Heavy-Handed: What’s it like buying for 122 stores? An exclusive interview with Derek “Heavy” Mills of Gart Sports

Five years ago, a regional chain called Gart Sports started carrying snowboards in a store-within-a-store emporium called Big Daddy’s. With the recent merger between Gart Sports (63 stores) and Sportmart (59 stores), the nation’s biggest sporting-goods chain was born. Now this company with 700-million dollars in sales will be aggressively expanding the Big Daddy’s concept.

SNOWboarding Business spoke with the man responsible for buying snowboarding hardgoods for all the Gart Sports/Sportmart stores. Some have called him one of the new powerbrokers of the industry. He’s not heavy-handed, he’s just Heavy Mills:

SNOWboarding Business: Please describe what your job is.

Heavy: My title is snowboard buyer for Gart Sports/Sportmart/Big Daddy’s Snowboard Emporiums. I buy only the hardgoods. I used to buy the softgoods when we were just Gart Sports, but since the merger things have become a little more chaotic and very SKU intensified, so they split us up by hardgoods and softgoods. I work very closely with the ski- clothing buyer who now buys snowboard apparel as well to make sure we have the right lines in the stores that represent snowboarding.

What’s the chain of command at Gart Sports/Sportmart?

I answer to Steve Wilber, our vice president of merchandising, and he answers to the senior vice president of hardgoods, Art Hagan. Art answers to our CEO, Doug Morton.

Steve, Art, and Doug have been very open-minded with the snowboard program, hence the Big Daddy’s name and concept. Ever since we started this thing five years ago we’ve been very successful. They haven’t touched it.

Who are your main competitors?

Directly, we really don’t have any competitors. We are a very unique operation. We’re probably the only big-box chain in the country that can get away with what we’ve done for the last five years. Indirectly every mom-and-pop snowboard shop, or anyone who sells snowboard equipment on the planet, is our competition.

What do you mean when you say, “what we’ve done in the last five years”?

Being able to pull off a specialty-snowboarding concept center within a major sporting-goods chain and be successful with it and carry the top brands.

The whole thing started five years ago when we had one store here in Denver as a test. The next year we grew to seven, then to fifteen, and after that 24 stores. Next year we’ll have 33 Gart Big Daddy’s and we’ll add 37 Sportmart Big Daddy’s.

I think the Big Daddy’s concept helps us stay focused and shows that we are real and committed to the sport-we’re in it for the long run.

Has your job changed since the merger with Sportmart?

I think so. The Gart situation gave us four years to get ready for the real game. The real game is to make the Sportmart thing work in marketplaces we’ve never been in. So we’ve practiced and now we’re going to go and knock it out.

If a Sportmart or a Gart doesn’t have a Big Daddy’s, will it still carry snowboarding products?

Yes it will. It’ll have the all-store assortment, which is your basic entry-level pricepoint boards, boots, bindings, and clothing. It’s middle- to lower-end merchandise. Obviously those stores are not going to be loaded to the gills like a Big Daddy’s, but they’ll have some significant product.

Will Sportmart and Gart carry the same brands?

They’ll all have the same brands.

Will your goal be to make the Sportmart stores like the Gart stores, in regard to selling and merchandising snowboards?

That’s our focus. Obviously that’s not going to happen in one year. Our long-term goal is to definitely do business in the snowboarding industry like we do with Gart Sports.

What are your growth plans in snowboarding, and how will you position the stores?

We’re definitely positioned for another fantastic year in terms of growth, and we see no slowdown in the near future.

The way we position our stores is that we’re not ‘core ops with attitude and we’re not huge discounters who slash prices. We’re right in between. Again, I’ll go back to that issue where I haven’t seen any other chain that can compete with us head-on and do a good job.

We’re looking to build ten to twelve new stores per year for the next three years, all of which will have the Big Daddy’s concepts in them. For five years after that, anywhere from eight to ten new stores per year are planned. We’re definitely poised and ready to go.

What are the biggest challenges facing your company when it comes to snowboard retailing?

The hardest thing for us as a big chain is finding competent people who snowboard, who know what they’re talking about, and know how to sell. There are a lot of great kids out there who know how to snowboard but they can’t communicate or sell. They’re basically just a bunch of bumps on a log, and we can’t have that. We need to move product.

Do you have extensive training for your employees?

We have a training session every October, and we go around to each marketplace with what’s called The Boarding School. It’s basically a show-style seminar where all our vendors show up and put together their booths. A store will bring in their five people to go around to each vendor and learn as much as they can in the given time, which is 45 minutes to an hour.

That’s our kick-off. During the season, we encourage the reps to go to the stores and do follow-up clinics with new people or people who just missed something.

How has the snowboard market changed in the last year?

