Privately owned ski shops must already compete with mega online retailers, corporately owned stores, and big-box retailers, so the idea of trying to survive a worldwide pandemic may seem daunting if not downright impossible. And as world leaders beg us to keep our social distance and avoid gatherings of almost any size, our local ski shops are begging us to not forget about them as winter is just around the corner. With recent announcements from the majority of major US ski resorts showing plans to open once the snow falls, customers are now again in the market for equipment. In this Covid economy of high internet sales and “non-essential businesses” having trouble operating, how likely is it that our independent ski shops are going to survive?
One small, boutique shop in the hills of New England has chosen no other option but to adapt and survive. Fire On The Mountain, located in Dover, NH had just celebrated its 30th Anniversary this past season priding itself on the best customer service available in the area. Voted New England Shop Of The Year in 2004 & 2013 along with one of the 37 Best Ski Shops In America by Skiing Magazine, Fire On The Mountain has a reputation for being the best in the country. Since 1989 store owner Bob Siener has transformed a house on the corner of First Street from a small shop selling a few pairs of skis to still a small shop specializing in custom boot fitting, a family-friendly boot club, and backcountry skiing and split boarding specialty equipment. Over the past 30 years, legends of skiing have visited the shop from Seth Morrison, Sarah Burke, Ingrid Backstrom, CR Johnson, Tanner Hall, Mark Abma, and Simon Dumont to snowboard superstars like Travis Rice, Pat Moore and Scotty Lago.
“The more I thought about it, the more it became apparent that the only way to reopen safely was to create a new business model for the shop.” –Bob Siener, Fire on the Mountain Owner
Being a distinctive and valuable shop has always been a necessity for FOTM. With five other stores selling ski equipment within a ten-mile radius, Siener has always looked for ways to set himself apart from the rest. For the shops re-opening in September, Siener set some specific rules and operational changes. Everyone wears a mask while in the shop, no exceptions. He has built a new app to accept appointments for all types of purchases and services and mandated all customers must make an appointment before showing up. Time slots range from 15 minutes to drop off skis for a tune, to 90 minutes to a full ski or board package or custom boot fitting. Being able to control how many people are in the shop at any time, Siener can schedule his staff more efficiently which helps to keep payroll down during slow days but allows his staff to give the best service while it’s busy.
In addition to requiring masks and appointments, FOTM has also installed clear plexiglass barriers for their ski and snowboard boot fitting areas. The boot fitter and customer now have additional protection during the times when they are closest to each other. If you have ever worked with a professional boot fitter like Bob you understand the time and space it requires to get the job done and FOTM was not about to sacrifice any quality in their boot fitting. In addition to the protection between customers and employees, all boots not purchased are sprayed and disinfected after each fitting and put aside for the rest of the day.
Owner Bob Siener has also purchased a special box with UV lights uses to sanitize items like goggles, helmets, gloves, hats, and beanies that customers try on but don’t purchase. The items in the UV box achieve full sanitation after only five minutes. It’s the small changes like this that have allowed Fire on the Mountain to stay open and continue being successful. With the elimination of traditional preseason sales events, movie premiers, ski parties, and their annual Backcountry Ski Expo, Bob was surprised that business is only down about 15%. He attests this to his loyal customers who have supported him year after year, receiving several very positive online reviews since re-opening the shop and starting the appointment service. He’s also received many referrals from these customers after they shop.
“The majority of customers are really happy with the shopping experience. They love the level of service they are getting and they feel very safe. Many have commented that they feel like they are in their own private ski shop” –Bob Siener, Fire on the Mountain
For the shop, the best thing about the crisis has been the ability to reinforce to the customer just how important and valuable great customer service is and how you can’t get that from your phone. Buying online is great for the shopper who is determined to get the lowest price, but more and more, people are coming back to local shops for the best shopping experience. Quality service and exceptional boot fitting are how Siener and FOTM have survived for the past 30 years, the next 30 years will not be any different.
Siener thinks it will take a few years for the skiing and snowboarding participation numbers to recover, although he hopes he is wrong. On the flip side, the number of skiers and riders heading into the backcountry will increase dramatically. Is this good or bad? Everyone has an opinion. For FOTM, their reputation as one of the best shops in the country for all things backcountry has them in a great position looking forward. The future is extremely uncertain but for Bob and the rest of Fire On The Mountain, they do know one thing…
“With all the local competition I have, I am strongly considering keeping this appointment model going forward. FOTM has always been a different shopping experience – being an appointment only ski boutique could be the next evolution.” –Bob Siener, Fire on the Mountain Owner