When I was interviewing last fall, I had a conversation with an exec from a ski retailer about getting skiers to shop physical retail. Strong ecommerce channels expand their reach, but in-store shopping increased the amount spent by every customer – dramatically. And while the company was thinking about rock walls and restaurants, I was reticent to share that I was their prime use case. See, I have an amazing bootfitter who I support whenever his shop stocks the boot I’m after, and I always have my mounts done at the closest neighborhood shop, but I’ve never felt a strong sense of loyalty for any of the shops I’ve visited in my local area.
Turns out, I’m not alone. Beginner women are ski shops’ best customer. Customers buying those skis are the least likely to make their purchase online. But physical retail’s least loyal customer is an advanced-expert woman. Both genders feel more empowered to buy online as they get better at skiing and learn what they like in a ski, but women bail from physical retail faster. Below is a breakdown of the percentage of skis sold online by gender and ability level:
And we see the same trend broken down by waist width:
So let’s look at why women are bailing:
- Worse selection: Women make up around 40-45% of skiers, so it makes sense that their selection would be smaller. We also buy less skis (63% of 2019’s in-season skis were men’s models. 37% sold to women). So it makes sense that we’re outnumbered for overall skis on the wall, but retailers consistently under-merchandise women’s gear. What’s the point of going into a shop if they don’t carry the items you’re considering.
I should note that the shops that I looked at were ones where I could look at instore selection from the comfort of my couch (in part because it’s a pandemic. But also because sometimes it’s a shitty experience). These stores have a large ecommerce arm of their business to test and evolve their merchandising strategy based on data, so they’re probably better stocked for women compared to smaller operations. Likewise, Evo’s boot merchandising strategy shows that they tend to step out more for women than the data alone might support – they stock 50% more 110+ flex boots than in the 80-90 range, even though industry data shows the more intermediate boots outsell the high flex ones at a rate of 4:1. In other words, this snapshot is likely as a better than average snapshot at how merchandising serves women, as smaller operations have less opportunities to confront their biases through data. (To reiterate, I’m not saying that all small shops are merchandised to be unfair to women, but just that the ones that are don’t have the same data and processes to help course correct).
Looking at Seattle stores as a gut check, this pattern repeated in boots at REI, but Evo’s aligned with the split in sales (60/40 men’s to women’s; REI merchandises their boots 67/33).
I should also call out that plus size women have been begging for in-store retail options for years and the industry is going “no, first we need a coffee shop and a meeting space for groups.” Imagine how many people would make in-store visits if shops had a guarantee to have something in stock for inclusive sizing in stock, plus short and long lengths and niche boot sizes, and a gift card that covered the cost of shipping & returns if they were out of stock in your size.
- Less relatable sales staff. We’ll get to bad service in a moment (because almost every woman has their own shitty ski shop experience), but even really knowledgeable men who treat women with fairness and respect still can’t provide the same level of service. A few years ago when I was shopping for a 100-something freeride ski, I stopped by Evo and had a good conversation with a guy in the ski department about his experience on the Nordica Enforcer, Salomon QST 106, and Black Crows Atris, but his advice doesn’t necessarily carry over to the Santa Ana, Stella 106, or Atris Birdie. The Stella is the same ski as the 106 with an alternate topsheet. The Atris Birdie uses a slightly softer flex. The Santa Ana clocks a similar weight but uses a different type of wood core. When I got home, I sent an email asking if their team could share a time that a woman would be on the shop floor, and was told no, but that they had a female buyer and passed along her email. While that’s incredibly considerate, this solution isn’t sustainable for all women customers to get relatable information, it’s well outside the scope of her job, and it made me extremely skeptical whether there were women on the sales staff that year at all. My local neighborhood shop had a women’s night every Wednesday where their women’s staff had overlapping shifts and I thought that was a genius way to drive traffic on some of their slower days and provide a better experience for customers through more personalized service.
- Sexist service. The evil stepbrother of bad service is when it’s more clearly rooted in sexism. I asked a very scientific poll to my Instagram followers and over 90% of women report having a really bad experience at a ski shop (and it doesn’t get better as skills and experience grow – even pro skiers admit to dreading the ski shop). It includes advice like “women usually don’t like anything over about 98mm in width. Their thighs just can’t handle it,” or “that’s an awful stiff boot for you, little lady.” So many women I know put on their “ski shop game face” and slightly exaggerate their skills and the other gear that they’re using in hopes that their requests are taken a little more seriously.
When I bought my last pair of touring boots, I legitimately had a disagreement with a bootfitter on what size felt best on *my* foot. And even when I found that double downsizing was both tolerable and the only option that locked my low volume foot in place, I got warnings that I didn’t really want them to fit like my race boots (I don’t race, nor do I own race boots). I found the right boot, but I decided to leave empty handed and think on it. Ultimately, I waited two months, found a deal online, and ultimately drove to Canada when they wouldn’t ship to the US. I’m just too petty to let someone close a sale when their “service” is a detriment to the experience.
So what is this worth to stores? Not a ton at face value. I softened the attrition curve across ability levels (to 8%, 13%, 20% across the ability levels listed in the first chart) and factored in that women spend 9.5% more on the cost of skis when buying in store, and it’s around $21,000. Given that the market for just skis is worth over $100 million – before including boots, bindings, snowboard gear, etc – that’s a drop in the bucket. However, estimates are that customers actually spend 2-4 times as much in an in-store transaction vs. online (since the store is more likely to capture add-ons like bindings, skins, outerwear, as well as lifestyle impulse purchases) the figure starts to climb just under a million dollars. Again, small potatoes in the industry, but the overhead for right-sizing your assortment, making sure you have women in hardgoods departments, and make more of an effort to ensure shop bros treat women with respect all literally cost nothing.
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