The winter season is all but over (at the time of writing this) and it’s fair to say that it has been way better than we could possibly have dreamt of back in the autumn. Shelves are cleaner, stock is lower, turnover has been healthy, business previously lost to the EU has been recaptured. All in all, we have relatively happy people. By Gordon Way.
Sadly this is not necessarily transferring through to confidence when it comes to buying. UK business as a whole lacks confidence and the boardsports industry is no different. Just where is Brexit going to take us? Just how low can the pound go? The impact on retail prices (everywhere) is now becoming evident and it is safe to assume that consumer confidence will continue to be hit. This translates through to the buyers who are being über-cautious.
So how are our retailers feeling?
I thought I should start with a certain Ross from Freeze Edinburgh who I bumped into at ISPO. You may recall that Ross does not (did not!) believe in attending trade shows. So what was he doing at ISPO? “I didn’t change my mind – although I guess you would say that I have – I still think that these trade shows are ‘swaggering’ exercises (Ross actually used another expression!) and there’s not a whole lot to be gained by seeing our established brands. But our business is undergoing massive growth and we need new brands. We need to be first to those brands – that’s why I went.”
Talking further to Ross I did not appreciate that he was, in fact, an ISPO Virgin – would he go back? “Nah. I don’t think so. One of the issues was that my time was taken up with loads of brands that I already do business with – and that’s not my intention. I can do all those from the comfort of my home with a good PDF catalogue.”
So apart from ISPO how has the season been? And we get Ross’s favourite description: “Banging. Absolutely Banging”. He continues in the same vein: “Amazing. No complaints. Next season will not be so easy but as long as we get parity pricing with the EU then I’m confident we will continue to grow.” What about surf? “Again we have had an insane winter season and we’re lining up to repeat last summer’s performance. Coming out of such a strong winter (for surf) we’re confident that summer will follow through.” Ever the optimist, with good reason, I leave Ross to it.
This time around, unusually, the phone calls appear to be a pleasure to make. So often you pick up the phone with a bit of dread expecting to hear how bad things are. Chris from Snowfit in Norwich may well be reaping some benefit from how bad things have been. “Snowboarding is stronger than it has been for a long time which could be put down to a number of reasons but we cannot ignore the fact that two of our major snowboard competitors have gone out of business.” Every cloud…“but the business is still 70/30 ski/board and it’s been pretty good overall with ski continuing to be steady all the way through the season. There’s only been about five weeks where we were either on par or a little down on the previous year and every other week has been up. Some significantly. So we’re happy.” What’s made it such a good season? “Strangely enough the stupid Brexit decision has certainly helped. The weak pound encouraged overseas sales whilst, at the same time, the home market remained buoyant.” How about the tail end of the season? “We’re a little later going into ‘sale’ mode this year – not by design – but it’s not adversely affected us at all and business is holding up well.”
Snowfit is a rare breed of shop in this day and age. Hitting their 20th birthday next year they are staying true to their roots as a pure winter sports shop. “We do not have a watersports or outdoorsy shift in the summer. We focus on the local dryslope and we also service customers in the Southern Hemisphere – that’s our MO and we‘re sticking to it,” Chris concludes.
Writing this article is always a bit of a struggle – mostly because when you call a store or a buyer they’re always busy and they don’t have time. That said, just about everyone will talk to you eventually. But trying to get hold of someone from one of the ‘giants’ in the industry is virtually impossible. This month I was lucky enough to catch up with Sam Taylor, Buying Manager at Surfdome. It’s no secret that Surfdome has gone through some pretty enormous changes in the past couple of years so how are things now? “It’s all good…mostly. We had a strong end to 2016 and whilst demand has been a little weaker so far this year the winter category is well up. We’ve also consolidated a lot pulling back from around 450 brands to 220, interestingly though if you look at the sales of these remaining brands then we are seeing positive growth. Our attention is focused on the hardware customer where we can achieve a higher sales value. By being more niche we will hopefully avoid what we see as the weaker mass market”.
What about the buy-in for next winter? “We’ve kept it tight and are not anticipating any huge growth. Everyone in the market is really uncertain about how the consumer is going to react to the price rises which, in some cases, are significant.”
“One area of focus is our headline sustainability effort focused around marine litter. We’ve now cut out almost all plastics from our own outbound packaging and use recycled cardboard, paper and gum tape for most packaging. The next stage is to work with suppliers and help them do the same. The bottom line is that our customers care, as do we, so we feel it’s important to promote and educate. If a product comes to us with green credentials then it is immediately of interest”.
Check out ‘The Plastic Project’ (plastic-project.com) it’s worth a look and is something we should all be passionate about.
Finally – I went wakeboarding last weekend – it was bloody cold. So I thought I’d dip my toe in the water and have a chat to Russ from Box End Park (one of the best cable parks in the UK). “Hibernation is almost over, the maintenance and repairs have all been carried out and we’re just waiting for the weather to break.” But you do run through the winter? “Yes we have a hard core of weekend riders but I cannot pretend it’s busy – the restaurant and bar are open which means that it is not a big deal to open the cable as well. Understandably momentum slowed when we had snow on the ground for three weeks – even the hardcore riders broke the habit. All that said, we’re optimistic for the season ahead and have a positive feeling that it’s going to be a good one.”
You know what? I think he is right. We’ve got lots to bitch and moan about in the UK and we can all bleat and bemoan (or not) about Brexit. But I have a feeling – it IS going to be a good one.