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A Mild Winter Rains on Valley Ski Shops’ Parade

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The late-winter snows topping local mountains brought a much-needed boost to San Fernando Valley-area ski shops, but not enough to make up for a disappointing season.

The months of dry weather forced stores to offer early discounts on skis, snowboards and other items just to move inventory. And with spring just a month away, retailers say shoppers are in no mood to shell out big money for new gear.

“This is not going to be a profitable year,” said Ken Demaret, owner of Ski & Snowboard Liquidation Center in Van Nuys.

“The joke in our industry is that we are all snow farmers,” said Demaret, a 27-year veteran of ski equipment retailing. “If the weather doesn’t work, then nothing works.”

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Demaret blames the mostly dry winter for a 30% to 40% drop in sales at his 3,500-square-foot store. Even so, the season’s late blast provided a boost, especially over the long Presidents Day weekend.

“It was one of the craziest weekends we’ve ever had,” said Mark Richards, co-owner of Val Surf, the four-store, independent Valley-based chain that stocks ski and snowboarding equipment, alongside surf and skate boards.

On the Friday morning of the long weekend, a dozen eager shoppers were waiting outside Val Surf’s North Hollywood store when it opened at 9 a.m. The crowds were steady all day, Richards said.

Other retailers had similar experiences.

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“It felt like three days before Christmas. It was a frenzy,” said Claude Swonger, owner of Ski Net, a specialty shop in Studio City. (Big sellers: new shaped skis marked down to $350 to $550 a pair. He also sold half of Ski Net’s entire stock of goggles.)

Oshman’s Sporting Goods, which has a store in Canoga Park, also has seen a late-season surge, according to the Houston-based chain’s president, Alvin Lubetkin. But rather than buying hard goods, shoppers have mostly been picking up marked-down ski apparel and accessories.

“It’s late in the year, and most people think there’s no sense in investing in big-ticket equipment,” Lubetkin said. “Overall, it was not a good season.”

Lubetkin said one of the peculiarities of selling winter sports equipment is that slashing prices doesn’t have a great effect on demand if the weather isn’t cold and there’s little snow. “There’s not much you can do,” he said. “If they’re not skiing, they’re not buying it.”

Some retailers aren’t giving up. Sportmart, for example, normally clears out winter sports gear by the end of February. Not this go-round.

“We’re going to hang on for another couple of weeks extra because the season had such a late start,” said Randi Axelrod, a merchandise manager at the Canoga Park store. And the outlet will keep a small amount of stock longer than that.

Chains that dominate winter sports equipment selling in Southern California may especially feel the pinch because their customer base includes a large number of the less committed beginning or occasional skiers. However, most sell a broad range of sporting goods, so they’re not dependent on any particular type of merchandise.

In any case, Oshman’s Lubetkin said the retail chain will order less winter sports stock upfront next season--around 25% less. That way even with an average season, it will be able to make money, Lubetkin said. He said leftovers on shelves are only worth 50 cents on the dollar.

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“We need to get smarter,” Lubetkin said. “We have to buy like it’s not going to snow.”

Lubetkin hopes this tactic will help Oshman’s manage the risk of an industry whose fortunes ebb and flow with the whims of Mother Nature and the public’s taste.

Jim Spring, president of Leisure Trends Group, a Boulder, Colo.-based market research firm, said the $2.2-billion retail winter sports equipment and accessoriesindustry has been growing at a 3% to 4% annual rate for the last few years. But much of that increase flows from higher prices of skis, boots and bindings, plus growth in snowboarding, the industry’s chief growth segment, he said.

Snowboarding primarily appeals to males in their teens and 20s, who have formed a subculture with its own slang and dress code. But some retailers insist it’s catching on with a broader population because of technical improvements that are making it easier. In Southern California, snowboarding is particularly popular as an outgrowth of skateboarding.

Interest in skiing isn’t what it used to be. Many local retailers reflect fondly on the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when hitting the slopes was the rage among baby boomers. But by the late 1980s, the public’s enthusiasm for skiing began tapering off, a reflection, in part, of the aging population.

(The number of skier days in the U.S. is around 51 million and has remained flat for 15 years, according to the National Ski Areas Assn.)

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The recession of the early 1990s was a further blow to local ski merchants. Many former enthusiasts could no longer afford the pricey sport, and here, in perennial sunshine land, there were plenty of less expensive alternatives.

“Nobody has to go skiing,” observed Bob Bergstrom, owner of Sports Ltd, a 6,500-square-foot shop on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills.

A shakeout already underway among local ski merchants here accelerated with the departure of several longtime retail establishments in the Valley.

But those few independents that remain in the Valley claim business is good--some say better than ever--despite recent trends.

“We’re having one of the best years we’ve ever had, even in a bad snow year,” said Sports Ltd’s Bergstrom, who at one time owned seven ski shops in the area.

Bergstrom said Sports Ltd is successful because it caters to the most ardent winter sports enthusiasts. His customers want the latest and best merchandise, and often travel out of state to pursue their passion for the sport.

“They will find the snow,” Bergstrom said.

Bergstrom also said that recent technical improvements such as new shorter, lighter and wider skis are helping to stimulate interest in skiing again.

“It’s like tennis racquets and golf clubs. When they went oversized, it got a lot easier,” he said. Sports Ltd also tries to make sure its sales clerks are well-trained, knowledgeable pros, which differentiates them from the help at chains, they say.

Likewise, Ski Net’s Swonger said its extra service that brings in customers to his 600-square-foot shop specializing in hard goods.

This year has been “as challenging as any year I’ve had,” he said, but he keeps momentum by maintaining ties with ski instructors and other specialists. Customers who want to make the most of their time on the slopes turn to him for advice.

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“They seek people like me out,” he said. “They have the money to pay for it and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Swonger, a die-hard skier who closes his shop each Wednesday to hit the slopes, sometimes takes a few customers along. It’s a way of generating enthusiasm, he said.

“As any marketer will tell you, the easiest customer to take care of is not a new one but the one you already have,” he said.


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