Tahoe/Truckee ski, board shops looking online
There are about a dozen online retailers nationwide who are cleared to sell K2 Sports equipment. Traditional outdoor powerhouses such as REI and backcountry.com stand out on the list in contrast to a local operation, described by its owner as a mom-and-pop shop – Porters Sports Lake Tahoe.
Most locals know Porters best for its locations in Tahoe City, Incline Village and Truckee. What they may not know is last winter, 40 percent of Porters’ revenue came from online sales, and owner John Chapman said this winter he hopes to get that number above 50 percent.
“The goal is to insulate yourself from the local weather,” said Chapman, while hanging out at an office near Porters’ warehouse at Truckee Tahoe Airport. “The goal is to have over half your business over the Internet, and use the stores here to warehouse the products.”
Like a lot of local business owners, Chapman saw Porters getting beat on prices early this decade when his family bought the company. Warehouses in places such as Minnesota could mark down prices and ship without ever needing to pay employees to run a live store, a huge competitive advantage.
So Chapman began thinking about a website.
In 2002, when Chapman took over Porters, business was done the old way. If you needed a pair of boots or a new board, you just came into the store.
“The major manufacturers didn’t want their product sold on the Internet, and a lot of it was to support individual retail,” Chapman said. “The industry didn’t want people selling online for multiple reasons, you couldn’t control it and you couldn’t have something like eBay, it just didn’t make sense.”
But, Chapman said, he kept his eye on Internet sales and figured one day it would be an investment Porters would make.
In 2004, he and other industry insiders watched as backcountry.com started to sell products online.
“I was like ‘yep, somebody’s made a break for it,'” Chapman said. “By ’04 we definitely needed to do a website, and by the Fall of ’06, we launched.”
The launch wasn’t that easy, quick or cheap, though. Chapman said Porters dropped six figures on updating the UPC codes in the locals stores, putting Truckee, Incline and Tahoe City on the same point of sales system.
“It was like, we needed to go from square one just at our stores to get ready for this,” Chapman said. But, he said, his biggest regret was waiting that long to open the online store. “I wish I would have done it in ’05.”
The changes didn’t happen overnight, and the costs keep coming. Chapman estimates Porters has half a million invested in the Internet since 2006.
“There are reasons why we have to spend the money, though, we had to do it right,” Chapman said. “When selling online became the thing the industry was really unhappy with the layout, design, functionality, they started putting the breaks on sellers who weren’t doing it right.”
The Web site is a blessing for both local customers and the company, Chapman said. One of Porters’ key Internet philosophies is to one-up their much larger competitors on selection.
“When you go to buy bindings at a major site, they might have a huge number of them, but they’re all in one or two colors,” Chapman said. “We carry all the colors so we can be the place to go for selection.”
How could Porters possibly house all that inventory? They found a solution in their brick-and-mortar, old-school business.
“When people go into Tahoe City they are amazed at how full of products it is,” Chapman said. “We could never sell all of that out of our stores, just couldn’t. So we use our stores as warehouses. It’s great for the person who lives in Tahoe City because we carry almost everything they need right at the store.”
The opposite is true for Tahoe Dave’s, the Lake Tahoe mainstay that focuses mainly on its rental department. Dave’s has seen a drop in in-store sales and made adjustments due to competition from online sellers. “Tahoe” Dave Wilderotter said he’s actually decreased his in-store inventory, selling less and renting more.
“The hard thing is we actually end up being the online supplier’s contact,” Wilderotter said. “People come in here to actually feel the product, then buy it online. So we cut back our buying a ton with the idea we only carry what people want, so that way we’re not forced to sell stuff.”
Wilderotter said Dave’s is taking the rental business online, allowing people to place reservations on equipment.
“We figured they are already online reserving hotel rooms and buying passes, why not renting?” Wilderotter said.
In addition to the airport warehouse, Porters stores and ships online products from the shelves of the three stores and the Dam Outlet in Tahoe City. Every morning managers are given a “pull list” of items to pull off the shelves and get ready for shipping.
To compete with the online giants, Porters price-matches and competes wherever possible.
“Basically we compete however we can,” Chapman said. “If you come in and tell us you found a better price on a product, we’ll match it. If you come in to Tahoe City and want a board we’ve got in Truckee, and really want it, we’ll get it to you. We’ll have someone from Tahoe City drive to the 7-Eleven at Squaw Valley Road and have someone from Truckee drive there to drop off the board, and you’ll have it that afternoon. If we can compete on price and give you better customer service there’s no reason to walk out the door looking for a better deal.”
Customer service is an area Porters, Dave’s and the Village Ski Loft in Incline say they all beat the online competition in. Like Dave’s, Village Ski Loft doesn’t sell product online.
“They have no service to offer, just cheap pricing,” said Mike Croke, owner of VSL. “We’ve definitely put a lot more emphasis on our rentals and service, and it all comes full circle. When people get into trouble with what they buy online when it isn’t right, they come to us to fix it.”
Alex Cohn, a 26-year old from Truckee knows he could go online for his snowboard this year, but decided to hit up the Village Ski Loft Labor Day tent sale in Incline last weekend to pick out his new Burton.
“I know that if I dig hard enough I could probably find a better price online, but to be honest, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort,” Cohn said. “I like going to a store or a sale, getting a feel for a board and checking with a dude who works there to see what he thinks. People work at those shops for a reason and I’d rather buy in person then end up like, ‘hey, this board is way stiffer than I want.'”
Dave Kolb, a 35 year-old from Carnelian Bay said he used to feel that way before 5-year old son Casper arrived. Now he’s an online bargain hunter.
“Man, I used to say I’d never buy online, I’m trying to keep my dollars local,” Kolb said. “Now I’ve got a family, so you better believe my son and I are surfing through the net to find a good deal on our new boards this year. With him growing every single year and needing new equipment, I can’t afford not to search out the best price – it’s just about my wallet, really.”
The price-matching game got ugly last year, Chapman said.
“We were getting killed on price matches, just killed,” he said. Buyers came in with prices on new equipment from online retailers early in the winter, forcing Porter’s to match prices with businesses who don’t employ an in-store workforce.
Croke said online competitors who dropped those prices did heavy damage to local retailers.
“When these guys are going way off price in December and January, it hurts us because you can’t survive in business on a very lean margin,” Croke said. “You can’t blame people for wanting the lowest prices, but the extreme price slashing is a problem that doesn’t have to be there.”
He said the price slashing got so bad local ski shops are demanding protection from major equipment manufacturers to crack down on retailers cutting their prices drastically.
That protection may be coming. With the help of a recent Supreme Court decision and a commitment from Burton Snowboards and K2, websites can’t start slashing prices on winter gear until early spring, shielding local businesses from early-season cuts to new products. The decision was rendered early this year.
Internet sales results, and the reality of running a site, mean Porters now employs a 10-person team at the Truckee airport warehouse, strictly to move product.
It also means a local name is getting some national and international credibility
“The state we ship the most to is New York after California,” Chapman said. “Those people will probably never see Tahoe.”
Visitors to the site stream in from countries around the globe, including France, Australia, the U.K. and Canada.
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