Ski supply squeeze: Global supply chain is straining local ski and snowboard shops
Forward thinking and flexibility has been critical, retailers say
If you are counting on Santa shooting down the chimney with a shiny new snowboard this holiday season, don’t hold your breath. While it is uncertain how the global supply chain crisis has impacted the North Pole, what is clear is its effect on local outdoor sports manufacturers and retailers.
Issues in the global supply chain have led to increased prices and long waits for outdoor recreation products, according to a Colorado Public Radio report. Randy White, the CEO of Greenwood Village-based Wheel Pros, told CPR News that before the pandemic, it cost between $1,500 and $2,000 to get a container from Asia. In September, it was $15,000. The supply chain squeeze has pinched local ski and snowboard manufacturers and retailers as well.
“It is a nightmare,” said Leo Tsuo, owner of Weston Backcountry, the Minturn-based ski, snowboard and splitboard manufacturer. “The hardest part is the shipping, and it’s affecting everybody.”
Shipments from Weston’s factory in China are taking 3-4 times longer than normal and costing up to 10 times as much as they were last year. Tsuo knew of a company whose production and sales were recently stalled as it waited 2-3 months for delivery of a single type of screw from an overseas supplier. He personally has a snowmobile stuck in a warehouse as it awaits control panel parts.
Once shipments arrive stateside, though, the real wait begins. After sitting in the ocean at a port for weeks in Los Angeles, Weston had a container stall at the dock for two additional weeks as it waited for a truck.
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“Domestic manufacturers rely on global supply chains,” said Tsuo, meaning the suffering extends to those brands not relying on overseas warehouses, too. “If you take every single step, everything is getting backed up — it doesn’t matter where you’re at.”
At Venture Sports in Vail, owner Mike Brumbaugh considers himself blessed to have weathered the storm thus far, and credits supportive manufacturers, early strategizing and product flexibility, as keys in navigating the times.
Brumbaugh is particularly grateful for the synergism between Venture Sports and Weston.
“Great partner. Awesome company. They were very forward thinking with us,” he said.
Brumbaugh said that Weston has come through with approximately 96% of the product Venture Sports requested back in February. “That’s knocking it out of the park, in my book,” he said.
A willingness to pick and choose the right battles when it came to selecting product this January at the Snowsports Industries America outdoor retailer show in Denver was also crucial. Brumbaugh and his crew did their research and knew what they wanted going into the expo, but were willing to be flexible.
“Would you rather have your second and third choice, or have nothing,” he said.
Pent-up consumer demand meant Brumbaugh didn’t have to fret over not getting the exact board or ski he originally hoped for.
“I know I’m going to sell whatever I’m going to get,” he said.
Heading into winter, he is optimistic, having received roughly half of his helmets, gloves and skis.
“All indicators are that we are going to receive 95% of what we ordered by the first of December, which is totally fine with us,” he said.
A perfect storm
Consumers should be prepared to feel the effect in their wallets, however, as they strain to put their treasured outdoor gifts under the tree.
“Between labor and shipping alone, prices are going to have to get adjusted,” Tsuo said. “This is something that is happening all across the board — not just the outdoor industry. It’s going to be an inevitability.”
Local companies who made it through summer should consider themselves battle-tested, as the outdoor industry that took the hardest supply chain hit was road, mountain and gravel biking, according to Brumbaugh.
“It’s been the perfect storm,” he said of the increase in demand coupled with a decrease in supply.
Obviously, the longtime store owner and regular on the roads is thrilled about the pandemic-fueled increase in cycling interest, and not just because of the dollar signs.
“A lot of the evidence points to the fact that if you live a healthy lifestyle, you’re going to be much more resilient against COVID,” he said.
COVID-related factory shutdowns, however, have reduced the supply of key parts.
“Almost everything bikewise is made in China,” Brumbaugh said.
With more parts to make, bikes felt the lockdowns even more than snowsports. “Take a rear derailleur,” Brumbaugh said. “No one factory makes all the parts. There’s 60-plus parts in some rear derailleurs and they come from nine different factories.”
Whereas in the past, a shopper looking for a specific model bike might expect two to three weeks for it to arrive, Brumbaugh said manufacturers now can only promise him a product by October of 2022.
“We got the vast majority of what we wanted,” he said about his current inventory. “But if you wanted to get anything besides that, good luck.”
Broadly speaking, this experience has taught Tsuo something. “This has demonstrated how reliant we are on these industries and their availability.”
Unfortunately, the end doesn’t appear to be in sight.
“I’ve talked to a few people who really closely follow these things,” Tsuo said. “They don’t believe this is going to go back to normal any time soon. They say the price pressure is probably going to persist for the next few quarters. Some kinds of supply issues are going to push on through the summer time.”
While companies like Weston are still looking for a solution, there doesn’t appear to be a simple, straightforward answer.
“That’s a good question,” Tsuo said when asked how companies should navigate the current climate. For Weston, like Venture Sports and other companies in the valley, intentional planning and forward thinking will be key.
“We’re going to have to place our order two to three months sooner than we may have in the past to hedge our bets in terms of delays,” Tsuo said. “We’re going to be really working with our dealers to try and monitor and set that expectation that, look, the sooner we can get on this, the more likely that we are going to be able to weather through this.”
Impact of vaccine mandates
Politics aside, both owners expressed a concern about the economic consequences of the recent vaccine mandate.
“There are shortages. There are people walking off jobs. And we’re already short-staffed, and there’s a choke point,” Brumbaugh said.
“I can speak to this from the business standpoint,” Tsuo said. While only a few major snowsports players boast the requisite 100 plus employees, Tsuo believes the real impact will come from the mandate’s effect on support industries.
Last week, Tom Quimby, senior editor at the Commercial Carrier Journal, reported that in response to the vaccine mandate, “multiple trucking industry agencies had sought an exemption from the vaccine mandate, claiming mandatory vaccine enforcement would place additional pressure on a supply chain that is already under duress, but those calls and warnings went unheeded.”
Brumbaugh feels it has less to do with politics or beliefs about the vaccine and more to do with economics.
“The vaccine mandates I think absolutely are going to crush not only the ski industry and the bike industry but the economy as a whole because it’s putting added pressure — wherever you land, however you feel about the vaccine — the mandates are already putting a whole lot of additional pressure on an already very stressed system.”
Even if Santa doesn’t arrive with a full sleigh, Tsuo still believes consumers have an opportunity to act on their renewed interest in the outdoor scene.
“I would encourage everybody, especially the ones getting into the backcountry, to take advantage of the education and events,” he urged. “Last year, there was a surge of online education, and much of it is still available.”
On Saturday at Winter Park, Weston presented its fourth annual Beacon Bash, an event for practicing the proper use of safety gear.
“I really hope that people don’t just jump onto these hobbies,” Tsuo said. He is ecstatic to see the increase in newcomers to the backcountry but hopes they partake responsibly and take the time to learn about weather forecasts, avalanche prevention and safety.
“If there is anything I can hope for, it is that we just have a more knowledgeable backcountry community,” he said.