Founded in 1980, Sun & Ski Sports has become one the leading sports specialty chains in the U.S., with 33 stores across 13 states.

With a focus on snow sports, cycling, running, hiking, and watersports, Houston, TX-based Sun & Ski Sports offers a broad selection of outdoor-related products with a commitment to the customer service standards of a niche specialty shop, including professional services ranging from bike tune-ups to mounting bindings on a ski or snowboard. Some stores offer daily ski and snowboard rentals.

A recent expansion push has been heading out West, including the opening of its first stores in Mammoth Lakes, CA and Park City, UT, in 2019 and opening its first store in Phoenix, AZ, last November. This April, the retailer will soon open a second store in Salt Lake City.

Karl Salz, president, discusses with SGB what’s unique about the Sun & Ski Sports concept, the chain’s recent performance, expansion, and other key growth initiatives.

Forty-three years. What’s been the key to Sun & Ski Sports’ longevity?   We’re in some categories that are weather dependent and carry risks. But if you work hard at it and do it right, then there’s also quite a bit of an opportunity there because it just means that we don’t have as much competition. So that’s been a part of our success. We’ve tried to carve out our own unique niche. But the biggest reason for our longevity has been customer service. That’s kind of been the key to our business.

Was customer service always a priority? Our founder, Barry Goldware, was always 100 percent customer-focused. When asking him for money back in the day, it was hard to get it for operational issues, like new POS systems and those types of things, but it was relatively easy to get money for good people. He was always focused on the people. My background is also in customer service. I was an officer at Galyan’s Trading Company and which was a very customer-service-focused company too. The founder Pat Galyan was maniacal about customer service and we had a commissioned sales team and other high-touch things. So, I really felt like one of the reasons why Barry Goldware hired me was because we saw eye to eye on customer service and how important that was. When Barry was retiring, we could have gone in a different direction. We had a consultant come in and it was right after a business book came out saying you had to be ‘some est,’ whether biggest or cheapest. We settled on the fact that we can’t be the best at everything. We know we need to be great at everything, but we really were going to be the best at customer service. So that’s kind of been our niche. While others strive to provide good customer service or even great customer service, we strive to be the best and that really is our keystone.

What else makes Sun & Ski Sports unique? One major way we’re unique is our focus on a few categories or a few sports. You’ve got your mom and pops that focus on one or two things and then you have your full-line stores that focus on a lot of things. We’re really more focused on skiing, cycling and the things that kind of go along with that. Maybe the most similar would be an REI but their focus is much more geared toward camping and outdoors whereas we’re more geared towards skiing and cycling. So, we try to play that up and take the best of both worlds. We’ll have the expertise and the assortment that a specialty retailer may have in each sport but with the buying power and the pricing that your big box, mass merchant may have. Another way we’re unique is we run the gamut of product line breadth in the categories we’re in. Big box stores tend to start off at a beginner level and more often than not go up through moderate or intermediate. Specialty stores more often focus on the intermediate up through the advanced participant. We’re really spread out in our categories from beginners to experts. We have customers that come in all the time and tell us that they know they were in ‘XYZ’ IBD (independent bicycle dealer) and they felt intimidated or looked down upon because they weren’t interested in the $2,000 bike and they really felt at home with us. On the flip side, we get a lot of customers that come in and want something better than they can get a Dick’s or Academy so we run the spectrum.

How do you manage weather risks? We do great when the weather’s bad in the wintertime. When people complain about it being cold, we like it. Once spring hits, then we prefer warm and sunny, not rainy. But to be honest, when it’s snowing all across the country and it’s cold, we have a banner, bang-up, killer year. When the weather is not that way, we have just an ‘okay’ year. It’s usually somewhere in between there and most of the time we have good performance because we have stores spread across the country and it’s usually cold and snowing somewhere. This year would be a good example. Conditions out west are really, really good but conditions out east are bad. So, if we were focused primarily on the East Coast, it’d be a tough year. If we were only in the western resort areas, it would be a banner year. But as usual, it’s somewhere in between.

