Many Davids vs. Few Goliaths

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: December 26, 2016

Several times a month I receive brief but impassioned pleas to cover a small-batch ski maker who has won the heart of an apostle who hopes to inspire a similar fervor in others. My explanation for why their prayer for coverage in Realskiers is likely to go unanswered goes like this:

To be reviewed, I need to see test cards. Test cards come from ski shops; ski shop personnel go to trade fairs and occasional brand-specific outings. So of course most cards are about major brands, although this isn¹t always the case. I attempt to cover small-batch brands with a reputation for quality that also try, and to some extent succeed, to penetrate the US specialty shop distribution.  (See: Kästle, Stöckli, Faction & Black Crows.)

If brands are only viable selling to consumers online, I’m less interested in supporting them as they subtract from the customer base specialty shops need to survive. No more specialty shops, no more professional bootfitting, no more skiing as we know it.

I concede this sounds apocalyptic, but as a wise man once said, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get me.” There are an astounding number of small brands, many of which manufacture their own skis. My friend Rob Furtney, the regional Head rep, has been keeping an informal count that now numbers 35 “microbrew” brands. I thought this was a large number until I visited exoticskis.com, where they list 379 brands they qualify as “exotic,” i.e., non-mainstream.

small-brand-bundle

Just the tip of a very large iceberg of small-batch ski makers.

The Exotic Skis number covers all ski genres known to man and include some models with a brief and inglorious history, but even distilled to those with some commercial viability, it remains a staggering figure. If the top ten independents sell an average of 25,000 pairs a year, the next ten sell 10,000, the next 20 sell 5,000 and another 20 sell 1,000, the microbrew market would be roughly equal in size to the U.S. market sales for the top 10 major alpine brands with established distribution among specialty retailers.

That’s a big bite of the whole enchilada. Even if these figures are inflated, small-batch producers have carved out a considerable chunk of the worldwide ski market, a chunk the major brands dearly miss.

Skis sales through retail channels have shrunk dramatically over the last 25 years, eroded by the advent of snowboarding, the loss of mass market outlets, the rise of rental and demo in lieu of purchase, airline baggage charges, the disappearance of convenient feeder areas and a whole slew of economic pressures on the middle class that has priced participation in the sport out of reach.

The proliferation of small-batch producers and their cumulative impact on sales belongs somewhere near the top of this list.

If this sounds like I’m picking on the little guys and sticking up for brands owned by The Man, it’s because, while sentiment is all on the side of the underdog, most skiers don’t realize that so-called major brands are under a lot of stress, which is a problem for all brands. This quote from Line and JSkis founder Jason Levinthal, cited in an article on Elevation Outdoors, eloquently makes this point.

“Big brands are definitely critical to any industry. Big brands can efficiently communicate a new message—whether product or direction of your sport—worldwide with the most credibility and trust. Big brands reach the mainstream consumers that otherwise may not be aware of the smaller micro brew style brands that don’t have the bandwidth to reach as many people,” said Jason Levinthal, the iconic founder of Line and current operator of JSkis.

Levinthal is a perfect example of why small-batch brands are also important to the overall health of the market. The best of them are incubators of innovation, introducing new ideas such as, in Levinthal’s case, skiboards and twin-tips. Line is the most recent brand to make the transition from cooking skis in the kitchen to ownership by a major brand and the concomitant boost in sales and market presence.

Another notable example of a small brand having a big influence on design is Armada, first to market a 5-point sidecut, a feature now found in almost every product line under the neologism, “tapered tip.” Armada was also savvy to have their skis made by a well-capitalized major manufacturer (Atomic and later Blizzard and Head), assuring a level of quality control that is often elusive in a small atelier.

Line and Armada are now major brands with a strong retail presence as well as a robust online business. Kästle and Stöckli have limited distribution, but their extraordinary devotion to quality has engendered deep support in those pockets where they’re found. Faction and Black Crows are both 10-year olds going through a growth spurt, earning an international following that, should it keep growing, will transform these once renegade brands into members of the mainstream.

But most small-batch brands are just that, small. They often lack the resources to service retail accounts, even if they wanted to. This is the case with Renoun, an interesting ski maker from Vermont that trailed a toe in the retail waters only to pull back, aware that, according to founder/owner/designer Cyrus Schenck, “The reality is: I don’t have the money it requires to effectively take care of those shops that deserve it. We realized sub-par support from us wasn’t good for any party involved (shop, customer or us).”

For a ski lover like me (and many of you, Dear Readers), this moment in Renoun’s young life crystalizes the most vexing aspect of the small-batch supplier contingent: how, in this dense thicket of brands, to find the gems that will drive future design innovation? Renoun’s Hyper Damping Technology™ could be such a breakthrough, but for now it’s a battle they’ll have to win one online customer at a time.

While hardly a cure for what ails America, I have a suggestion for how to address the information gap between independent skier and independent brand. At Realskiers.com we’re creating a test card app that will allow anyone to enter data on a ski and submit it to our database. We’ll post it on Realskiers as soon as it’s beta tested, shortly after the holidays.

P.S.: I’m sorry if I didn’t mention your favorite ski maker. In the spirit of Christmas, please forgive me. For every brand, there is a story, but it’s time for this tale to end, for now.

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