Showcase Snowboards: Bringing a little Vegas to Whistler

Whistler, British Columbia might appear at first blush to be every snowboard retailer’s dream market, but it’s actually a very difficult and competitive location.

For starters, Whistler is only an hour and a half from the teeming metropolis of Vancouver-a city with no shortage of shred-marts. Retail square footage in Whistler is also exceedingly expensive, so retailers have to move a lot of product to make a shop worthwhile. And, last but not least, Whistler has the largest per-capita concentration of down-on-their-luck pro snowboarders-all of whom tend to have closets full of boards ready to sell at an eighth of their market value. (Or is that just for an eighth?)

Mind you, none of the aforementioned caveats have discouraged Showcase Snowboards from selling snowboarding stuff in Whistler. In fact, the shop does very well peddling shred gear in the valley, and it isn’t by accident.

The Whistler/Blackcomb-owned Showcase stays successful by employing creativity, smart buying, and reinventing itself every once in a while to keep the juices flowing.

Showcase’s Grand Poohbah is Graham Turner, and he’s been with the shop since it opened in November 1989. Apart from heading up the retail buying for snowboarding and coordinating the snowboard-oriented aspects of Whistler/Blackcomb’s retail programs, Turner’s job description includes the title, “Animation Coordinator.”

An “Animation Coordinator” might sound like some old fat guy at Hanna Barbera studios, but one look inside a Showcase store will clear this up: You might see go-go dancers shaking their stuff on the shop counters; you could see a tattoo artist inking up somebody’s back; you could see all sorts of things, none of it just random mayhem.

“Animation is a big part of our store image,” explains Turner. “We want everyone who comes into our store to go, ‘Wow, did you see that chick dancing on the cash counter?’ or, ‘How about that Kraft Dinner: 3 for 99 cents!’ We want them to say, ‘Dude, they have a trampoline in the store!’ The tattoo artists, dancers, and assorted Beijing acrobats who animate Showcase are technically volunteers, but-as Whistler/Blackcomb volunteers-21 days of inking or dancing will get them a Dual Mountain Season’s Pass. Not such a bad gig.”

But Showcase isn’t just some typical snowboard shop with a couple of circus tricks and some nightclub antics; the animation continues in terms of creative retailing via product presentation. Graham Turner explains that this is all an offshoot of wanting to bring a sense of Las Vegas to Whistler.

“You know, everyone gets so stoked on the Vegas SIA Ski, Snowboard, and Outdoor Trade show-the product looks so good in the suppliers’ booths with custom fixtures. But then, when the product gets shipped to stores, it comes with a banner and a few stickers. The staff puts it up on the slat wall and it all looks the same.”

Showcase’s partnership idea grew out of this desire to bring the feeling of the Las Vegas show to its Whistler stores.

The concept areas-complete with custom fixtures and individual designs supplied by the manufacturers-have been up and running since the new 4,500-square-foot Whistler Village location opened in November ’97. Whistler/Blackcomb had already tried concept areas with their Can Ski stores and suppliers like The North Face and Columbia, so it was just a matter of translating the concept into snowboard retailing. The first board suppliers to bite were Burton, Morrow, Sims, and Salomon.

Partnerships with Showcase are offered on three-year terms to suppliers with whom they already do a fair deal of business. The shop is responsible for maintaining stock levels and merchandising concept areas, and some of the Showcase staff are authorized to make warranty calls on site. Showcase sells its window space to suppliers as well if a company desires even greater exposure. Each concept area’s size must correspond to the amount of business Showcase does with that supplier. “We only want to partner up with suppliers who rule,” Turner is quick to point out. “Some suppliers with deep pockets and lame products want to buy into a lot of space, but we don’t go for that.”

The location of Showcase-not only is it in Whistler, but in a piping-hot spot in Whistler-tends to make suppliers especially keen to showcase their products to the world. The store looks great and gets a fair deal of press because of it. Now that so many of the industry’s brass are holding meetings in Whistler, Turner says they love to use Showcase as a showpiece for their product.

Aside from the concept areas, Showcase tries to animate other areas of snowboard retailing, too: “All of our suppliers get creative with in-store clinics ,” says Turner. “The last thing we want is a classroom clinic; we want our staff to remember. Last year, Salomon did their clinic on a ferry heading to a bungee jump, and then made all the staff jump. They drank a keg of beer on the way home and talked about how rad that supplier was. Some suppliers do their clinics on snow, in canoes-whatever works.”

To balance the seasons, Showcase also sponsors the Camp of Champions in the summer, the largest snowboarding camp in Canada. While most Whistler-Blackcomb stores are budgeted to lose money in the summer, the Camp of Champions helps Showcase make extra sales in June and July.

“And, as far as marketing goes,” Turner figures, “if we get a bunch of kids going home and telling everyone how rad our store is, that’s a good thing.”

Showcase employs fourteen full-time staff in the winter between their two locations, and six full-time in the summer. Many of the staff have been with Showcase for four years or more, so customers get quality service instead of some burnt cool-guy barely looking up from his magazine to nod hello. Showcase’s demo center is huge, so customers can test-ride a board on two of the best mountains in North America, instead of just flexing a board in the store.

In terms of structure, Showcase follows many of the same time-tested guidelines as other Whistler/Blackcomb-owned stores regarding handling cash, theft-procedure, merchandising standards, and more. However, Showcase doesn’t stop there: “As far as uniforms, advertising, keg parties, and scantily clad dancers in the windows-the big shooters tend to turn a blind eye,” says Turner. “Bottom line is to keep the shareholders happy-which hasn’t been a problem so far.”

Showcase parties are legendary good times in Whistler, and they take place right in the store. Most of these parties extend invites to influential riders and industry folks Turner wants to remember Showcase. At last year’s TransWorld Snowboarding Industry conference, everyone, including Rob Morrow, Chuck Barfoot, Al Clark, and Jim Rippey, attended, with the pros signing their pro models-helping to sell them later. “The best comment,” according to Turner, “was from Jake Burton. He said we have one of the nicest shops in the world.”

On top of all this, Showcase sponsors people like Ross Rebagliati, porn-star Miss Kitty, and pop-singer Seal. In turn, these celebrities-all snowboarders, of course-have worn Showcase T-shirts on such programs as David Letterman, The Tonight Show, and SNL. It’s hard to beat coverage like that.

Showcase’s future plans include a new High Performance rental shop in their old location, where customers can try top-end product from hardgoods suppliers and even high-tech outerwear from Bonfire. But Graham Turner likes to point a few things out: “We are all just here to ride and can provide wicked service-we just happen to have deep pockets backing us up. Life is good up here … see ya in the pow!”

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Colin Whyte is some guy with a pen who fixes snowboards at The District Snowboards in Nanaimo, BC. He is a Leo.