Consolidation is definitely the buzzword. In the old days it used to be you’re in the industry and living the lifestyle. Now it’s a full-time job. I was lucky to get five days on the hill this year. In the past I was able to get ten to fifteen days no problem.

The reps, to survive the shakeout, don’t have their summers off anymore. I’ve actually talked to a couple guys in the last few who’ve said it’s very difficult and they’re not having fun anymore.

But I still think it’s fun or I wouldn’t be doing it.

Has the consolidation affected your buying?

Yes and no. With the consolidation, we’re seeing a lot less closeouts now than we did, which is helping a lot of people. There were a couple of good deals and we acted upon them, but that’s about it. There wasn’t a lot of carryover stuff from last year.

Which brands are looking stronger?

I think Ride had a fantastic year and is positioned to have an excellent year again this year. K2 is strong. Rossignol looks like they’re making a serious attempt to stay in the snowboard market. Nitro looks strong. Vans for boots seems strong and Salomon is actually putting the buzz out there and is stepping up to the plate.

Convert and Burton are strong in apparel. Quiksilver looks extremely strong, especially the Pirate line. Wave Rave and Magnus seem strong as well.

Are there things that brands should be doing differently?

That’s a tough question. Companies have to keep in mind that the pricepoints of snowboarding are coming down and they need to address that. For a retailer and consumer, it’s a good thing. Obviously for a manufacturer, that’s less margin for them.

I’d like to see prices level off and get to a point where we have an entry-level pricepoint, a mid-range pricepoint, and the high-end stuff. It’s not really happening. You might be talking ten to fifteen to twenty dollars between two pricepoints.

How important is the step-in market, and where do you see it going?

I feel it’s an extremely important market, and I’ve been a supporter of it since the Clicker came out three or four years ago. I think the Burton introduction to the marketplace gave that whole category much more credibility. I feel it’s the future, and I don’t see soft bindings hanging around for very much longer.

Our buy has definitely increased in the last year. I talked to one of my friendly competitors, D&E Snowboards in Snowmass, Colorado, and they told me they’re going all step-ins this year. I think that takes balls.

I don’t see us going there for three or four years. Once step-ins take off and the prices go down it will be better. That’s the biggest thing, we’ve got to get the systems down in price. Once that happens, it’s going to go full bore.

How many step-in brands can a shop support?

I honestly believe there could be five max on the market and a shop should carry three. You’ve got your Clickers without the highback, the Burton, and the Switch system. Those are one, two, and three right out of the gate. Any more than that and it’s sort of hard to justify. But the systems out there aren’t 100 percent. There’s still a lot of shaking and consolidation to be had in that part of the market.

How important are rentals?

It’s tough for us. I’ll be honest, we’ve really dropped the ball on the rental business in the last couple of years. But that’s definitely a growth area for us and we definitely need to have rentals in the stores. I get phone calls every day from the stores about how bad the rentals are.

We’re going to stock step-ins all the way for rentals. That’s all the guys are asking for. They don’t want to deal with straps or soft bindings.

People say you’re one of the powerbrokers in the snowboarding industry. Do you think that’s accurate?

I don’t think I’m a powerbroker. I’m just a bus driver. That’s all I do, drive the bus.

You determine when to take a turn in the road.

Or who to pick up and who to drop off.

I always thought the bus driver was either the most-loved or most- hated person to the people on that bus route.

Someone once said, “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not.”mp;E Snowboards in Snowmass, Colorado, and they told me they’re going all step-ins this year. I think that takes balls.

I don’t see us going there for three or four years. Once step-ins take off and the prices go down it will be better. That’s the biggest thing, we’ve got to get the systems down in price. Once that happens, it’s going to go full bore.

How many step-in brands can a shop support?

I honestly believe there could be five max on the market and a shop should carry three. You’ve got your Clickers without the highback, the Burton, and the Switch system. Those are one, two, and three right out of the gate. Any more than that and it’s sort of hard to justify. But the systems out there aren’t 100 percent. There’s still a lot of shaking and consolidation to be had in that part of the market.

How important are rentals?

It’s tough for us. I’ll be honest, we’ve really dropped the ball on the rental business in the last couple of years. But that’s definitely a growth area for us and we definitely need to have rentals in the stores. I get phone calls every day from the stores about how bad the rentals are.

We’re going to stock step-ins all the way for rentals. That’s all the guys are asking for. They don’t want to deal with straps or soft bindings.

People say you’re one of the powerbrokers in the snowboarding industry. Do you think that’s accurate?

I don’t think I’m a powerbroker. I’m just a bus driver. That’s all I do, drive the bus.

You determine when to take a turn in the road.

Or who to pick up and who to drop off.

I always thought the bus driver was either the most-loved or most- hated person to the people on that bus route.

Someone once said, “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not.”