Any tricks to reducing the inventory risk to these categories? Having stores across different markets mitigates some of the risk. For instance, the ski season for our East Coast and even Midwest stores ends on President’s Day weekend. Depending on what kind of year it was, sometimes there’s a little leftover inventory, and sometimes there’s more. However, we are still able to do some ski business in our stores in southern markets because our customers in Texas and Oklahoma are heading to Colorado and other places to go skiing for spring break. So, it’s a good opportunity to wrap up the ski business in a big chunk of our stores and move that excess product to another big chunk of the stores just in time for what really is their second Christmas. Sometimes we’ve got carryover but we’re able to sell down a lot with the geographical diversity that we have.

How did you come up with the Adventure For All mantra? That kind of sprang out of some of the recent changes we were making. We wanted to make sure we weren’t exclusionary and wanted to make sure that we provided goods and services for everyone – from the beginner and all the way through to the expert. We didn’t want to be exclusive and we wanted to point out that we don’t just cater to the elite adventurer. Yes, we do have $8,000 bikes, $1,200 skis and $1,000 jackets in our building, but we also have $400 skis, $400 mountain bikes and those beginner price levels. So, we’re here for everybody. We’re not elitists.

Sun & Ski Sports launched e-commerce ahead of the curve in 2006. Has online become a major revenue contributor? It’s been huge and it’s growing. We’ve got an advantage there in that a lot of the mom-and-pop shops don’t have the resources to have a strong omni or online presence. And a lot of the bigger online retailers in our space don’t have the brick & mortar presence to support that. Customers who want to buy their bikes or their skis online still have to have someplace to take them to get them set up. Most have their bindings mounted and their bikes built. So having stores all around the country has been a real advantage for us. People can buy online, come pick them up in the store, and have their bikes built or skis mounted and serviced in our shops.  Whereas, if they buy from some of our major online competitors, they’ve got to take it to their local mom & pop IBD or ski shop where they are likely to get gouged on service pricing.

Can you talk about Sun & Ski Sport’s community efforts? We’ve long been sponsors of the National MS (Multiple Sclerosis) Society. We’re involved in some of their rides, particularly the MS 150 here in Houston. We’re typically one of their donors and have had a team with them for at least 20 years. We’re also a big supporter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Kids come in on a regular basis and we’ll outfit them from head to toe in advance of their trip with whatever they need for wherever they’re going. We get a lot of kids that come in and their wish is to go skiing. They’ve never been skiing. So it’s a good synergy there and it’s obviously a great cause.

What are your expansion plans? We’re always open to acquisition opportunities. We haven’t had any lately. So, most of our growth has been organic. We opened stores in California and Utah in 2019 and last year we entered Phoenix and added another store in the Delmarva region in Maryland. We’re opening our second store in Utah in Salt Lake City in April. We’ve got stores that range from around 8,000 square feet up to 40,000 square feet. Our ideal store is around 20,000 square feet.

What’s your pet peeve with vendors? There are some vendors that are better partners than others. Some seem to want to develop their DTC business out of necessity or to better connect with customers, but they realize their retail partners are their bread and butter. Others seem to communicate that their retail partners aren’t really that important anymore and are sort of a necessary evil. We don’t feel as comfortable trying to grow our business with them.

How did Sun & Ski Sports fare during the pandemic? We had the same challenges as everyone else but some benefits as well. As a bike shop, we were deemed an essential business. As luck would have it, we decided really just a year or two before the pandemic to exit the patio business that was in roughly a third of our stores, and that enabled us to extend the bike business to all our doors. Our customers were giving us feedback that they wanted more bikes and more outdoor products. And the associates we hire are enthusiasts so it was harder for them to get excited about the patio business than the bike business. So, we felt like the synergy just wasn’t right for us, but the timing to get bike inventory in all doors right before COVID hit was fortuitous.

How has the business performed recently? The East Coast and Mid-Atlantic have been challenged by weather, but the west has been good. Overall, we’re having a good year. Our numbers are still significantly higher than they were pre-pandemic but down a bit from our recent peak years.

Photo courtesy Sun & Ski Sports