Ski shops get in on Internet economy

Annie Flanzraich/Nevada Appeal News ServiceVillage Ski Loft Manager Ben Fresco examines a pair of skis before shopping for the winter season begins.

Annie Flanzraich/Nevada Appeal News ServiceVillage Ski Loft Manager Ben Fresco examines a pair of skis before shopping for the winter season begins.

TRUCKEE - There are about a dozen online retailers nationwide who are cleared to sell K2 Sports equipment. Traditional outdoor powerhouses such as REI and stand out on the list in contrast to a Truckee 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 Web site.

Out with the old

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 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 Web site, and by the Fall of '06, we launched."

The launch wasn't that easy, quick or cheap, though. "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.

Brick and mortar


Tahoe Dave's, the Lake Tahoe mainstay that focuses mainly on its rental departments 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.

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."

Buyer aware

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."


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