In a world where virtually everything is available on Amazon, why do consumers choose to shop with a specialty store?
"Service is what differentiates a good specialty store from the struggling ones," says Greg Bannister, COO for ski apparel and accessories brand Sport Obermeyer. "There's a lot of competition for specialty ski, with DICK's, REI and other big-box stores selling skis and clothing for two months of the year and offering discounts. If you're buying from Amazon, you're going to get your ski boots and not be happy. But in a specialty store, staff will fit you, talk about what works and what doesn't, and steer you into a purchase that you're happy with."
Sport Obermeyer has built its brand on offering just such top-notch service in addition to highly engineered garments packed with the kinds of features you need for a long day on the slopes: waterproofing, breathability and comfortable stretch. With 97-year-old founder Klaus Obermeyer at its helm, the ski brand has navigated numerous changes in the specialty apparel landscape, implementing a robust software suite from NGC to modernize its business operations and its supply chain. According to Bannister, the software implementation improved how Sport Obermeyer communicates with factories located in countries including China, Vietnam and El Salvador.
"We're actually writing POs and they're acknowledging them through our system," he explains. "We can track them from when they get fabric to when they start to cut and sew. We have a better idea of what's going on with factories overseas."
What's more, the software platform has streamlined the product design and development process. "On the collaboration side, one of the things I try to mandate is that we don't use email to talk about a style," Bannister says. "When you start that you can have emails in 10 to 15 different inboxes. When you're talking style to the factory, we send them a note through the system. It could be fit questions or design aspects, and we get a very good narrative for every style of what's being discussed about it."
NGC's supply chain software helps to accelerate some movements within the supply chain as well. Sport Obermeyer uses the system to create advance shipment notices so they know exactly what's being picked, packed and loaded onto cargo ships. Whereas unloading containers newly arrived on dock once took four to five days due to workers who manually checked pages and pages of printouts, today the unloading happens "right away. Now everything is barcoded and scanned," notes Bannister.
Transcending outmoded manual processes has enabled Sport Obermeyer to focus on forward-thinking initiatives such as expanding into new categories and upgrading its website. The "single-season" company has launched additional apparel lines to drive sales throughout the shoulder season, including fleeces, base layers and sweaters, and is considering a heritage line for 2018/2019 that would dovetail well with those categories. "We feel like there's enough demand for our product that we'd be able to go into those shoulder seasons," Bannister adds.
Women's products remain Sport Obermeyer's top sellers, with men's "growing very nicely" for the past three years. However, the brand has seen its market share in children's apparel and accessories decline. "It could be a matter of people not skiing as much perhaps, or not going to specialty stores to buy our products," says Bannister.
Working in an industry that depends on the weather for boon or bust is a continuing challenge. "We were worried that there was no snow on the ground at Thanksgiving," observes Bannister. "Last year there was no snow until January. It's hard asking dealers to place orders when they've not even sold what they have on hand."
Sport Obermeyer maintains close relationships with its network of more than 500 dealers. The partners that embrace newer retail technologies and strategies such as e-commerce and omnichannel are thriving, says Bannister, but others that fail to diversify struggle and then often go out of business.
For those that are succeeding, Sport Obermeyer's upgraded website has been a great source of traffic and revenue. The ski brand has staunchly refused to get into the e-commerce business itself for fear of becoming a competitor to its dealers. Instead, consumers shopping on its website can add products to their cart but are then directed to a partner's website based on inventory availability, among other factors. Top dealers with solid e-commerce platforms have reported up to 1 million annual referrals — about 10 percent of which end up converting — directly from the Sport Obermeyer site, "selling $200,000 extra based on what we're able to feed them," says Bannister.
Looking to the future, Sport Obermeyer is in the process of upgrading pattern development. The one thing that Bannister is most excited about is the potential of 3D design, having purchased Optitex 3D pattern making software this past summer with the goal of rendering all garments in 3D for this year's October catalogue. In addition, Sport Obermeyer is now communicating with factories via electronic patterns. "In the past, we'd FedEx patterns, make changes, and send them back," says Bannister. "Now we can tweak them in real time."
Elevating pattern production aligns with Obermeyer's desire to continually make a better product. "It's kind of a wonderful thing that from one year to the next things always get better. They don't get cheaper, they get better," he explains. "Our technical measurements are as good as the most expensive skiwear you could buy, the $1,000 parkas out there, except we charge less than half for it."
Consumers, especially savvy Millennial shoppers, will always appreciate great design and great quality. "The best salesman is the product itself," adds Obermeyer.