Talk to a specialty ski shop owner, and after weather and pro forms, their biggest concern is how they can compete with companies that sell online. The folks at Descente think they’ve got an answer to at least the third part of that equation. Beginning this season, along with the aid of an online retail fulfillment service called Shopatron, Descente will begin giving specialty retailers the tools to fulfill sales placed through their website,

“We’ve never sold online because all our distribution is through specialty retailers,” Descente COO Bob Geiger explained. “With Shopatron, we can help those retailers make sales they might not otherwise have made, and at full margin.”

The process is simple, Geiger says: Shopatron allows Descente to process orders for apparel on their website, and customers receive a “thank you for your order” note as soon as they buy. Then Shopatron begins sending e-mails to retail shops nearest the customer, fanning out until the order can be filled by one of them.

“I think in a lot of cases we might actually end up introducing customers to local retailers,” said Geiger. “We hope we can help build long-term relationships between the two of them.”

Descente has presented the program to all of its retail partners, where the response has been strong.

“We still have to put in practice, but to me it sounds like it’s a win-win,” said Peggy Chambers of the Alpine Ski Shop in Ogden, Utah.

Chambers posts products and prices on her website, but said the time and cost involved to facilitate direct sales for most specialty retailers is too daunting.

“It’s almost another business you have to launch,” she said. “This way the customer gets better service because they can buy what they want as soon as they find it online.”

Although new to the ski industry, Shopatron launched in the model hobby industry in 2001, and now facilitates manufacturer-to-specialty store sales in industries as varied as automotive performance after-market, hunting, horseback riding and quilting. Shopatron CEO Ed Stevens said the company expects to transact $15 million in sales for 70 manufacturers and more than 2,500 retailers this year in the model hobby industry alone.

“We provide a new tool to a lot of people who might be beginning to question if their distribution model is being outdated,” said Stevens. “They know that consumers are online, and that if you can’t sell them a jacket then they’ll find someone who can.”

Manufacturers pay a set-up fee to install Shopatron and register their retailers, and then pay a monthly fee that Stevens said, “is about as much as they’d pay each month for a cellphone.” Retailers also pay a five percent transaction fee, but, Stevens adds, “on a product that sells at MSRP.”

He also said that because of the way Shopatron tracks and processes orders, retailers can go online and see what items are selling strongly around the country in particular product lines.

“They’ve got instant market research right in front of them,” said Stevens.

Although Descente is the first company out of the gate with Shopatron in the ski industry, Stevens said he “is getting a very strong cluster of companies coming on.”

One company taking a serious look is Boutique ski manufacturer Line.

“Line sees Shopatron as an opportunity to bring new customers to the core specialty retailers that are supporting and growing our brand,” said Mike Welch, national sales manager of Line’s ski division. “It’s a way for us to very actively promote sell-through for retailers and connect customers with the best service from local shops.”

Welch said company reps are going to be discussing Shopatron with the company’s retail base in the hopes of generating more sales online.

For his part, Descente’s Geiger hopes it’s the beginning of a big trend.

“I encourage any ski industry company with specialty distribution to take a good look at Shopatron,” he said. “I think anything we can do to improve specialty shop business is good for the whole industry, because it’s those boot-fitters and knowledgeable salespeople that make this sport more fun for everyone.”