five years buying gear for his two kids. Or it might be a long-hair with no socks on, riding his skateboard, who simply refuses to grow up.”

Ivan Penchansky, manager of Z.J. Boarding House in Santa Monica, California, agrees. But he points out that in the middle of these two extremes comes a much larger buying group. “You’d be amazed how many complete families we outfit,” he adds. “The parents might have grown up, but they’re still riding hard, have a progressive attitude, and are bringing their kids in to be outfitted for family trips.”

Middle-Age Spread

Snowboarding statistics are generally about as reliable as sunshine in Seattle. However, regardless of which report you read, one thing is clear: snowboarders are getting older. By extension, the market is becoming more family oriented. Jim Spring and his Leisure Trends Group, chief statistic gurus for the industry, point to several key indicators culled from various surveys done for SnowSports Industries America (SIA) and the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA).

“Crossover skiers are fueling the growth in the snowboard market,” says Spring. “During the 1996/97 season the average age of this crossover market jumped from 29 to 32, which shows a pretty significant aging trend. Also important is the number of crossover riders more than 35 years old jumped by ten percent compared to the previous year.”

Spring also points to a big increase in age of the snowboard-only category: “Fifty percent of those riders who only snowboard are now more than 30 years old. This category has increased by twenty percent over the previous year.”

The Leisure Trend’s research only takes into account the over-sixteen crowd. But another key stat for retailers to remember is that the number of snowboarders under sixteen years old remains steady as a percentage of total snowboarders, but the huge increase nationally in the number of under-sixteens means absolute numbers are growing fast. During the next six years, the population of those less than sixteen years old will grow to approximately 32 percent of total population, making them as numerous as the baby boomers. And this group will still rely on their parents to buy big-ticket snowboard gear for them.

Sell To Everyone

The flood of skiers looking for more fun, the 36-year-old beginner who sees snowboarding as a potential fountain of youth, former rippers who are now law-firm junior partners, “soccer” moms and dads: all these people could easily fall off the radar screen of specialty retailers and into the clutches of chain stores (whose retail presence has now grown from a toehold to a size-fourteen foot in the door of the snowboard market).

Stores that learn to adapt to the widening snowboard market will be worrying less about the age and profile of their customers and more about finding ways to serve everyone who walks into the store equally well. They will be service driven and present a wide product selection covering as many customer requirements as possible. If your store comes down too far to the side of “exclusive” and “hip,” expect your customer base to rapidly shrink.

Staff Training (As Always)

Retailers who have already created a genuinely inclusive environment point to staff training as the main ingredient in their success.

As Penchansky says: “For us, it’s vital to have all our staff very well trained on the technical aspects of the product. Older buyers are much better informed and come into the store having done their homework. That means our staff has to be better informed on the technical side, too.”

Some stores successfully cater to their wening demographic by employing a wider range of sales staff. Travis Nohe, owner of Mountain Wave in Breckenridge, Colorado, sees a lot of older riders simply because his shop is located in an expensive travel destination.

“The age of our sales staff ranges from nineteen to 42,” he says. “We don’t necessarily try to match up customers with a salesperson the same age, but having the range makes the store feel more inclusive. Anyone from a 45-year-old Japanese tourist to a local snowboard instructor will feel equally comfortable in our store.”

But not all stores agree on this approach: “Often a 40-year-old crossover customer will assume a twenty-something will be more knowledgeable than older sales staff,” says Kevin Harouchi, manager of the Underground in Boston, Massachusetts. “Being young can actually be an advantage.”

At Home With A Range

As with staff training, effective competition against chain stores means offering products that cater to all customer requirements. “One of the main benefits of having a wide range of product is we can match up the right product with the right rider,” says Nazari. “Women require a lighter, flexier female-specific board, not just the small man’s board they often end up with.”

Older riders are more concerned with brand. This has less to do with the image-creating power of advertising and more to do with concern for warranty details and manufacturer history. But since most of the major brands now offer a complete range of boards covering all types, prices, and graphics targeted at all ages and riders, stocking products for every rider is less and less a problem. (See sidebar.)

“We were among the first to cater to women and children and stocked these boards as soon as product became available,” says Nazari. “As soon as we can get boards with a 28-centimeter waist, we’ll stock them too so we can serve the ‘huge feet’ market.”

The steady, absolute growth in the snowboard market helps retailers carry a wider range. “We used to sell only two types of snowboard bags,” says Harouchi. “Now overall demand means we can carry fifteen types.”

Tone It Down-Not Off

Snowboarding gives many older riders an excuse to look and behave younger than their years. Decor, staff presentation, and in-store entertainment maintain the alternative appeal of the snowboard lifestyle, but do it in a way that doesn’t offend anybody.

“We’ve kept the music and the videos,” says Penchansky. “What’s changed is that we monitor exactly what gets played and shown. Every day we’ll see whole families standing there together watching a video.”

Niche Players

Looking for ways to cover a wider market? Then look to see who your potential market is, what they might need may not be available to them locally. Sina Morse and Lori Hon, who run the Twist store in Boulder, Colorado, have identified a couple of profitable local niches.

“We sell a lot of cool bikinis-as well as wide range of snowboard and technical gear,” says Morse. “We have a local student population of 30,000, and when they go on spring break they can’t find decent swimwear anywhere else in town. We also carry Kenneth Cole dress shoes as well as skate shoes, because there aren’t any good shoe stores in Boulder.”

Or set out to be dominant in a particular market sector. Salty Peaks is committed to all alternative and board sports no mater how small the market. They moved very early into in-line gear and were definitely one of the first retailers to place an order for mountain boards. “It doesn’t matter how many we sell, we set out to cater to anyone who craves an adrenaline rush.” says Nazari.

Two Quick Ways to Build Your Market.

To differentiate yourself from chain stores and to increase customer traffic, upgrade the technical services you offer. Check into the financing available for base grinders or a waxing system such as the Toaster. Due to low interest rates, money is cheap these days. With any reasonable volume of boards, you’ll have no problem covering your payments while creating new customers.

Plan more trips to local mountains. You won’t make a dime, but if you can fill a bus with kids you’ve guaranteed future sales and a troop of grateful local parents. If they trust you with their kids, they’ll certainly trust your product advice. Smart stores such as the Underground are now also offering family-oriented trips.

So, make your store warm and fuzzy for all of your potential customers while maintaining its underlying edge. With a little thought, you’ll see your customer base grow and won’t alienate the customers who get you where you are. any reasonable volume of boards, you’ll have no problem covering your payments while creating new customers.

Plan more trips to local mountains. You won’t make a dime, but if you can fill a bus with kids you’ve guaranteed future sales and a troop of grateful local parents. If they trust you with their kids, they’ll certainly trust your product advice. Smart stores such as the Underground are now also offering family-oriented trips.

So, make your store warm and fuzzy for all of your potential customers while maintaining its underlying edge. With a little thought, you’ll see your customer base grow and won’t alienate the customers who get you where you are.