Knowledge, Fit and Service.
There are certain Facebook memes that never fail to grab my attention. One is, “When you buy from a Mom and Pop business, you're not helping a CEO buy a third vacation home. You are helping a little girl get dance lessons, a little boy get a team jersey, a mom or dad put food on the table, a local family pay a mortgage, or a student pay for college. Our customers are our shareholders and they are the ones we strive to make happy. Thank you for supporting small businesses.” Here's another one, with the same concept: “Did you know that if each of us spent $100 a year more on local businesses instead of chain stores, it would put an extra $3 million a year into our economy. Not only that, it would create thousands more jobs every year.”
Now, I can't vouch for the veracity of the statistics mentioned above, but the message is clear. Buying local, from small businesses, tends to keep your dollars local, and support neighbors, not corporations. And it's the big chain stores – places like Wal-Mart or Target – that also have an online branch that allow customers to make their purchases with a few clicks of the computer or a quick phone call. Which begs the question, “Why would anyone buy online?”
Taking that question even further, for the purposes of our blog, “Why would anyone buy their ski gear online?” Well, there are several answers, and they all have merit. Which is exactly why this is such a delicate issue.
It's also an age-old problem that's been around ever since stores started promoting mail-order catalogues in the late 1800s. As an avid cyclist who doesn't reside in the top 25 percent income bracket, I've struggled with this dilemma for decades. I love the guys at my local bike shops, and have always bought my bikes locally. After all, bicycles can be finicky machines, especially with technological advances like disc brakes and shocks, and often require maintenance. So not only do you want to develop a healthy rapport with your local bike mechanic, but you want to make sure his (or her) shop stays in business to tend to your service needs. And my guys have bailed me out countless times.
However, I've also found that I needed to strike a balance if I wanted to keep the family budget in the black, and if I wanted to stay married. I did a fair amount of my own work on my rigs, and found the best deals I could on bike parts and my cycling clothing. Oftentimes, those “best deals” were online (which I rationalized, knowing how expensive divorce can be).
Some shop owners, when they noticed that I was sporting a new helmet or a new pair of cycling shoes, would often make some wisecrack. When I asked them to cut me some slack, they'd say, essentially, “Give us a chance to match the price.” But when I did, they'd complain that they couldn't come close, due to overheard, staffing, etc. So it became something of an awkward detente, where I'd ask for a “price match” only if I thought the shop could compete. Otherwise I'd just make my online purchases furtively, justifying that decision with the knowledge that I'd still patronized my local shops when possible.
Likewise, I've always made it a point to buy my ski gear locally (except a pair of Rossignol Hellgate telemark skis I snagged on clearance for my ill-advised backcountry career). But I'm lucky. Living near Boston, I have a number of superb ski shops within a short drive, including one in the town next door.
One New England chain (which, sadly, closed its local store) offered a guarantee – if you didn't love the equipment you purchased, you could return it during the same season for full store credit. I remember that well, because that guarantee provided the assurance I needed to jump back into the sport after a long hiatus, despite being saddle with some hefty college debt.
That's what I did. I loved the skis and the poles, but the boots never quite felt right.
“No problem,” said a fresh-faced salesperson, without hesitation, all those years ago. “We'll replace them.”
Of course, that's a big part of what you're paying for at a retail shop – customer service.
“You get a personalized service by coming to a brick and mortar retail store,” said Nicholas Morrone, a floor leader with the Patagonia store in Boston. “Sales associates at these shops are more likely than not out using and testing gear regularly, and can speak to certain pros and cons from personal experience.
“We often have customers come in with a specific product in mind, but after talking with them about what they are looking to use it for we often steer them towards a different product that will better suit their needs,” said Morrone. “When looking to get new equipment, going to an actual shop is my go-to.”
Peter Ellinwood Sr. of S&W Sports in Concord, NH, said local shops train their salespeople to take the mystery out of the buying equation, explaining to customers just how different skis handle in different circumstances, over a wide variety of terrain.
“Like any expensive consumer product, skis are loaded with design elements and features,” said Ellinwood. “Understanding how, how well, how often, and where a person likes to ski is important in order to recommend a model they’re likely to enjoy. At S&W, we pride ourselves on asking good questions and listening.”
In the same vein, Dylan Lavoie, a partner at The Ski Monster in Boston, said spending time in a dedicated ski shop is “super helpful.” A variety of skis can be marketed to do the same thing, or might seem similar on paper, but perform quite differently, he said.
“While shape, length, profile, and flex are important, the nuances in construction and lay-up can really change where the ski is going to perform better,” said Lavoie. “Understanding what the skier likes, doesn’t like, where they want it to perform, and what they want it to feel like will ensure a better time for everybody.”
