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Skinny Skis owner Phil Leeds on being in the biz for 40 years

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Skinny Skis and Moosely Mountaineering co-owner Phil Leeds discusses keeping up with the pressures brick-and-mortar retailers face to stay afloat.

Skinny Skis, a year-round shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has been “kickin’ and gliding” for more than 40 years. Through the dot-com era and the proliferation of big boxes, Phil Leeds and former co-owner Jeff Crabtree, now retired, have remained a fixture in the local community. Through Skinny Skis and its sister shop, Moosely Mountaineering, they support nonprofits and encourage participation in the great outdoors while keeping up with the trends of digitalization and ever shifting buying cycles.

Photo by Kassondra Cloos.

1. How has retail changed since you opened your shop in 1974?
Every component of doing business in the community has changed markedly. One of the most significant has been digitization. Now, everything’s electronic. Forty years ago, if you wanted a particular brand, you needed to find it in a retail brick-and-mortar store, and distribution was much more selective than it is today. The web is like adding another store or two in town.

2. Not everyone survived digitization, and not everyone adapts well to change. How has Skinny Skis made it through?
It’s been a lot of work, obviously. But I think we’re really fortunate. We have a very dynamic, very outdoor-driven community here in Jackson Hole. We’re right next door to two incredible national parks—Grand Teton and Yellowstone—and there’s anywhere from 2 to 3 million people a year who visit the area. People visiting are obviously interested in the great outdoors, and we’ve been lucky to have a supportive community. We challenge ourselves to stay ahead of the game in terms of our merchandising, selection and customer service.

3. The buying cycle shifts each year. How does that affect you?
It’s getting a little ridiculous. You used to be able to go through products more thoroughly at OR. Now we’re finding some orders that are due June 30. Things have crept up every year by a week or two. It’s not going to be a rewarding timeline for the manufacturers because it’s a super-competitive environment we’re in. I don’t think there are too many retailers who are going to take a winger on forecasting aggressively this early. If you’re in the Southeast and you’ve seen the lion’s share of your sales already, maybe. But for us to take huge gambles on some of these deliveries is probably not going to happen.

There’s always been this theory that if companies ask for orders super-early, you’ll order more. I think it’s going to do just the opposite. Manufacturers who have the latitude to wait a few more weeks will be rewarded with bigger orders, because a lot of retailers like us are not going to go back and revise the orders for more. So if someone can wait, and we have time to see a stronger sell-through, we’re going to write a more liberal order.

4. There have been several big-box store bankruptcies this year (including Ems, Sports Authority and Sport Chalet). How will that affect you?
There’s so much product out there in this universe of ours, and if everything is going perfectly—the weather is cooperating, the economy is firing on all cylinders—it just seems like it’s working OK. But all it takes is one hiccup. The market is like an organism with a biological problem—one bug can travel through the system. It’s a dog-eat-dog world for manufacturers, because the level of participation in these activities isn’t growing fast enough to sustain everything.

5. How much do you work with other retailers? 
We started networking in the ‘70s with a group of similar-minded Nordic-oriented shops in the Rockies. We formed an alliance called the Nordic Group, really for the sole purpose of sharing best practices and discussing trends. And there’s always a fair amount of whining that goes on, and crying on each other’s shoulders. Most of those shops that were part of the Nordic Group are now part of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance. Almost all of them are still at it today. That’s been a rewarding part of the business, for sure.

This story first appeared in the Day 3 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily.