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Adapt or Die
The Start Haus saw the writing on the wall two years ago. After two consecutive lackluster winters, the ski shop began selling stand-up paddleboards and accessories in the summer of 2013, and even hosted a weekly free SUP race on Donner Lake. This year Start Haus is making an even more radical change, transitioning to a bike shop for the summer and becoming a Giant Bicycles partner store. After nine years of only selling skis year-round, Start Haus is now remodeling, building a bike service center, and bringing on a full-time bike master mechanic, although it will still sell skis.
“We are definitely motivated by the poor winters,” said Leigh Dexter, who does ecommerce and information technology for Start Haus. “We decided to go all in and become a bike shop … because in winters like this last one, people mountain bike all year round.”
Start Haus is not alone in changing its business model to adapt to changing weather. With four low-snow winters in a row, businesses from ski resorts to retail stores to restaurants are feeling the heat as the snow dries up earlier in the season and visitors stop coming to Tahoe. To stay ahead of the game and survive, businesses not only have to change what they sell, but they are also ordering less goods, putting merchandise on sale earlier, and getting creative with promotions and deals, perhaps best illustrated by Squaw Valley’s announcement at the end of March of a new program that lets passholders roll over unused days towards the purchase of a season pass. As Alpenglow Sports owner Brendan Madigan said, “If you aren’t adaptable, you will fail.”
Like the Start Haus, Tahoe Dave’s Ski & Boards saw a pattern emerging after several years of low snowfall. For this past winter season, Dave’s purchased around 30 percent less merchandise, and is ordering the same amount for next winter.
“We cut to an amount that lets us get through a very lean year,” said Marina Marenco, Dave’s CFO.
These changes came after the 2013-2014 winter, which was especially hard on Dave’s due to the timing of the snow. With hardly any snow before Christmas, Dave’s five stores missed out on the normal spike in business around the holidays.
“I don’t think people realize that when we lose Christmas, we lose an extraordinarily large amount of money,” said Marenco, noting that Dave’s brings in about 25 percent of its revenue over the two-week holiday period. “Miracle March does nothing for us. It’s all about Christmas.”
In that, Dave’s and other Tahoe/Truckee businesses lucked out this year with a sizeable snowfall in December.
“If we get enough snow at the right time, it’s better than heavy snow,” Marenco said. “As long as it’s cold and the ski areas are making snow, people love the sunshine.”
According to Marenco, the Christmas bump generated by the December snowfall and a few other storms lasted through Martin Luther King weekend, but business began to taper off as the snow stopped falling, with a steady decline after Presidents Weekend. Although Dave’s two Tahoe City stores stay open year-round (the Kings Beach, Squaw Valley, and Truckee locations always close for the summer), winter brings in approximately 75 percent of Dave’s income.
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