A Tale of Two Seasons: Spring/Summer Is THE Time to Upgrade Your Skis
by Chris Weiss
The simple, age-old answer for finding the best prices on skis and hard goods is to shop later in the ski season and into the off-season. Manufacturers have minimum advertised price agreements with retailers that typically extend into mid-February. So during an average season, prices start dropping from mid-February on. From there, end of season clearance sales, summer tent sales and preseason Labor Day blowouts push prices near or over 50 percent off retail.
Of course, timing your buy isn’t just a matter of time of year; it’s a matter of the year itself. La Nina’s bipolar disposition in major destinations like Colorado, Utah and Lake Tahoe over the past two seasons has made for an interesting case study in ski equipment supply and demand.
The 2010-2011 season lasted into mid-summer at several resorts around North America, and major destinations like Snowbird and Squaw Valley shattered all-time snowfall records. In a word: epic.
‘Epic’ extended to the retail season as well. According to the Snowsports Industry Association, the season was the best in history for ski retail, bringing in $3.3 billion in overall sales. In fact, retailers had such a good sales year that sales were plunging uncharacteristically in February and March, not because of late-season disinterest or lack of snow, but because inventories were ravaged. With a powerful demand fueled by a long, snowy season and limited supply, retail selling prices on equipment remained strong throughout the season, ending March up by 8 percent at specialty ski shops.
“It was just the perfect storm for us last year,” Phil Pugliese (left), salesman and product tester for Start Haus in Truckee (and resident Epic gearu), said. “We had really good traffic at our shop. We were sold out of powder skis by Christmas time. This year was the complete opposite.”
Pugliese wasn’t exaggerating. While a few regions have escaped La Nina’s scorn, the 2011-12 season has been everything that 2010-11 was not– dry, warm and downright miserable for skiing. In Utah, late March was skiing like May, slushy slopes peppered with dirt, rocks and bushes.
Not surprisingly, ski equipment sales have deteriorated slowly and steadily throughout the season. Late summer into fall 2011, the season outlook was solid. Excitement for another La Nina year was carried over, but 2011 equipment was not. Carryover equipment was at its lowest level in four years at ski shops, and carryover sales dropped 19 percent, pushing retail selling prices up 6 percent. With the limited selection of leftover sales equipment, more buyers were buying brand-new, fully priced gear.
From that strong start, sales gradually began reflecting the “it’s really not coming, is it?” nature of the season. Prices remained strong through the early season, based on the lower inventories of older gear, but started slipping in December and plummeted in January, when it was no longer a matter of a slow start, but a bad season. From December to January, Internet retail selling prices on ski equipment flip-flopped from up by 5 percent to down by 10 percent, as online retailers started pushing sale items. Slope conditions didn’t really improve in February or March, and neither did sales. Overall snow sports sales slid 12 percent in February, and specialty shop alpine equipment inventories bulged by 42 percent.
“This is probably the best time for consumers ever,” SIA’s Executive Research Director Kelly Davis told us, “at least in the last five years. There are some deals to be had, that’s for sure. If it’s looking like spring conditions in March, then prices are going to tank, and that’s definitely what we’re seeing this season. Retailers need cash flow; they’re going to move that stuff so they can switch over to the product that makes money.”
Large end-of-season inventories should ensure a surplus of carryover equipment, equating to big sales and low prices into the early season. If you need new ski equipment, now is the time to start looking.
“I think there will be an overflow of equipment this year into next year,” Pugliese predicted. “I think, come September and October, there will still be leftover product.”
Pugliese said that other shops he’s talked to have echoed the same sentiments and they’re expecting a big influx of carryover around the country. That should be particularly true in hard hit regions like the Northeast and Rockies, and it should keep prices consumer friendly until the snow starts falling next year.
Once the season gets underway, the forecast is as much a question mark as the weather. Davis predicted orders for next season will be down 20 percent or more, creating tighter inventories of new equipment. Even with the robust carryover from this season, a return of winter could cause supply strains.
“If we have another excellent snow season, and retailers are able to get rid of a lot of carryover just by doing closeout sales, it’s going to be a real interesting time around January of next season, if you’re looking for something specific,” Davis said, explaining that the large amount of out-of-market manufacturing in the industry limits many manufacturers’ abilities to execute mid-season production runs. “If you’re a consumer and you’re picky, and the weather gets good, you better get what you want before December rolls around.”
According to a recent Denver Post article, the record-low seasons of 1976-77 and 1980-81 were followed by above-average seasons in Colorado. The newspaper says this year rounds out the worst three snow seasons “in most every U.S. resort region,” so if history holds, next season could be quite snowy, keeping inventories low and prices high.