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Record retail season raises questions about Labor Day sales

A record season at snowsports retail has many shop owners scrambling to find gear for their annual Labor Day tent sales. Are we establishing an entirely new sales cycle? SNEWS takes a look.

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A record river of $3.3 billion in snowsports sales cleaned retail inventory down to the walls last season, effectively ridding the market of overstock. The lack of leftover gear from the previous season could speed the adoption of rocker technology this upcoming season, and also result in higher margins for retailers with nothing but new skis and boards on the shelves. But it is also raising serious questions as to just what’s left to offer at discount when the industry’s annual season-opening Labor Day “tent sales” start the weekend of Sept. 3, 2011.

“You’ve got to have something to get people in the door for these sales, and right now there aren’t a lot of “doorbusters” left in the market,” said Steve Rogers, president and CEO of the Sports Specialists Ltd. buying group. Rogers said that despite working with vendors to obtain, and in some cases even produce, off-price product specifically for the Labor Day sales cycle,“there will be a shortage” of equipment. 

Not that anyone is complaining about the significant progress the industry has made in cleaning up its carryover/off-price business. Or about the fact that consumers are feeling more and more that they have to buy earlier in the season to get the gear they really want. But it seems as if the industry wasn’t quite ready for the improved state of business to happen so fast.

“The prospect for consumers to find the perennial 50-percent-off of last year’s model is unlikely in most parts of the country this year,” said Matt Titus, vice president of marketing at Dalbello Sports. Titus thinks that current year value-oriented products could fill the void left by the lack of off-price gear, offering deals while still pushing retail margins up. “The good news is that the market is very clean now, which will enhance dealer profitability,” Titus said. 

According to Tait Wardlaw, vice president of marketing and communications for Rossignol, Dynastar and Lange, while those 50-percent-off deals have never made retailers much money, they traditionally provided a strong hook for getting “fence sitters” into the sport.

“At the Labor Day sales you traditionally see a lot of product aimed at very part-time skiers,” Wardlaw said. “Those sales are really a vehicle for getting people who are sitting on the fence about skiing excited. And like all of the day-after-Thanksgiving sales for the holidays, tent sales have become part of our business now, and they do a great job of driving awareness for many retailers’ business.” 

Alan Davis, owner of Princeton Sports in Columbia, Md., wonders if retailers won’t start selling new gear at a slight discount just to give customers an incentive to “buy now” when they walk into the shops. “Preseason sales should be good because we’re coming off such a good season,” Davis said. “The question is, what will go on sale when the sales start?”

Selling new gear at even a 10-percent discount could continue to skew the sales cycle even more, though, as Davis readily admits. “Of course if you’re selling new gear that early in the season, it means you’ll be re-ordering earlier, too,” he said, adding that re-orders that typically take place in November, could then conceivably be pushed up by more than a month. 

For brands with strict pricing policies, early discounting is a less than preferred path. And there is still the sense that this level of sell-through is far from an established trend, so why rush into a new discounting strategy that the consumer might construe as a new precedent.

“It’s an interesting situation for us to be as industry right now,” said Wardlaw. “Those deep discounts are not going to be available for the tent sales like they always have been. But at the same time, I think having all of that new product front and center certainly lends credibility to the real cost.” 

At retail shops such as Hoigaard’s in Minnesota, Labor Day tent sales have increasingly been less about carryover and more about special purchases. “We have found we do better working with vendors in our pre-season orders to buy product the tent sale customer will want,” said Todd Brewer, Hoigaard’s sales executive. “The biggest issue for us, in recent years is getting product shipped in time for the sale. It amazes me that we order product in December and January for Aug. 1 and still can’t get it by September.”

Brewer said if anything, he thinks the same customers who will come to the Hoigaard’s tent sale this year, already came through the stores looking for off-price gear in the spring, and they know there aren’t many deals left in the market. “We already have a lot of interest in the tent sale from folks who got the bug and are ready to buy at the right price,” Brewer said. 

Of course the sales figures from the tent sales will speak for themselves, and a jittery economy might also play a role. For right now, no one seems to be pining for the days when everyone and their brother knew that if they just waited until Labor Day, they could almost buy anything but the newest skis at half price. 

“Inventories are tight and I think there will be some shortages but it will be a good thing,” said Willy Booker, president of Nordica USA. “I think we will see some current year new product selling earlier because of the limited remnants from last year, which is also a good thing.”

Peter Kray

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