Here’s a classic example of the many differences between browsing the web and shopping for ski equipment online and visiting your local alpine shop.
As the owner of Massachusetts-based outfitter Country Ski & Sport, Ray Stenson has seen it.
“Every day,” he said exasperatedly. “Every day.”
Case in point: In walks a customer one day to one of Country Ski’s three stores in the Boston area with a problem. It seems the “size 11” boots that he or she purchased online are somehow three sizes too big. Now, just how could that be considering the customer wears a size 11 sneaker? Shouldn’t it fit? And can the folks at the ski shop fix the problem?
All too frequently, Stenson has had to break the all-too-obvious news to the customer.
“You don’t wear a size 11 ski boot, dude,” he said.
As Stenson said, he’s seen it. Every day.
It’s that sort of differential between shopping blindly and asking for advice that pretty much sums up the importance of the local ski shop, those brick-and-mortar locations peppered throughout ski country in the Northeast, providing service and help that simply can’t be matched with the push of a few keystrokes.
Boot-fitting tops the list. But it’s also the look and feel of a helmet that you won’t find shopping online. There’s the good tuning job that modern skis require these days, a service you’re not going to find anywhere else but at a local ski shop.
Perhaps it’s a common misconception then that purchasing equipment online might tend to be a better deal. On the contrary, according to Stenson, whose father opened County Ski & Sport with its first location in Hanson, Mass., in 1970. In fact, Stenson maintains that most items at the local ski shop are relatively the same as online prices and that those local purchases come with the additional caveat of professional advice.
“I want to make sure they’re up to speed on everything, and I want to make sure a person is in the right equipment,” Stenson said.
All equipment purchased at Country Ski & Sport is serviced for free, but that’s only one of the truly unique values Stenson and his shops have provided skiers for more than a decade with its convenient leasing plan, which was born from the shop’s trade-in program.
“It became clear to me that if you start the leasing program, the consumer feels very much at ease with it,” Stenson said. “Sometimes even with the trade-in program, kids go through a growth spurt and you might go through a pair of boots in a season. So now they can just come in and swap it out.”
In 2012, Stenson got together with the former marketing director at Bretton Woods, and conversation merged into growing the sport. Stenson mentioned how in Colorado kids under 12 would ski free with a special pass. Thus, the junior lease program was created. Children 12 and under who purchase an annual lease from Country Ski & Sport also receive a season’s pass to the New Hampshire resort.
“It’s an added value and just for the mountain itself,” Stenson said. “I know people that purchased condos up there because of it. For them, it’s huge.”
Stenson declined to reveal how many leases his shop provides over the course of a year, but he did say that the season pass has helped with the growth of the program, seeing a 50-70 percent increase every year.
After that, you might even consider a visit to the ski shop like hanging out with an old friend.
There’s also the challenge of providing new skiers and riders with the right equipment for their particular skill level and comfort zone. That requires attending regional trade shows and in-store clinics with equipment representatives looking to educate on the latest in gear.
“It’s just a fun thing, something that we all have a great passion for and we spread that to the customer as well,” Stenson said.
Stenson calls such training sessions the “all hands-on-deck” meetings in order to provide the highest level of service that the ski shop can deliver.
“We spend a lot of time on training,” he said. “Quite a bit in the fall, because I’m particularly fussy about a person getting the right product.”
It’s also a learning cycle that never seems to stop. Stenson pointed out that Country Ski & Sport keeps records for all its customers, and recently noticed that almost every other customer was a new one being added to the system.
“That’s word of mouth and people sending their friends here because they trust what we do,” he said. “I think the ski industry in New England right now is doing very well. I think nationwide it’s a little bit flat, but in New England there’s a lot of enthusiasm, people getting out of the house and having a great time.”
Customers describing the service they received to others is key for the ski shop business to survive.
What is in the cards is service — the top reason why local skiers and riders should tend to favor local shops.
Ski local, shop local. Otherwise, you might be the next customer walking into a local shop with a pair of boots three sizes too big.
And when that happens?
“You solve it by selling them the right product,” Stenson said.
Good luck trying that online.