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.
“So much of the stuff that we all sell is interchangeable,” said Peter Kailey, owner of Sport Thoma Ski Shop, which boasts seven locations across New Hampshire. “But there are a couple of things that cannot be done online.
Boot-fitting tops the list for Kailey (“That’s the dumbest thing in the world, to try and buy ski boots over the Internet,” he said). 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.
“That’s how we ingratiate ourselves to people is by taking care of their problems,” Kailey said. “I mean, boot-fitting is probably the number-one problem. People without happy feet aren’t going to have a good weekend. We see that literally every weekend.
“Hopefully if we take care of people sufficiently in the service, then they will come to appreciate the fact that we do exist and they might consider helping us to exist.”
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.
“We see the same families every weekend, and I believe they’ve come to appreciate the fact that we’re here to take care of them,” Kailey said.
The dynamic of the ski shop is different at Sport Thoma than it might be at the more urban Country Ski & Sport. Kailey said that while both shops might provide similar types of service, it is the shops in the mountains that might have an advantage with the availability of demos on-site at the mountains. Country Ski & Sports also offers demos, but Kailey said he feels like the ability to provide the skis right at the ski areas is something that ski shops in the Boston area cannot provide as easily.
“I speak from the point of view from somebody at the ski areas, not from the point of a city shop,” Kailey said. “To be able to test skis … oh, my god, it’s huge.
“Those are all things that specialty retailers can do that the online world absolutely cannot. Sometimes I feel like we’re a dinosaur, but at the same time if there’s one word in all of this that is key, it’s service, because that’s the one thing that the online world has no concept of.”
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. Kailey pointed out during an interview in early January that the trade shows already were slated to begin in a matter of days.
“How scary is that?” he said. “We spend a lot of time and money checking out products to buy for the store.”
Kailey also said that there is a responsibility to provide customers with the utmost knowledge on the products the ski shop is selling, a level of trust that aims at the healthy prospects of skiing in New England.
“The entry-level customers are the ones most susceptible to all the propaganda,” Kailey said. “What we find is it’s word of mouth. We find what keeps us alive is somebody that we’ve taken care of. It flows that way, very organically.
“The new skiers are probably the ones who are the most challenging. The ski business is full of opinions. I think the ski business probably has more opinions than any other business I can think of.”
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.
“All we can hope for is that the general public has some basic appreciation for that stuff,” Kailey said. “We can’t afford to spend the kind of money in the advertising world to make an impact. That’s just not in the cards.”
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.