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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Updated: June 27, 2:02 PM ET
Snow Business: The shop owner

By Devon O'Neil
ESPN.com

Dave Stillman in front of his shop in Breckenridge, Colo., earlier this week.
Snowmaker Entrepreneur Marketing Guy Shop Owner Heli Outfitter

[Last winter in a nutshell: Ski resort visitor numbers were down 15 percent nationwide, ski and snowboard gear sales dropped 12 percent, and snowfall was at near record lows. In this five-part interview series, called Snow Business, we talk to the people in the snowsports industry who are coming up with innovative ways to keep their businesses thriving despite the crummy winter. Full disclosure on this interview: Writer Devon O'Neil is a part-time employee at AMR ski shop in Breckenridge.]

Over the past four winters, in the midst of a recession and Colorado's ongoing drought, a grassroots Breckenridge ski shop named AMR has seen its revenue increase nearly 70 percent, into the mid-six figures. The growth is no accident. As a part-time employee, I've watched owner Dave Stillman make some risky but strategic moves to generate new business. First, in the immediate wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he knocked down a wall and added 600 square feet. Then he brought in a lodging company to occupy that space, yet declined to charge rent. He dropped some of the biggest brands in the industry and committed more money to smaller companies. He gave locals 40 percent off demo rates. Most notably, after nearly two decades of strictly renting equipment, last winter he started selling skis and snowboards on retail racks, a decision that saved an otherwise dire season. Here, Stillman -- who's owned AMR for 18 years and worked in local shops for the past 30 -- shares more insight gleaned from the shop floor.

Being the only year-round ski shop in town is a big advantage. The other shops have put away all their winter stuff and are just doing bike stuff now. They don't even want to talk about ski gear, which works out well for me because I don't want to talk about bike gear. All summer long, I'm talking about skis and snowboards.

The only things that are left, of course, are the fat skis and rockered snowboards. We would've sold them if we'd gotten any snow, but that's what I'm selling now. It's fine. Even though we're closing it out, it's still product inventory that's paid for.

Because of the down economy, a couple other shops went out of business and left a window for another shop to pick up that slack. I saw there was a place for us to develop a new market -- selling equipment versus just renting it. Instead of saying, "Screw it, I'm not going to take it," I said, "I will take it."

It probably would've saved me $30,000 this year if I'd bought all Chinese-made products versus the independent brands I'm trying to buy. But for me that's also a marketing tool. It's not hard to talk people into a small company's product.

Without taking risks, you stay at a mediocre level of business.

-- Shop owner Dave Stillman

Smaller brands are like microbrews. Nobody wants to drink a Budweiser anymore. You go into a liquor store, and at least half the brands are small. That's what people want to drink now. That's what people want to ski, too.

You can't advertise for word-of-mouth business. Instead of running a $10,000 ad, I'd rather take that 10 grand and give it to my customers through $25 demos or 20 percent off rentals for returning customers. It builds loyalty and it brings more people in.

Without taking risks, you stay at a mediocre level of business. You can't create more revenue without spending. If you keep the same crappy product and don't spend any money, you're not going to make any more money.

Instead of buying a new cash register or better computer system, that kind of stuff, I've invested in ski and snowboard technology.

The lodging company in my shop doesn't pay any rent, and I don't pay them any commission. They check in their guests, and once the guests are in the store, they're ours; we're doing business.

I feel like we're still seeing customers who have come year after year. A lot of them are not super rich, especially the ones that come from the drive states like Nebraska and Kansas, where they throw 20 people in a car and stop here first and we smell their stinky feet. Those people are still here, and they're here in droves.