Nation’s Oldest Ski Shop Finding its Niche Online

Jan 10, 2012

Topic: Retail

The 2010-11 winter was a record setting season for mountain resort traffic, lift ticket sales and snow sports sales. Yet, when Lahout’s Country Clothing & Ski Shop chain reviewed results at its six stores in New Hampshire last year, there was some disappointment.

“Last year was a great season and we did a great number, but it still was not as good as our best year,” said Susan Lahout. “When we asked ourselves what was the difference, we decided it may be the fact that we did not have an online presence. The business had moved online.”

Joe and Ron Lahout responded by recruiting Susan from New York City, where she was working with a healthcare concierge service, to spearhead its e-commerce efforts. After taking the e-commerce reins of the 100-year-old business, Lahout’s is learning that the nation’s oldest continuously operating ski retailer does not have to compete head on with national e-commerce powerhouses to succeed online. In fact, the venture has helped buffer Lahout’s from the effects of the unusually dry and warm weather.

“We are very pleased with e-commerce sales we’ve had over the holiday,” said Susan. “It was like we had an additional brick-and-mortar store. We were actually beating some of our B&M stores sales. It is always snowing somewhere and that’s what I like about e-commerce. We had customers going to the Austrian Alps.”

Lahout’s success in e-commerce is an important one to share. About two-thirds of outdoor product sales that moved through the Outdoor Specialty channel in 2010 moved through independent retailers, according to Outdoor Industry Association VantagePointTM, the retail point-of-sale data reporting system. Yet, just 46.7 percent of the most profitable specialty retailers that responded to the 2011 OIA Retail Benchmarking Report sold online that year. With experts predicting e-commerce will increase its share of retail merchandise sales from 9 to 15 percent in the next three to five years, the reluctance of some independent specialty retailers to embrace e-commerce raises concerns.

Lahout’s, however, shows how independent specialty retailers can transition toward a multi-channel model on their own terms. Using software-as-a-service e-commerce solutions and social media, the retailer was able to launch and market its e-commerce site in a matter of months and market it relatively inexpensively.

If Lahout’s experience is any indication, the key for independents is to keep costs low and move gradually. Below are some useful examples of how Lahout’s has approached its online journey.

  • Improvise. Lahout’s does not even have a point of sales system. That means every time an online order comes in, Susan and her assistant have to track down the product in one of the company’s locations and track inventory manually. “We make an extra sticker for every single product that comes in and every product we have online is labeled with a sticker. Then we have our own inventory sheets. We remove an item from site when it’s sold. We rely on store associates to remove stickers and put them on a piece of paper so we can keep up with inventory at the end of each day.” It is truly a team effort.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Rather than build a site from scratch, Lahout’s opted to use an e-commerce platform provided by Shopatron. In exchange for hosting the site, providing fraud prevention and credit cards approvals, collecting payment and providing sales reports, e-tailers reimburse such vendors the 2 to 3 percent credit card processing fee and pay them a small percentage of sales. Lahout’s selected Shopatron in large part because it was already using the company’s Coex Freedom solution, which hundreds of outdoor specialty retailers use to bid on online orders generated by vendors B2C sites. Dozens of outdoor vendors use Shopatron to provide fulfillment through their existing dealer network and minimize channel conflict.
  • Leverage vendor relationships. One big advantage brick-and-mortar retailers have is their existing vendor relationships. As a premier Spyder dealer, for instance, Lahout’s was able to land a “preferred dealer” spot on Spyder B2C website, which has resulted in a steady flow of referrals.
  • Guerilla marketing. While the proliferation of e-tailers has driven up online marketing costs, such as Google AdWords, Lahout’s has been able to drive traffic through e-mail promotions and social media. A promotion on the Boston Globe’s Daily Deal site timed to coincide with a major consumer ski show in Boston was particularly effective.
  • Personal service. Lahout’s can’t afford online chat or a call center, so Susan Lahout and her assistant Nicole Lloyd strive to personally answer all consumer inquiries. That has ranged from absorbing the cost of reshipping lost shipments and walking a frustrated customer through the owner’s manual for a battery heated parka. “If we are out of product, you will get an e-mail from me apologizing, telling you when we will get it back in stock and how soon, and if we are not going to get it,  suggesting another color or product,” said Lahout. “If that does not work we often offer customers a 10 percent discount as a gesture of good will.”
  • Free shipping. While Lahout’s can only afford to offer free shipping on orders of $100 or more, it has offered free, two-day shipping on Patagonia and The North Face products. This allows the company to compete on price without violating either vendor’s MAP policies.

“People are asking, ‘How do you compete with the big guys?’ and we say, ‘we are not competing with them at all. We are competing with ourselves,’” says Susan. “You don’t have to expect $1 million in sales, but you can strive to make more each year than you did the year before. You really have to change. If you stand still you die.”