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Ski retail has been going downhill

When ski resorts get mired in a snow drought, there is always the hope that the next big powder dump will bail out business. And that reasoning holds true for every snow sports retailer down the economic chain.

But if you own a ski shop in New England — at a time when last year’s disastrous snow season is segueing into a spotty, hit-or-miss encore so far — there are steeper challenges beyond waiting for customers to flock back. Going into this season, retailers were burdened with inventory that didn’t sell last year, and now, in the aftermath of the holiday rush, is when merchants must make critical buying decisions for next year’s gear and apparel.

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“When you have to buy your skis a year before you’re going to sell them, it can kind of throw a scare into you,” said Kenny Jacques, who founded Ski Depot in Jay, Maine, with his brother Ron in 1996. “Every time you think you’ve got this business figured out you get another curveball.”

In early-season sales this year, that curveball looked like an off-target eephus pitch.

According to SnowSports Industries America, a trade association that samples sales data from more than 1,200 skiing-related retailers, the most recent survey from November showed double-digit declines in dollars sold compared with the same month last year. In addition, season-to-date sales fell 8 percent in units sold and 7 percent in dollars sold.

“The snow sports market had an uphill battle to fight in the preseason and it showed,” explained an SIA press release that accompanied the data. “All of the variables were working against the early-season snow sports market.”

The goods that did move early were skewed toward “carryover” gear sold at or below average retail cost (17 percent of snowboards sold between August and November fit this category). “Specialty inventories were swollen at the end of last season, so the increase in carryover sales is an expected purge of that inventory,” SIA explained. “Unfortunately, that leaves retailers with a cash trickle rather than a flow, and sets a Spartan stage for the 2013-14 ordering season.”

‘When you have to buy your skis a year before you’re going to sell them, it can kind of throw a scare into you.’

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That’s pretty frank language from SIA, especially considering that the bleak forecast comes just two weeks before the association’s annual Snow Show trade extravaganza in Denver (Jan. 31.-Feb. 3), where some 20,000 industry executives and merchandisers gather for a sneak preview of next season’s latest and greatest.

But here in New England, there are glimmers of buoyancy beneath the choppy retail surface: November sales in the Northeast ($79 million) topped every other geographic region, including the powerhouse West ($74 million). And judging by telephone conversations last week with retailers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, holiday sales were more robust than expected. SIA plans to release December figures on the same day its Snow Show opens; an upbeat report would provide a convenient spark to kick off the festivities.

New England ski shops serve different customers depending on location. Larger retailers in metro Boston and southern New Hampshire deal in volume and tend to focus on a best-price-wins strategy. The mountain-based shops are split into two categories — those near large resorts that draw a flow of vacationers, and more isolated outposts that cater to core groups of locals.

“We cover from the grandparents to the parents to the children,” said Jacques, whose rural shop is an hour away from either Sugarloaf or Sunday River. “What happens in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Boston doesn’t reflect the business we see. Where we’re not in a very populated area, people are looking for last year’s gear first.”

Jim Drummond, who runs Drummond’s Mountain Shop a half-mile from the main entrance to Bretton Woods, also depends upon families, but his New Hampshire clientele is centered around “skiers who own second homes in the area and give us a lot of support with repeat business.”

Joe Podolak, who owns Alpine Options on the access road to Sugarbush, explained that at his Vermont location, an unsettled economy isn’t as much of a drag on sales. “At a destination resort like this, it doesn’t play as much of a factor as it does elsewhere,” he said.

But even across varied demographics, patterns emerge.

“This year has been a crazy boot year,” said Jacques. “A lot of people aren’t upgrading their skis this year. They’re opting for boots instead.”

Podolak agreed, saying, “Boot sales are absolutely on fire right now.”

Jacques said consumers looking for bargains are probably going to reap sweet deals on skis later in the season, because whatever doesn’t sell early is going to get marked down late.

“These new rocker skis are what people are looking for, so there’s definitely a trend there, for sure,” said Drummond.

Women’s gear also moved well in December, according to the shop owners, and SIA expects that segment’s trajectory will continue to rise. The association devoted one section of its Snow Show preview guide to women-specific merchandise, predicting that the $136 million spent on women’s Alpine equipment last season is a figure still ripe for growth.

“I think [manufacturers] are going after the women’s group, and they’re getting it right,” said Jacques.

Other trends that will be highlighted at Snow Show 2013 include:

 An increased blurring between on-piste, sidecountry, and true backcountry skis, with an emphasis on “all mountain” or “all-around” equipment billed as being responsive under all conditions.

 Downhill-oriented boots with touring tweaks like walk/ski modes and interchangeable, high-traction soles (even if a large percentage of purchasers only use those features to get from the parking lot to the base lodge).

 Bindings that are evolving with enhanced safety in mind, with a focus on lateral heel release and increased shock absorption.

 Old-school shapes and blunted tips for snowboards, with more attention paid to core materials.

 Apparel that mimics street-smart styles (hip but functional); warmth and breathability achieved through strategic layering of natural fibers like coconut husks and coffee grounds.

Yet no matter how much the new gear dazzles, New England shop owners covet the one natural commodity that has been frustratingly out of stock over the past 14 months.

“Snow changes the world for us, you know?” said Drummond. “A good snow year will trump any economy.”

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