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The Problem with Rental Shops

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Ending a day on the mountain with sore shins, crushed toes, and frozen feet is the fastest way to ensure a first-time skier never returns to the slopes.

Sure, the gear is to blame. But whose fault is it? The rental shop employee, the shop manager or owner, or the skier?

Some shop owners say it’s all of the above.

Scott Foster, owner of Lone Mountain Sports in Big Sky, Mont., says it’s a combination of rental shop employees not being trained well enough-which stems from shop managers and owners not training them-and skiers wanting to ski, not stand in line.

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“They just want to get the getting of equipment over with,” Foster says.

Quick-moving rental lines are both good and bad, he acknowledges. It gets people skiing sooner, and the shop can fulfill more rental orders, and make more money. But with a fast turnaround, skiers don’t always get the service they need, which can result in a painful day on the hill.

“If the customer has a bad experience, there’s a good chance, especially on the rental side, that they may be one and done,” says Steven Richter, manager of the Ski Stop in Plainview, N.Y. “I certainly have seen some folks turned off by a bad rental experience.”

But even those shop owners and managers who think rental shops could be more renter-friendly know that, ultimately, they serve the industry.

“It’s kind of a cattle call, but they get you in and out,” says Denny Sachen, owner of Doc’s Ski and Sports in Santa Monica, Calif.

Sachen’s shop stopped renting skis in the ’80s, but he knows the business side of renting and says that rental shops help attract new skiers to an expensive sport. Rick Holliday, owner of Ski Frisco Sports in Frisco, Texas, agrees.

“The exact role of a rental shop is to bring new skiers into an expensive family sport,” Holliday says.

The biggest failure in the rental industry, he says, lies with bootfitting, because many rental shop employees don’t take the time to properly fit a renter. That means the shop is sending out already-anxious first-timers who don’t know they’re doomed from the start.

“That’s why the concierge boot people are doing so well,” he says.

One of those concierge companies, Black Tie Ski Rentals, is capitalizing on the stresses of renting gear and making sure new skiers and experts alike want to come back.

“Our whole model is based on a great experience,” says Joe Sternberg, Black Tie Ski Rentals’ co-founder. “My whole philosophy has always been bringing people back to the sport. If you lose sight of that, I think you’re in trouble.”

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To ensure that customers are happy, Black Tie relies on quality gear—including boots—and a well-trained staff that caters to clients.

Sternberg says a vast majority of revenue from many ski shops comes from the rental department, so it’s worth investing more time and money into serving customers better.

Some shop owners and managers recommend having an experienced bootfitter in or near the rental area during busy times to help with hard-to-fit feet. Others say starting inexperienced employees in the rental department does them and the renter a disservice and is the equivalent of the blind leading the blind.

Foster feels there’s still some work to do, but focusing on the need of new skiers is a fine start.

“That’s definitely a good approach: trying to get more people involved by making that first experience or the first handful of experiences way better,” he says.

How do you think the rental market impacts the industry?

Categories: Features

15 Responses to “The Problem with Rental Shops”

  1. This year we found out first hand how much the rental market impacts the industry …. because of the perceived (or real) lack of snow, our rental numbers were down and therefore so was sales of helmets, goggles, gloves, face masks, balaclavas, hats, gaiters, and other ski sundries and supplies. You could clearly see the direct correlation between rental sales volume and sales of items under $120. Our shop primarily sells higher end intermediate, advanced and race product. Despite the fact that we really don't sell introductory level skis and equipment and as much as we don't want to admit it, the rental industry is still a very big part of our business and the industry as a whole.

  2. Rick P. says:

    Rentals have gotten out of hand. Rentals should be limited to the first, maybe second year a customer tries our sport. But every season, more and more people are renting instead of purchasing. Even people that have skied for 10 or more years are renting.

    But don't blame the rental shops. They're just responding to customer demand. Part of the blame is on the airlines for charging baggage fees. Another to blame is the manufactures because they allow more and more units to be purchased for rental. And when manufactures keep changing their graphics and models every year, the customer has a hard time keeping up with trends and sees renting to be more cost effective.

    I'm not saying rentals are bad, they're not. It's something that's needed. But it should limited to beginners and intermediate skiers. Performance rentals have just given the customer another reason not to purchase skis.

    • JF Lanvers says:

      The trend you're observing is what has crept up in a country like France over the last 50 years, where rentals have finally cannibalized retail ski sales. Currently, 60% of the skiers are renting in France instead of buying and most skiers are driving, not flying, to the slopes. Expect to see a similar trend taking hold in North America in the near future.

  3. Commie Hunter says:

    I've been saying this for years. Our staff is trained to take as much time as necessary to get the boot fit right. But then our insurance company has a video, that among other things, show show to set up rentals. It emphasizes getting the paper work right but then goes on to say you only need to fit the right foot. And we wonder why the sport isn't growing.

