By Eric Smith

Back-to-school took on new meaning last week at the Denver East Holiday Inn, where the owners and employees of 45 specialty ski shops from around the country gathered to learn the latest product innovations and techniques in boot fitting while also collaborating on marketing and pricing strategies.

This all-important customer service add-on is best mastered during the off-season, when snow hasn’t started falling and shops aren’t inundated with eager skiers. So the sweltering summer heat outside didn’t dismay the 65 attendees of the inaugural Elevated Bootfitting Academy.

Inside the hotel’s conference room, they all had winter on their minds as they shared best practices about boot fitting and participated in hands-on demonstrations from such footbed and insole brands as Sidas, Masterfit and Superfeet.

The event was sponsored by Golden, CO-based specialty retail buying group Sports Specialists Ltd. (SSL), which invited the boot fitting manufacturers to present and also paid for attendees’ travel expenses.

According to SSL’s president and CEO, Dave Nacke, who spoke with SGB at length about the Academy and its role in helping specialty dealers differentiate, the event was designed as a way to grow business for brands and buyers alike.

“It’s the experts teaching the experts,” he said.

First step

Nacke said the idea for the event was forged at last January’s Winter Sports Market, the buying group event that SSL co-hosts with Snowsports Merchandising Corp. (SMC) before Outdoor Retailer Snow Show.

A few member organizations were discussing ways to “internet-proof their businesses” and take their customer experience offerings to the next level, Nacke said. They soon settled on bringing the boot fitting world together for a day and a half of “intense learning and getting to hear the brands and the vendors talk about what’s coming this season.”

He didn’t expect much of a turnout for the Elevated Bootfitting Academy debut—maybe 20 attendees—but that number quickly grew.

Before he knew it, Nacke was overseeing “65 brains who’ve been boot fitting—in some cases, for 40 years—sharing what they’ve done, how they address situations and the tools that they use.”

“We have three times more people than what I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I literally thought at first that if we can get 20 people, I’ll consider it a win. The more we started talking to the owners, the more they thought, ‘This is cool.’”

Collaboration Is Key

Nacke said in addition to specialty retailers learning about what the boot fitting brands are bringing to market next season, he wanted them to align as a united front, a collective voice that elevates the profile of the independent, specialized shop in the eyes of consumers.

Alan Davis, the owner of Princeton Sports in Baltimore, MD, sits on the SSL board and also was pleasantly surprised that the event drew as well as it did. He told SGB that this collection of boot fitters in the same room would indeed help each store up their game.

“Talking with other shops—to be able to share ideas, see what people are thinking—is so huge,” Davis said. “We know that the three main profit centers now and in the future are going to be boot fitting, rental and repair. We’re not only getting good presentations from the manufacturers, but the roundtable discussions have just been incredible.”

Ryan Merkel, who manages The Round House Sports Center in Bozeman, MT, a shop that is going on 50 years, knows something about adapting to ever-changing retail trends. The past decade or so has been especially disruptive, so a service like boot fitting can help a store insulate itself—at least somewhat—from the disintermediation of Amazon and other e-tailers.

“Boot fitting is something you can’t buy online,” he said. “You really need to sharpen your skills and you need to make sure that you have what it takes to not lose that customer to an online competitor.”

He said it’s imperative that a shop can explain to customers the importance of boot fitting, which can make a difference in the way someone slides down snow and speed up the learning curve for a skier of any age or skill level.

“You can ski a crappy ski incredibly well with a good boot,” he said. “But I don’t care how expensive or how nice your skis are, if you have an old crappy boot that doesn’t fit right, you’re not going to be able to do it justice. Getting a good boot is going to keep you on the hill longer, you’re going to enjoy it and you’re going to get through your learning curves quicker and ultimately become a lifelong skier.”

Channel Of Choice

The three brands who presented at the Academy all value the specialty channel. Not only do these shops represent the front line of their product for end customers, but those shops’ employees would take the time to fly or drive to Denver to hone their boot fitting skills.

Pete Iverson is the Seattle, WA-based U.S. sales and marketing director for Sidas, the French-based foot comfort company that makes all manner of orthotic footbed for skiing, as well as insoles for other sports and medical uses. He said traveling to Denver from Seattle to get in front of 65 of the country’s top boot fitters was imperative for the brand.

“On every level, it’s always good to be in front of these guys,” he said. “One, it builds the relationships. Two, SSL is the collection of really the finest shops in the U.S. that define a lot of what’s happening in the category.”

Steve Cohen, CEO, Briarcliff Manor, NY-based Masterfit Enterprises Inc., wasn’t at the event, but he said his team reported back that the inaugural academy attracted an “enthusiastic” crowd of specialty shops.

The company went into the event with the clear goal of staying true to Masterfit’s roots and honoring the role that specialty shops play as the “primary channel for Masterfit educational programs and products,” he said.

“We see specialty shops, especially those who focus on providing outstanding boot fitting service, as a key component of the health of the entire snow sports industry,” Cohen said. “We need to make sure they provide the best service possible. We think Masterfit programs and products provide the best tools for them to achieve that goal. If your boots hurt or don’t perform at their best, you can’t be at your best. It’s that simple.”

Growing The Sport And The Channel

The attendees of last week’s event view boot fitting as a way to create more value for their customers, grow their own business and that of their brand partners, and—perhaps more importantly—help grow the sport of skiing.

“It’s not just an advantage, it’s the key,” said Greg Whitehouse, owner of the California Ski Co.in Berkeley, CA. “And not only is it key for a ski shop to be successful and stay in business in the internet age, but it’s also the key to moving your store forward because the No. 1 reason that people don’t ski is absolutely related to their feet, whether that’s discomfort or cold. Specialty shops are part of the answer to that problem. So we can not only stay in business, but we can hopefully save our industry.”

To a person, specialty shop attendees told SGB that anyone who tries skiing for the first time with poor-fitting boots and therefore aching feet is sure to say “oh, hell no” when asked if they would like to come back for a second day on the slopes.

“We lose 85 percent of the people skiing the very first time,” said Princeton Sports’ Davis. “When you talk to them, one of the biggest things they say is, ‘My feet hurt.’ The more we can make people comfortable, the more they’re going to ski. It’s that simple. Whether it’s the mother who’s making all the decisions for the family; if you keep her warm and comfortable, that family is going skiing going to Disney World. And that’s our biggest competition.”

Joe Liefer, hardgoods category manager for Lakewood, CO-based Christy Sports Ski and Snowboard, echoed that assessment. He noted that boots are the one piece of equipment that “touch your body,” and anyone who finds some comfort with what’s on their feet all day will walk back to the car with a more memorable experience.

“If you don’t get that one, you’re not going to win down the line. The end goal is to make the skiing experience better for everyone,” he said. “We’re in a sport that has declining participation, and while some of these people [at the Academy] have been our competitors, but coming together as a whole to try and keep specialty retail alive and to increase participation is just going to float all boats.”

What’s next for SSL and the Elevated Bootfitting Academy? Nacke said the goal is to keep up the program and perhaps expand it, while also offering similar course offerings in how to run rental and tuning programs.

Anything to give specialty shops an edge over their competitors, especially the online sellers, and provide a lift for the channel, the suppliers and the plateauing sport of skiing.

“The specialty channel has always been about giving the best experience possible to the customer,” Nacke said. “Yes, online just added a complication to it, but it hasn’t changed the mission statement.”

Photos by SGB Media