Plus, many local shops offer lease or rental programs, or even demo packages, that allow customers to sample a variety or skis and boots without making the full commitment of purchasing the gear outright. And the good news, said Morrone, is that the future looks promising for local ski shops.
“The 'core' shop seems to slowly be making a comeback,” said Morrone. “Smaller shops are a great place to build relationships and connect with local community.
“This seems to be a trend across the board with retail,” he said. “For example Mom and Pop music shops are making a comeback as more and more people are realizing the importance of having an individualized experience.”
So why is buying online still so popular? First and foremost, buying online is generally cheaper. Needless to say, in this day and age when the effective buying power of most of us has flat-lined, saving money is appealing.
For example, when about the best skis for traditional New England boilerplate, Ellinwood responded: “For scalpel-like cutting on hard-pack, you’ll want a top-of-the-line frontside model from Germany or Austria. But check your credit limit, ‘cause you’re looking at $1,100 or more.”
If you're a dedicated skier, hoping to build a “quiver” of skis (and boots) for a variety of conditions, the cost can get quite steep quite quickly. So, clearly, price is a major factor. But there's more … literally. Online stores typically have a far greater selection.
“While price is important, and it’s easier to find the best price online, cost isn’t the only reason to buy online,” said Ben Rabinowitz, a sales advisor with 2Backcountry.com. “When shopping online the assortment to choose from is almost limitless – you can find any type of ski, in any size, length, shape, or design you want.
“But if you’re brand new to skiing, or indecisive, the endless options can be intimidating,” said Rabinowitz. “That’s where shopping online can actually help you, as there are numerous buying guides, Ski 101, reviews, and community forums to read and learn from. While you could learn most of the information from a rep in a store, it’s much easier to learn at your own convenience.”
That last point, most sale experts would agree, is at least debatable. There is something to be said for shopping from the convenience of your couch, without any pressure to buy. Conversely, many believe there's no substitute for a truly knowledgeable salesperson, in the flesh, who can patiently answer your questions, without making you search for the answers. That said, the better online shops are investing in developing experienced staffs.
“If you can demo skis at your local resort, that’s a great option to determine which skis you like best,” said Alex Quitiquit, ski buyer for Backcountry.com. “But if you are looking to buy, our Gearheads have deep, intimate knowledge around the brands and types of gear work best for any skier. Buying your own gear is the best way to get the best performance product and avoid the wait and limited selection at the rental shop.
“When it comes to finding the best ski equipment for the season, it truly depends on the type of skier you are and what kind of skiing you're most interested in,” said Quitiquit. “A lot of our favorite brands – such as Blizzard, Atomic, Salomon, and DPS skis – offer different ski shapes, constructions and flex patterns that cater to all different skiing styles.”
Which brings us to another way to save. Many online shops have enormous warehouses, allowing them to carry not only more current stock, but stock from previous seasons as well.
“A great way to find ski equipment that won’t crush your wallet is to look for gear still available from last season,” said Quitiquit. “While this season’s product is the new and improved, the best deals can often be found on last year’s equipment.
“Shopping online at stores like Backcountry.com allows for accessibility to these last season’s offerings, as well as a wide selection of this year’s best product in a variety of sizes and colors that you can’t find at your local shop,” he said.
Another factor in deciding between shopping retail or online is the level of customer knowledge. This is true when purchasing bikes and bike gear, and holds true for skis and related equipment.
“Online is a great place to go if you know exactly what it is you are looking for,” said Morrone. “For someone just getting their feet wet, they're much better of coming into a brick and mortar location.”
Even online representatives understand that some customers are simply more comfortable buying gear that they can actually see and touch and bring home with them. And in some instances, they even encourage it. For Rabinowitz, that exception is ski boots.
“I highly recommend people purchase boots from a qualified boot-fitter,” said Rabinowitz. “Sure, a beginner on a budget may not have the need right away to invest in proper boot fitting, but anyone remotely serious about their skiing should get their boots fitted properly.
“That’s not to say you can’t purchase boots online, but there are so many nuances to boot design and individual foot anatomy that it’s worth seeing an expert,” he said. “Some boot fitters offer comfort guarantees or free boot work if you purchase the boot there, and that's great. But if they don’t have those sorts of incentives, it may still be worth your money to just have an evaluation.”
Finally, don't forget that there's a third option for skiers – buying from other outdoor enthusiasts through the World Wide Web, on sites like Facebook, Craig's List, or even eBay.
“There is a huge online community of people buying and trading gear on the internet,” said Morrone. “I'm a member of several Facebook groups where people sell their used gear, usually at a super reasonable price.
“Riders selling gear to other riders, you can’t' beat that,” he said. “These groups are usually down with helping you sort out any questions or concerns about gear or equipment as well.”
Just remember, you'll always want that local shop for a last minute stone grind, tune-up, or repair. So be sure to spread the wealth.
Image: Boston Ski & Tennis.
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