  4. Paul says:

    i agree that boot fitting is a huge area for success or failure. With rental systems in big rental shops, ski fitting is super fast and this has allowed more time and engery to be put into the boot fitting process. New boots with eazy in and out capabilty along with staff who get on thier knees and explain the fit, make a real measureable difference. This type of hands on boot fitting is actually delivering a faster rental speed because the guest is confident that they were fit right the first time. Guests also get personalized service even though they are in a process that puts hundreds of people a day out of the shop.
    At Winter Park Resort we invest at least $500,000 a year in new gear and measure the speed of service, quality of boot fit and over all net promoter score weekly. We have to keep all these metrics in snyc and going up. Boot fit and comfort is an area we have really focused on and it has paid off in gains in share, satifaction and spedd of process.

    • paul says:

      Long term our business is absolutely dependant on a positive rental and lesson experience and we spend a lot of time and money ensuring we deliver the best we can. Frankly it, is can be the smaller rental shops with older gear and a lack of commitment to the rental process (training, age of gear, old facilities) that we need to see improvement from. Of course we can always do better and we are constantly challeneged by our guests and our management to move the quality of the overall rental experience up even higher.
      I do think that the gear itself is not the problem, more the age of the gear at some rental shops. The gear produced in the last few years is outstanding and our guests have given us the feedback to support this.

  5. Alex Douglas says:

    Having been in high volume rentals (1000 sets) for over 30 years, I've seen lots of change, I agree with comment above that faster binding adjustment has allowed more time for boot fitting. Also there's the 90-10 rule. 90% of customer will fit OK, ther other 10% will take 90 % of your time. I've got older boots I keep on the top shelf (Rossignol soft) or the size 16 from 15 years ago, and my staff know that after two boots if the custome's feet still hurt then they get me or BOB, we always measure the foot we never say what shoe size are you. But here my question, we now do Rental Season Passes (over 450 sold last year). You can ski or snowboard, change lenghts to suit the conditions, kids can change shoe size, etc. The guest does NOT take the equipment home. I think it's the way to go but obviously from comments above may be a concern to some retailers.

  6. It all comes down to greed. If you, as an owner, are willing to pay more, give more benefits and keep professionals around the issues will be very few. If you, as an owner, invest in high quality equipment and infrastructure in and for the store the issues will be very few.
    If your shop invests in your clients, the tuning, the people and their names and their expereience the issues will be very few.
    If you have a shop at the base of the ski area instead of 100 miles from the slopes or instead of a van full of skis and garage and cell phone the issues will be very few.
    Great shops don't come and go and great staff stay with the same owners year after year. Great shops know how to fit boots because the boots they have are high quality boots that fit better to begin with and they know how to fit them.
    Anyone who thinks its all about boot fitting is missing the point. Its about investing in your clients, their family, their experience and having your professional staff make them the center of the universe.
    You don't have to stand in line unless the greed has prevented you from having the software in place to go paperless.
    Owners need to realize they represent the sport when the day starts to when it ends and they go home. We are the first ones to get them ready for the day and we are the ones to send home for jacuzzi, beer/wine and bed. We are who they trust for on hill info, best runs to ski and what to have and buy. If you wouldn't let the ski tech watch your kids do you really want them talking to your clients? Fitting their boots or choosing their skis?
    Invest more, pay your staff more, care more and FINALLY and most IMPORTANTLY make more.

    • Well said, Chad. I completely agree. I've had a sign around for years that says, "Helping you is the most important thing I have to do today." – Not only important for the customers to know but I keep reminding myself!!

  7. Richie Fredericks says:

    I work in New Jersey and the southeast and will tell you there are some real "dumps" posing as rental shops. First time skiers want the rental experience to be as though they are walking into a ski shop to purchase. They want helpful, knowledegable people and equipment that looks good and is well maintained. These are first time skiers, renters thinking about taking up the sport and we should treat them that way.

    Unfortunately there is no relationship between rental shops and retail stores so the rental shop is just looking for volume with the cheapest equipment they can purchase and delivered to the customer like meals being handed out in a soup kitchen. The renter wants good looking skis sized to them, dry ski boots that actually fit and the right length poles.

    The way most rental shops are set up and do business that is probably never going to happen so we may actually cause a bad experience to the first time renter/skier and turn them off to our sport. There should be some kind of a positive relationship between the rental shop and retailer.

  8. jwolter7 says:

    The issue is skier education and creating the common knowledge of why having good quality equipment for a sport that includes taking risk is important. I know one thing: the sport of rock climbing will never succeed at renting cheap ropes for their new customers…

    The very fact that after 25+ years of selling ski equipment I still have to explain what a trim-to-fit or custom insoles is and why it helps the ski boot fit correctly is a perfect example of the lack of educating we have done in this industry as a whole. We sell, we rent, we made adjustments to equipment every day, we just don't get much help from the industry on skier education. The number of ski customers today that think we are just trying to sell them another product they don't really need when we talk about a custom insole is amazing! Many that have the time to listen to us explain why they are important for a good fit do buy them.

    Have you ever seen a ski boot add that suggests the need for custom insoles, or that maybe the new boots might need some custom fitting before they take them on a two week vacation?

    The manufactures don't spend any time or money explaining to the customer why more expensive skis and boots give them more control and how they may be safer in the icy/deep snow/high speed environment of alpine skiing. There is risk in skiing be we don't like to talk about it for fear of turning people away. Fear is the number one reason many won't go skiing ever but we refuse to even tell them how to reduce the risk through the use of better fitting boots and properly tuned skis.

    We sell/rent the customer who wants the most control (a lot of intermediate men, and woman) the least quality equipment in our stores many times because they don't think they are good enough for better equipment. No one has even explained that better boots and better skis give all skiers more control and can take away the some of the fear of skiing.

    Go out and ski on your rental skis and boots which were tuned 20 days ago and see how much control you have as an experienced skier. We give them crap equipment, send them out on the busiest days of the year and then wonder why they only do the sport a few times each year…

    Many skiers are only looking for a cheap price and it's because they don't understand the difference in skis or boot performance (some do, if depends where you are located). At the rental counter on a busy Saturday morning you get very little time to educate the customer. We need help educating the customer, after 25+ years of setting up rentals, selling equipment and clothing and fitting custom boots I will admit that.

    Take a look at a great skier skiing on ice with poor equipment. Look familiar? http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embed

  9. The comments on this article are truly refreshing. It's good to know there are still like minded individuals working in the field.

    Several years ago I developed a few rental shop resources to compliment best practices and the Model for Growth. I would be happy to send any of the shop owners who responded to this article a copy of the boot fitting posters and dvd. The website is: gearingtogo.com which includes my contact details.

    In 2003 there was an event called The Plus 1 Showcase which gave manufacturers, rental shop staff and instructors an opportunity to gather in one place (indoors and on snow) to discuss beginner conversion and many of the subjects mentioned in this article. At that time Ski Area Management was going to organize subsequent events but I'm not sure what happened?

    The Ski and Snowboard Mechanics Workshops are still running each fall, and continue to provide hands-on training and management seminars (for new and experienced staff) at 15 locations across the country. This 2 day training is a great opportunity to educate staff on binding installation/inspection and ski/sb tuning.

  10. axelrodvonwheel says:

    I signed in finally and real am interested in the comments so far. I'm the Alex Douglas above and have tried to get communication going between rental shop managers for a few years now. I have a Yahoo Group site "skirentalshopnetwrok" but it's not very active. Maybe people could comment on the best social media to share comments and ideas about rentals. I believe SAM magainze would be very supportive as they have always had a very big presents at the SIA show. Basically I've the summer to try and get this working. Comments?

  11. I agree that the boot fitting is one of the main things that ski rental shops don't deal with properly. I always feel stressed when testing different ski boots, and I often get the feeling that the staff gets annoyed when you ask to try different sizes and different types of boots, since they have to go and get them for you.

  12. Steve Cohen says:

    We've trained literally thousands of bootfitters at Masterfit University in the past 17 years. In that time, I can count on two hands (with several fingers left over) how many rental personnel have attended our entry level course. Various boot fit initiatives aimed at resort operators have been met with ambivalence at best.

    Imagine you’ve heard only rave reviews about an expensive restaurant in town. The place is definitely a budget-stretcher but you decide to give it a go. Upon arrival, you’re shepherded to the back of a long line that snakes out the restaurant. You wait an hour to be seated at a table adjacent to the noisy kitchen—and it's set with chipped glassware and bent cutlery. A rookie chef and waiter are assigned to prepare and serve your meal. Which arrives cold. You’re terribly unhappy at the meal’s end.

    Your friends, though, are regulars here and they insist the experience gets much better the more often you dine. Would you come back again?

    This story may be good for a chuckle but that’s pretty much how the ski industry has been greeting new customers for decades. We force them to wait on long lines to rent outdated, ill-maintained gear. Worse yet, they are usually outfitted–and later instructed–by a resort’s least experienced personnel. Before resort operators seek to pin blame on equipment suppliers or the Professional Ski Instructors of America, it might be helpful to turn the mirror inward.

    No doubt the most neglected aspect of the rental process is the proper fitting of boots. As all experienced skiers know, if a boot fits poorly or causes pain, there is little chance of skiing well—even if the skier executes the proper maneuvers. It’s an old axiom that rental shops are to skiing as MASH units are to military medicine.

    Of course, ski resorts entrust triage to a battalion of 16-year-olds armed with nothing more than a screwdriver and a sizing stick (maybe). Sure speed is of the essence on a blitzkrieg Saturday morning but a little knowledge goes a long way, often saves time and most definitely makes for a better chance at developing a return customer.

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