Monday, February 16, 2009

The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation Retail Challenge

Northeastern Nordic skiing powerhouse Jackson Ski Touring is looking for a new retailer to provide products and services inside the touring center. This is extremely challenging because of Jackson's unique business structure and customer demographics.

Jackson Ski Touring is a bit like a religious institution. It isn't simply a large-scale commercial Nordic touring operation. It has some direct roots that extend as far back as the beginning of New England skiing, which is to say as far back as skiing in the United States. Yet it also has tributary streams that spring from each freshening of skiing interest.

The real nuts and bolts operation that exists today descends fairly directly from the founding in 1972 of the non-profit organization that oversees it. But some of the people involved at the time go way back. Just as the founding of the first organized Christian churches came decades (maybe centuries) after the death of the individual for whom the faith was named, so did the founding of JSTF merely pull together a number of threads in the skiing faith. And those original saints and martyrs, or their descendants, still live around there. This is hardly obvious to someone who might be a competent skier and technically capable, but who was raised an agnostic skier, without heroes, devils, or much supporting mythology.

The founders and their families represent just one group in the complex clientele. The customer population sorts out along many lines: skiing ability, financial status, resident, non-resident, seasonal resident, visiting tourist, visiting racer, visiting sport skier, and many more. Most local enthusiasts have favorite shops already, where they can shop before November and after April, when the touring center retail location cannot operate.

For the Jackson touring center shop, the bulk of the revenue comes from visiting skiers. These are mostly beginners and intermediates. Some are buying their first gear. Others are upgrading. Most Nordic ski customers tend to hold onto their equipment for a long time. Thirty years is not out of the question. Ten or fifteen years is common.

A small portion of income comes from sales of top-end performance gear. High performance skiers tend to like a lot of technical wizardry around their purchases, so they are easily discouraged from buying at any shop where they have the faintest notion that the person helping them is beneath them. Upgrading intermediates, however, are often happy to have a simpler summary of technical points, even if they're moving up to their first really expensive ski. They want to know how it works, often in detail, but they don't drop a lot of insider tidbits like code numbers for specific Fischer ski cores and flexes. They don't really care of you pull out the super-zoot ski flex tester and convince them the ski is tailored to them to the nearest gram.

Whoever works the floor in the Jackson touring center retail shop needs to be ready to deal with this entire range of customers as well as ringing up hundreds of sales of hats, lip balm, gloves and hand and toe warmers.

Because the retail provider is an outside contractor, whoever ends up managing the outpost will find him (or her) self squarely between the Foundation management, his own shop management, and those among the locals who like to try to call the shots whether they're in the chain of command or not. In various ways these secret shoppers can insert themselves into JSTF's decision making process in ways that may not be readily visible to the field commander. You soon find out that a lot of decisions are made well above your security clearance level.

Jackson faces the daunting task of finding a shop that reflects the image they are trying to project, of the most formidable cross-country ski center in the northeast United States. They've negotiated with some large names in outdoor retail. But a place like L.L. Bean, for instance, is going to want to put its stamp on the operation in a big way. This threatens to eclipse the independent greatness and heritage of Jackson Ski Touring itself.

Jackson might prefer to use a retailer with strong roots in the Mount Washington Valley, because the Valley has its own reputation in American skiing. Unfortunately, the most popular Nordic shop in Mount Washington Valley is barely in the valley at all. It sits at the bottom of the Mount Washington Auto Road, at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center. It is staffed by a crew of likable locals headlined by Nate and Eli, two really nice dudes who are also really great skiers. They've been with Great Glen from the beginning, as I understand it. Did I mention they're really nice dudes? However, they don't own their shop

For Great Glen to open a branch at Jackson Ski Touring would put both places at risk of losing their independent identities. Sure as fate, the word would start to get around that Great Glen was part of Jackson or Jackson had been taken over by Great Glen. Along with all the other things that are hard to explain about JSTF and how it all works, this would have to be added. No one really NEEDS to know, but curious people would WANT to know. The confusion could create unnecessary turbulence for both parties. Whose name goes on top? Who pays what to whom? And who gets custody of Nate and Eli?

