The smell of melting wax floats on the air as a creaking door opens. A warm, usually cramped, space sits before you. Kids are wobbling around in rental boots, men and women are drooling over the well-lit ski wall, the shop crew is speckled about talking boots, bindings, skis and outer layers.  A guy from the back shop gets handed skis to tune and a six pack for a tip. Welcome to a local, independent ski shop.

Each ski shop has its unique culture and specialties, but there always seems to be a similar essence.  Specialty ski shops are still integral parts of the outdoor industry, but many are questioning their place in the world of online shopping and the REIs of the world.

“It’s about the human experience.” That is the secret to a successful independent ski shop according to Martin Volken owner of Pro Ski and Mountain Service in North Bend, WA.  His store’s ethos is ‘authentic mountain culture,’ and it has served well since the shop celebrated its 25 Anniversary this last October.

The outdoor market has vastly changed since he opened his doors in the early 90’s. The retail landscape is mainly crowded with online giants like backcountry.com and big box stores like REI. If you can get skis delivered to your door these days, why take the time to go to a specialty retailer?

So, how have shops changed and evolved in this changing landscape? I spoke with three different professionals in the industry: Luke Morris, Ben Wallace, and Mike Yost. I value Luke’s input because after years in his shop, LB Snow, he moved on to work at Voile Backcountry Manufacturing, and currently, works with backcountry.com.  Ben runs the La Familia program for Evo, which partners with specialty retail stores in the outdoor industry.  Mike manages Martin Volken’s iconic ski shop Pro Ski and Mountain Service.

From Local Shop to Online Giant

Let’s begin with Luke; he knows all sides. Growing up in Breckenridge, Co Luke started tuning skis as a freshman in high school. After college Luke tuned skis in his basement. Eventually, he and his roommate, David Bosler, created LB Snow in Missoula, Montana.  Luke left his business in Missoula moving to head up the sales department at Voile and now landed at backcountry.com

From their basement, Luke and David made a successful ski shop, split board shop

Luke Morris tuning at LB Snow in the Spring of 2014. Photo by Hilary Morris
Luke Morris tuning at LB Snow in the Spring of 2014. Photo by Hilary Morris

, and backcountry shop. As I spoke with Luke, he continually came back to one primary element—it’s all about the customers.  Luke himself grew up finding the best online sales and scrounging together pro deals. The community needs a shop aware of that client.  His passion was tuning skis over retail—hands on working with customers.  Above what he did and sold was a culture, an attitude. He explains his shop as the blue collar side of the ski industry; he was the everyman’s laborer.  “I wasn’t finding very welcoming shops; there was a lot of attitudes. We wanted a space where everyone felt comfortable from the mom outfitting her kids to the avid backcountry skier and split boarder.”

Rather than pushing away online purchasers Luke and David created their business around that consumer. Luke says their success came by establishing a strong customer base. Once they created relationships, customers trust his business and spread the word.  Incidentally, that is now Luke’s job at backcountry.com. He creates a customer base so a consumer can have a personal relationship with an online company.   As I spoke with Luke, he expressed how specialty retailers embody and indeed drive the culture, in this case, skiing and riding culture.

La Familia and Evo

Like backcountry.com, the online outdoor landscape is also propelled by Evo. For me, living in Washington, Evo is a household name.  Washington, on its accord, between Evo and REI, is a driving cultural force in the outdoor industry. Evo created the program La Familia. They partner with specialty retailers in different communities. Customers have their goods delivered to a local shop rather than their home. They also can order from an Evo kiosk at these local stores.  LB Snow is a partner, and Pro Ski and Mountain Service just joined the program this fall.

evo Seattle Photo from evo.com
Evo Seattle Photo from evo.com

I asked Ben about the motivation behind the program. “A big inspiration for creating La Familia came from witnessing the high percentage of customers requesting to buy online at evo.com, and pick up in-store at one of our locations in Seattle, Portland, and Denver. Through this we’ve learned that customers choose to pick up in-store for many reasons, including secure shipping, ability to try on and get fit questions answered, have product service work done, and receive the in-person experience and service that is missing from an online only transaction.” It’s the human interaction, the connection, the culture we seem to crave in outdoor shops.

At Evo, they believe working with small specialty retailers is a great way to serve the customer.  Learning about and understanding new products is hard to do online, but easy while chatting in a shop.  For the next generation in this industry, Evo sees a necessity to partner with shops for the benefit of the customer and the industry.

Ben continues to explain, “We see a strong need for both online and specialty retail, with each side able to offer something to the customer that the other side can’t. Evo can provide an online experience that many of our partners can’t, and our partners can offer the in-person experience in areas where we can’t. Both are important to the customer.” What I believe Luke and Ben both hit on is an acceptance and excitement about the evolving industry.  Rather than bemoan online shopping as the death of the small business, they both believe that small business and online business have a part in this industry.  Of course, the advent of online shopping and big box stores has hurt a lot of small businesses. Like most things in this world, it is better to move forward and create something new.

The local ski shop: Pro Ski and Mountain Service

This brings us back to Pro Ski and Mountain Service in North Bend, WA.  Martin Volken started this business in Seattle in 1991.  With 25 years of business and an addition of a guiding service, it has stood up to the evolving ski industry. Martin himself is a household name in the ski and mountaineering community.  Again, as much as Evo and REI are driving forces in the culture, this small shop has a key place. In this small ski shop and those around the country like it, there is an authenticity that cannot be ignored.  Large stores can drive the culture. It begins and is cultivated in the small local gathering space that lives and breathes what they sell.

Pro Ski and Mountain Service in North Bend, WA with Mt. Si covered in snow in the background. Photo Credit Hilary Morris
Pro Ski and Mountain Service in North Bend, WA with Mt. Si covered in snow in the background. Photo Credit Hilary Morris

Mike Yost, who manages the shop, gives insight into the success of this small business. Other than horrible snow years, the business has been growing for the past 25 years, even as the market has vastly changed.  He attributes a lot of this to their backcountry niche.

With the popularity of backcountry continually growing, Mike sometimes wonders if it is a bubble.  Mike notices, though, anyone who gets out there and starts skiing and split boarding in the backcountry gets hooked.  It doesn’t seem like a trend that is going anywhere.

Mike explains it well, “alpine skiing is easy [to understand], backcountry ski touring is nuanced.”  There is only so much you can learn online about the aspects of touring.  Skins are hard to decide on and have a bad reputation, tech bindings are bizarre, not to mention the wall of touring boots to choose from.  Then, of course, you have transceivers, books for route planning, and different types of tech clothing.  It is hard to even to understand what goes into ski touring, let alone get outfitted for it, without a shop.  A lot of ski shops focus on alpine skiing. Martin and Mike make sure their employees are knowledgeable about backcountry gear.

In the end, it also comes down to culture.  Both Martin and Mike present an attitude of stoke and excitement for the outdoors whether you are renting your first ski set up or have been avid in the backcountry for years.  They focus on being the community ski shop, while also being the backcountry specialty store in Washington.  People come into the store and feel comfortable enough to ask the basics. They also know they will get answers for the intricacies of the industry.

The small store is about having the niche, but also the culture and the atmosphere.  As Luke says, it is not a place where you should be getting an attitude.  What makes these stores special is their knowledge plus their acceptance of all customers.

These three guys encouraged me about the direction of the industry.  The online world of sales will always be prevalent and a threat to small businesses.  There is a way for these two pillars of the industry to have a symbiotic relationship.  I think the threat pushes small stores to be drivers of the culture, and it also asks big online retailers how best they can serve their customer.  Either way, it all comes down to what Martin Volken tag-lined during his stores recent anniversary. It’s about authentic mountain culture.

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