By  on January 30, 2008

Ski retail is looking up at last, thanks to plentiful snow in most resort communities.

As the SIA SnowSports Trade Show got under way Tuesday at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, skiwear companies and retailers were upbeat about the season following a tough time in the 2006-'07 season, when heat waves and late snows depressed sales nationwide. (For more on active sports brands, see page 15.)

Business has turned around for First Run in Stratton Mountain, Vt., according to retail buyer Cathy Messina. "We are going through record-breaking amounts of cold-weather gear," she said. "Spirit is up considerably. People are ready to buy because it's gotten cold. Christmas week is the week that makes us, but [in 2006] we lost Christmas week and you can never make it up."

Christmas week 2007 sales were up 76 percent over 2006, and the area has had a positive one-two punch of a great Christmas and a great Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend earlier this month.

Messina is doing particularly well with hats, gloves and long underwear, and for ski apparel, brands such as Burton, The North Face, Bogner, Marmot and Spyder are excelling. She always raises her open-to-buys by at least 3 percent — even after a season like last year's — and this year she is looking for bright colors, plaids and prints at SnowSports, which runs through Friday.

In Utah and Wyoming, snow also has been far better this season. At Cole Sport, in Park City, Utah, soft goods buyer Kathy Burke is "looking at a record year" after average sales there last season. "Snow hit hard right before the holidays and hasn't stopped since," Burke said. "We're very, very lucky."

Cole Sport sells European luxury lines such as Prada and Postcard, and the average jacket retails for $750.

Luxury resort ski shops Tommy Bowers Ski in Vail, Colo., and Performance Ski in Aspen, Colo., rarely suffer from weak snow years, and after Colorado's strong snow last year, the stores, both owned by husband-and-wife team Tom Bowers and Lee Keating, increased their open-to-buy by 10 percent. That's paid off so far this year, with more good snow, and the stores again plan to increase for next season."Since they've been keeping records in Aspen, it's the second biggest snow year of all time, and business is stronger for it," Keating said. "The Christmas crowd comes no matter what, but we are feeling an increase now in January, and I think we will continue for the rest of the season."

The stores' bestsellers include high-end lines Prada, Moncler and Matador; the average jacket retails for about $1,000. At ISPO in Munich, which began Sunday and ends today, Keating was looking for athletic looks in bright colors. "I'm so over sad colors," she said.

But, while ski stores based in resort communities selling luxury lines are thriving, mainstream-priced stores in local areas are sharing in the plight of retail as a whole.

Danzeisen & Quigley, a ski store in Cherry Hill, N.J., is still singing the retail blues, despite increased amounts of white. Last year, the store's sales fell a full 50 percent and, as a result, it cut this year's open-to-buys by the same amount. Even with better snow, women's sales this year held flat at last year's low levels. Danzeisen & Quigley had planned to return last year's unsold inventory to the floor this year, but immediately had to discount it.

"Women are paying the bills at home, so they will buy for themselves last and they will look for a sale," said buyer Gretchen Quigley, adding that she is holding her open-to-buys for next year flat at this year's lower level. At SIA SnowSports, she's looking for companies she can work with — for example, those that will take back unsold inventory. She also prefers companies that don't have their own e-commerce business.

"Ski retailing is changing before our eyes," Quigley said. "We've had snow in the areas, but retailing is changing so dramatically with people selling on the Internet at whatever price they feel like selling it at, it's making specialty retailing very difficult. For example, we sold a jacket yesterday, and then the customer came back because she found it on eBay for a quarter of the price. Manufacturers will sell anybody and everybody and then become a retailer, also, so we are in direct competition with them. We can't just be a showroom."

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