Other contenders, like Reliable Racing or Gorham Bike and Ski, would have to see considerable advantage to themselves to be willing to undertake the hassle of setting up a shop that has to completely disappear no later than the second week of April, only to be painstakingly rebuilt the following November. Mount Washington Valley-based staff would be ideal, but how do you assure their allegiance to the home office and keep their quality control at a level that reflects well on the home office's image?

Valley-based staff for Jackson Ski Touring's retail shop would be able to take advantage of their local connections. They'd have a short commute, helping them arrive punctually and refreshed. On the down side, all outdoor sports are somewhat competitive, and Nordic skiing actually includes racing, so your local talent might have a few detractors as well as friends. Anyone who hires them inherits the bad with the good. In a little fish bowl like The Valley, some people have long memories and not a lot of forgiveness. So your retailer from away might accidentally hire someone who interviewed well but who had serious issues with some key people in the customer base or Jackson management.

On the subject of unforgivable transgressions, let's also mention in passing that a perfectly well-meaning boob might fatally wound a shop's chances with a few tactless remarks in the wrong place. These things can happen, believe it or not. It's less likely with likable local dudes like Nate and Eli, but that package comes with its own difficulties as detailed earlier. Any outside concern might blunder during the early period of growing pains. Open lines of communication not only between the two businesses, JSTF and retail but also up and down the chains of command in both businesses will be vital to creating a truly productive working relationship for them.

I've been aware of their dilemma since 2004, and acutely aware of it since the fall of 2005. I've even been sympathetic to it, but as long as no one was going to approach me to discuss it, I wasn't going to bring it up. I observed various potential candidates, such as the short-lived Hurricane Mountain Multisport shop. I figured them for a shoo-in, but it never happened. If JSTF had been smart about it they would have thrown that guy the bone, even if one of the local deep pockets had to bankroll him for a while and coach him on management and customer relations.

A local deep pocket could try to buy Nate and Eli away from Great Glen, but they would have to arrange summer employment, either by setting up Nate and Eli in their own shop or just by putting them on some sort of summer retainer. Buying the boys away from Great Glen would probably start some sort of ugliness between regional power players, so that's probably not a good option.

One solution could be for Great Glen to move the headquarters of its retail operations to the valley floor and run both the Great Glen Trails shop and a theoretical Jackson Ski Touring shop as satellites. That sounds expensive and complicated for Great Glen, with debatable gains. The only business they would gain that they don't already have is the transient trade at Jackson. Would that offset the expense required to obtain it? With three retail outlets under the Great Glen banner, it would be like three separate doors to one giant shop. We're starting to get into some big business economics now. This might be the seed of a regional or national venture. In for a million, in for a billion, I always say.

As you can see, someone faces a considerable challenge in sorting through all this. No retail provider is perfect. The powerful ones pose a threat to Jackson's own brand in the marketplace. Any lesser shop runs the risk of looking too dinky or like an upstart to the people who are really in the know up there. As always in business, are the risks worth the gains? A really big outfit like Bean or REI risks a much smaller percentage of their capital to extend a small feeler into what is actually quite a tight retail space. A smaller shop stands much more exposed financially for what could be proportionally greater gains, but also greater wounds in case of a bad snow year or other setbacks.

Whatever happens, Jackson will go on. Ultimately, for the people who really love it, Jackson is about the skiing, not the shopping. They do the skiing better than anyone in the region. Maintaining that alone is an exhausting job. The rest of the stuff has to be there because that's part of the Big Touring Center experience. Jackson Ski Touring started in the back room of a shop and now has a shop in the back room. Putting together the right blend of businesses and a level of services that not only looks impressive but actually works economically is not a simple task.

We wait to see what the next solution looks like.

No comments: