Snowboarding the Web

Bring the slope-loving community together online

Back Article Mar 31, 2010 By David Bunker

Before Twitter or Facebook, Mike Harrosh was hard at work on a plan to translate the vibe, camaraderie and passion of snowboarding culture to the Internet landscape.

Harrosh, a second-generation sporting goods retailer, founded Sierra Snowboard in Sacramento in 2004. But the brick-and-mortar store was just the launching point for a much more ambitious plan — grow to a national snow sports retailer by tapping a young, Web-savvy generation into an online community that would provide all the inventory of a traditional board shop plus a lot more.

Harrosh’s plan has been wildly successful. In a year where snowboard sales have dropped in the West by 16 percent, Sierra Snowboard, which employs 55 workers, is on pace to double its sales volume from last winter. The shop sold more than 35,000 snowboards this winter most of them through its website, SierraSnowboard.com. The booming online business has prompted Sierra Snowboard to move into a 200,000-square-foot Rocklin warehouse.

The recipe for Sierra Snowboard’s success is a mix of a popular forum page where more than 200,000 registered users discuss anything from snow conditions to board performance, an extensive media page where new riders can learn basic tricks from video tutorials, and a live chat that replicates the in-store customer service of a physical retailer.

“It’s the core shop of the future,” Harrosh says. And Sierra Snowboard continues to push the envelope by working with manufacturers like Burton and Capita to offer Sierra â?¨Snowboard-designed boards that can only be purchased through its website.

The success of the company doesn’t surprise Kelly Davis, a researcher with SnowSports Industries America who follows trends in snow sports. 

While board shops in the West have taken a beating this year, Internet sales have continued to surge no matter how fickle the weather or how tumultuous the economy, Davis says.

“People are living more of their lives online,” Davis says. “People walk around with an iPhone in their hands, and it changes the way we get information.”

Davis calls stores like Sierra Snowboard “bricks and clicks,” meaning they are traditional brick-and-mortar stores that have moved into online retailing. And she says they have a bright future in the next few years, given that online sales for specialty stores jumped from 14 percent of the market in 2006, to 36 percent in 2009.

Snowboard sales are flourishing online because of people like Tat Chow, a 28-year-old Los Angeles resident who first noticed SierraSnowboard.com in 2006.

“I am addicted to the Internet, and I was on other social sites like MySpace and Friendster,” Chow said in an email. “I found [Sierra Snowboard’s] website a few months earlier by searching for a snowboard in the off-season. I saw they had the best deals and bookmarked the website.”

The retailer’s site was soon added to Chow’s list of regular online destinations. Like many Sierra Snowboard members, he began adding content to the website, reviewing gear, answering questions and posting information. What he got in return was a chance at free snowboard and gear giveaways, a connection with fellow snowboarders and access to all of the site’s snowboarding tutorials and information.

Over time, Chow estimates he has become friends with more than 50 people through the site, and met many of his regular snowboarding partners.

And, of course, Chow was soon not only a forum member, but a regular consumer of Sierra Snowboard products.

The trend of using social networking or online forums to generate Web traffic and add online customers is not unique to Sierra Snowboard. Burton launched its own e-commerce site and community, and other popular forums like Teton Gravity Research draw an enormous audience. But perhaps no one has done it as organically as the Sacramento company.

Sierra Snowboard uses no cookie cutter Web platforms. It employs its own team of Web developers and software experts who have built the site and work to keep the commerce, forum and media portions tightly linked.

“We have the problem that everybody wants: We have way too much content,” says Erik Christiansen, who leads the company’s Web division.

Sierra Snowboard also supports its online community by organizing a series of “palooza” parties each winter where community members come out by the hundreds to mingle and demo new gear.

“These events allow members to interact on a more personal level with staff and other members, providing a sense of community. It’s almost as if we are all part of one big family,” Chow says.

Headed into the spring, the online retailer has its hands more than full. Sales are lighting up the servers with thousands of clicks each day, and the company is moving into its new warehouse.

And, unlike many of its competitors, as the snow melts Sierra Snowboard won’t abandon snowboard retailing. Employees will rent a house at Mt. Hood where hard-core snowboarders ride through the summer on a glacier-cooled slope and they can continue to spread the word about the company to die-hard boarders.

It’s that enthusiasm for snowboarding beamed onto hundreds of thousands of computers across the country that has fueled each of Sierra Snowboard’s sales. And Harrosh doesn’t see it slowing anytime soon.

“I think we can continue to grow at this pace because when you look at the retail base online there is so much room for improvement,” Harrosh says. “I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what can be done online.”

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