Boise, Idaho is a big ski-town, but when Idaho Mountain Touring owner Chris Haunold looks out the window of his Main Street store and it’s sunny and dry with more of the same in the forecast, he recalculates his sales strategy. Often, decisions are made just a week at a time – sometimes even a day.
Haunold and his wife, Jill, have owned the shop for 22 years, and IMT is a local icon known for its customer service, large and diverse inventory, and generous community involvement. The couple often hire high school kids for short-term needs even when they could get along without more staff. “Sometimes it’s the thing to do for a kid who needs some structure and guidance,” Haunold said.
Their family-oriented office, with a resident dog and the occasional toddler, speaks to their priorities.
Much of IMT’s $1.5 million inventory of skiing, cycling, climbing and backpacking gear is hand-tooled or custom-fitted, and doesn’t lend itself to large wholesale purchases. Haunold says that a combination of credit sources are crucial to the business, including vendor financing, a bank line of credit, and credit cards. He outright owns about a third of his inventory, and most of it is subject to wide sales fluctuations based on weather, school schedules, and the economy.
“During the 2008 gas crisis, more people turned to bicycles for transportation, and sales were up,” he said. The capital city is bike-friendly, with a scenic Greenbelt bike path running along the Boise river for 26 miles and a growing bike-commuting population.
Then sales dipped dramatically during the fall of 2008 just after the Wall Street crash. “People just stopped buying – almost completely,” he said. But since then, Haunold said, typical buying patterns have “gone out the window.”
“We can’t make heads or tails of it right now,” he said. “Usually, we know when we’re going to be busy.” For years, extra staff has been scheduled around a predictable calendar of soccer leagues, teacher holidays and annual holiday events - but that’s not working this season.
It doesn’t help that the local ski hill, Bogus Basin, was “snow-free” all of November. Snowfall began December 6, and it’s anyone’s guess when there will be enough. But, Haunold said, sales of gear for other sports is also out of whack with known patterns. “And people are definitely using more credit than usual” – and so is the shop.
“Our vendors are getting squeezed by their banks, so they aren’t as flexible as they used to be about payment extensions,” said Haunold. “They’re pressuring retailers because they are having their own credit problems.”
His long-term relationship with a local bank became untenable last year, he said, when it was acquired by a bigger institution which wasn’t interested in personal service for smaller retailers. He changed banks only to have it happen again, and is now settled with a bank he hopes will stay independent.
According to Leisure Trends Group, a consumer research company, snow sports shoppers are willing to spend their money on equipment, apparel and other gear even when the overall economy is significantly down. August to October 2009 snow sports sales of $507 million were up 9% overall from 2008, boosted by strong sales of carryover equipment and gear for juniors. (Carryover are items that sell for less than their average retail cost.)
But the line between profitable and not profitable is razor-thin in this economy, Haunold said, and with several good competitors in town “you either match prices or you don’t sell it.” IMT’s gear customizing and tune-up services, which are less subject to price competition from online retailers and big-box stores, are about average for a late-snow year.
His goal for the shop is to have a zero credit balance, then use credit sources for short-term needs he can pay off over a few months. “That can save a significant amount of money, and I think it’s a good use of credit.”
Even though business is unpredictable this season, recent snowfall, though late, is encouraging. And the Haunolds stay active in sports education projects such as sponsoring avalanche safety workshops and backcountry survival skills classes, and the shop is still a gathering place for outdoor sports gearheads and enthusiasts.
Let it snow!