By  on July 25, 2007

Let it snow — early.

That's the hope of businesses catering to the ski crowd this winter. Whether isolated bad luck or the result of global warming, last year's light, late snow season in much of the country served as a wake-up call for skiwear manufacturers and retailers who are discovering the dramatic downside of hyperspecialization. Many of the dozen ski-centric stores WWD surveyed suffered their worst season in years, with some reporting retail sales dips of more than 30 percent. The lone bright spot: the luxury sector, in which high-end specialty stores in resort towns are coming off a strong year, success they attribute to the fashionable merchandise that translates well off the mountain, as well as to a base of consumers whose buying habits are not tied to local snow conditions.

Tom Bowers, owner of Tommy Bowers Ski in Vail, Colo., and Performance Ski in Aspen, Colo., says his businesses rarely suffer from weak snow years, and that he has increased his open-to-buy 10 percent for the upcoming season. "We don't find drops in sales from lower snow falls," Bowers said. "The people who come to our shop don't necessarily have to ski 100 days to warrant buying an outfit. Just the thought of skiing is worth buying a few outfits." Bowers invests about half his buy into "stuff that is functional on the hill and is also fashionable around town," such as Moncler, Post Card of Italy, Matador and Prada. "The idea that we sell winter clothing that works back home in New York City or in Des Moines, Iowa, is one reason we continue to do well despite lower snow years," he said.

For Newport, Vt.-based Bogner, meanwhile, where the standard ski jacket wholesales from $400 to $700, but can go as high as $4,000 for a jacket with a removable sable fur collar, sell-throughs of Bogner goods at stores last season were up 10 percent; its initial sales going into next season are already up 15 percent, before reorders, which typically take place in November and February. "As someone really in the high-end market, our retailers sell way before Christmas, before people realize what type of winter they will get," said Peter Born, president of Bogner of America.That said, Bogner is taking considerable measures to cope with the threat of global warming. Sportswear offerings now make up 20 percent of its merchandise, a component Bogner expects to reach 50 percent in the next three to five years. But the firm is not just focused on the bottom line. "Whether what we experienced this year is because of global warming, I can't judge. But the overall picture shows global warming is definitely an issue," said Born. "We started thinking about this fact years ago, and we started a program internally because we believe everyone can do something about this issue."

For example, Bogner gives its employees $500 if they purchase fuel-efficient cars, and the company recently designed a limited edition jacket (shown on page one). The jacket is technically a ski coat, but fashionable for daily wear, and 10 percent of the revenues will go to Al Gore's "The Climate Project."

Boulder, Colo.-based Spyder also enjoyed strong growth last year, according to the North American director of sales Jeff Sale, who reports that bookings are up 30 percent over last year. Nevertheless, regional sales were impacted by the amount of snow. According to Sale, business in the Rockies and Northwest, which had strong snow, were vibrant, while the Northeast, upper Midwest and eastern Canada suffered weaker snow and thus poorer sales.

Weather-related deficiencies were mitigated by cross-regional sales facilitated by, and, Sale said, by the firm's strong reputation among retailers. "There's always some place with good snow," said Sale. "In those areas where it is difficult, the strength of our brand carries us through. When stores make their buy, they will invest in the brands that they know will sell through, and the smaller brands are the last to be bought."

Erin Snow, whose ski jackets wholesale from $350 to $600, is one such smaller brand. According to founder Erin Isakov, all of the firm's merchandise can do double-duty off the slopes. In addition, it's launching a sportswear collection for winter.

"We've had a twofold experience this year," said Isakov. "Our existing retailers, which are top-end retailers carrying luxury ski brands, weren't as affected by the weather because it's early in, early out. Their customer is one who doesn't wait until she needs something — she buys it when she sees something she loves."On the other hand, picking up new accounts, stores that sell a mix of high- and midtier brands, those retailers were really hardest hit, and we haven't been able to open many new accounts because of the weather. Those retailers are sitting on so much stock from last season that they will just be selling that, cutting back existing accounts and definitely not adding new vendors."

One line has already dropped out of the winter lineup. Orders were too small to justify production, so Ellesse put its luxury ski line, which relaunched after a decade-long hiatus, on hold until 2008.

Retailers focusing on midpriced lines have also found rough going. Sundown Ski & Surf in Levittown, N.Y., which saw its margins fall 30 to 40 percent, will return last year's basic stock to the floor, according to buyer Heather McVicar. Danzeisen & Quigley, a ski store in Cherry Hill, N.J., saw even more stunning decreases in sales — a full 50 percent — and as a result cut this year's open-to-buys by the same amount. The store will also return unsold inventory to the floor. "There were not enough customers to know if it's last year's [product] or not," buyer Gretchen Quigley said ruefully.

Jackson Dill, the owner of Sportif Ltd. in Greenwich, Conn., concurs. "I've had this business for 25 years, and this is by far the worst season we've ever had," he said. "If it's 60 degrees Christmas week, you can run ads all day and people won't come in. When you don't have a winter until late January, there's not an immediate need for ski apparel. You get to a point in the season where you have to salvage somehow, some way, and put clothing on sale early, so our window is greatly diminished."

Sportif suffered a 28 percent drop in sales for winter, and initial open-to-buys this year are down 35 percent in clothing and more than 50 percent in hard goods. "One of the things you learn is you have to be very tight when you buy. We look for what customers responded to early [last year]," Dill said. "If next year is anything like this year, it will be devastating for this industry as a whole."

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