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West Coast

Retailer of the week: Sales trends and employee buzz at Tahoe Sports Ltd.

The pandemic's big winners—mountain bikes and kayaks—flew off the shelves at this South Lake Tahoe retailer in July. Here are the specifics.

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Virtually every outdoor retailer in the country is experiencing the Covid boom that has lasted more than a year now, and Tahoe Sports Ltd. in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., is no exception. The four-decade-old shop—which carries ski and snowboard equipment, apparel, footwear, climbing gear, mountain and road bikes, camping supplies, and boats—doubled many of its orders this summer and still can’t keep certain products in stock. Its hottest categories this month? The usual bikes and kayaks—unequivocal pandemic winners—with a couple of interesting outliers.

To find out what products are outselling others and what employees are chattering about on the floor of the shop, we spoke to Chris Eckert, the company’s marketing manager and ski buyer. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

What’s hot this month at Tahoe Sports Ltd.?

Mountain biking is our most popular category right now, followed closely by kayaks. We can’t keep anything in stock, but I don’t think that’s unique to us. People just want these products right now.

What has been interesting is that we’re selling a lot more e-bikes than “analog bikes,” as I call them, at this point. The e-bike trend has been insane for us here in Tahoe. Everything from full-suspension mountain e-bikes to cruisers—we’re selling it all at a breakneck pace. We’re mainly selling full setups. Whether it’s aluminum, carbon fiber—it doesn’t matter what the makeup is—once these items are on the floor, they don’t last more than a day or two. In fact, we have an alert system built into our website that customers can opt into. It pings people as soon as a product arrives and gets scanned. Often, that leads to those items getting snapped up the same day they get to the store.

In terms of kayaks, Hobie is our primary vendor. The Mirage Outback is the model that has been the hottest for us. It’s what a lot of people want because it’s such a versatile boat. You can cruise around in it, you can fish in it—it’s a great all-arounder. We’ve had those backordered for quite a while.

Finally, we took a risk this year with a couple of Fliteboard eFoils—electric surfboards that sell for about $14,000. There’s not a great margin on them, but we brought two in just to see what would happen. They were both gone within a week. People seem to want them here because we’re so close to the water. I think we found a little niche here in Tahoe that we’re definitely going to keep exploring.

Tahoe Sports Ltd. took a gamble with two Fliteboard eFoils—electric surfboards that retail for about $14,000—this season. The risk paid off. Photo: Fliteboard

What’s not so hot?

Honestly, there’s nothing that hasn’t been moving. The outdoor industry got a shot in the arm this past year, and since the beginning of the pandemic we haven’t seen a slowdown. That’s why we rolled the dice on the eFoils, and it also led us to increase our orders—in some cases, up to double—in certain categories. For instance, we doubled our Black Diamond order this year to get more climbing gear in the store. We pretty much doubled our orders of MSR and Jetboil stoves. We doubled our camping food order. At lot of this was to cater to the increase of Pacific Crest Trail hikers coming through this year.

What are employees chattering about this month?

At this point, the staff is just really excited for winter. Everyone’s ready for the shoulder season to kick in and for the pace to slow down. In the next two weeks, we’re going to start seeing skis and boots and snowboards shipped, which is a relief because last winter wasn’t as bad for us in terms of supply difficulties. We’re hearing a little rumbling from our reps that certain products might be delayed a couple weeks, but nothing like the 18 months we’re getting with mountain bikes, for instance. That will make things a lot easier on our staff who are trying to help customers. From a business standpoint, everyone here is ready for summer to be over.

What questions and comments are you getting from customers recently?

We’re getting a lot of questions about when things will be back in stock, of course. That said, most of our customers understand what’s happening—the lack of supply and the difficulties there. Back when the pandemic began, the people in our bike shop started buying up chains, derailleurs, cassettes, and other parts that we figured might run out as the boom started. Our customers have been very appreciative that we had the foresight to do that.

Another thing customers are talking about is how many new people we have in town. In terms of new transplants who have moved here since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve heard the number 9,000 thrown around. Bear in mind, the town was only 30,000 people before that. A lot of them are tech folks who have relocated from San Francisco to work here remotely. There’s definitely a buzz in town; it’s busier than it’s ever been.

Which of your vendors gets a gold star this month for going above and beyond?

This month it would have to be Specialized. They’re our main mountain-bike vendor, and they’ve been so communicative in terms of what they can do to help us, even though they don’t have product to send. We’re on the phone with them literally every day trying to solve something. Even if they have to give us bad news, they’re at least making the effort and being transparent so that we can pass that transparency on to our customers.