Chamonix is an entirely different level of mountain. Picture Tetons stacked on top of Tetons for as far as the eye can see. Put trams to their gnarliest peaks, get rid of any sort of terrain closures, run building-swallowing glaciers down every valley, and add in a culture that encourages drinking throughout the day and you begin to get an idea of what we’re dealing with.
To serve the riders that call this valley home, as well as the tourists that want to play there, you need an entirely different type of retailer. Martin Green owns Zero G, THE snowboard shop in Chamonix, and on a recent trip to backcountry riding’s promised land, we had a chance to tour the shop with him to see what’s checking.
Here’s a look inside the shop:
We followed up with Green and store manager Tom Wilson-North via email to hear more about the shop, the French market, and get some great insight on service, demos, and the future of splitboarding:
How would you describe your shop to someone who’s never been there?
It's like a toy shop for grownups; but the best you could ever imagine. Everything you've thought about buying this year is under our roof. The space is comfortable, well-lit and rammed full of products. The staff are incredibly knowledgable and attitude-free, and the workshop guys are miracle workers.
What are your best selling categories in the summer and the winter?
During the summer months we become a skate shop and bike shop - the biggest categories by far in the summer are cross-country and enduro mountain bikes. Winter is definitely snowboards.
How about your best selling brands in those?
In the winter Lib Tech and Burton are about neck-and-neck. I think Burton was slightly in front this year. Jones slots in third behind those two. Then when the snow melts Specialized and Cannondale are our big bike brands.
Chamonix is an entirely different level from most resorts. How does the terrain translate into the snowboard products you sell?
Chamonix is not a resort, but not just a town. It's got a phenomenal reputation worldwide which we need to live up to. The backcountry thing is huge for us of course - you think Chamonix, you think glaciers, exposure, and gnar. So we do the backcountry thing. This year we opened Black Diamond which sold though really well. We don't sell too many jib boards or soft-ass bindings.
You guys have a huge splitboard section. What’s been working for you as far as split and backcountry gear sales?
We've sold through a ton of Burton Freebird and Jones Solution. They are our hottest boards. In bindings, Karakoram and Spark R&D both work. The splitboard thing has been good so far, but we are apprehensive about this category for 13/14. There are lots of boards coming out, from lots of different brands, and I think the market isn't quite as massive as people think. What is really cool, and where we are really fortunate, is having the workshop guys out back who all splitboard most days and have a ton of kit and machinery to fix broken stuff. That helps when we're trying get the boards and bindings set up right. If only I could tell you the amount of misdrills, dodgy alignments, ill-cut steel we've had to repair.
You do a ton of demos out of your shop. How do you structure that program?
Demos definitely help to sell product, but our demo program is expensive to finance and run. We also have to tread a fine line between weeding out the chancers who just want to 'test' a board for free during his vacation, with no intention of buying, versus the more serious dudes who genuinely need to try before they buy. So we charge people to test boards, then deduct up to three days of 'testing' if they end up buying a board. That seems fair to us.
Based at such a gnarly mountain, what do you look for in employees?
Employees need to be quick to think on their feet and good at problem solving. They also need to know how to gap bergschrunds and dickwave at apres-ski.
Seriously though, we look for smart salespeople who are relatively self-motivated and able to understand a really, really wide line of products. The service thing is something we play up too. Put it this way, we operate in a country that's not exactly known for it's customer service excellence, but our clientele is largely international and has high expectations. So being able to provide top-notch after-sales service and caring about clients is key. Our team has remained unchanged for years now, and our guys are all familiar with how things go down both behind the scenes and out front.
Tell us a little about your clientele.
We have a mix of holidaymakers and locals, mostly international. There's a huge seasonnaire scene in Chamonix and we try and hook those guys up as best we can. We do big preseason sales that are really popular with locals. You know, us guys that live in ski towns, we have giant piles of kit all around town 24/7. Ski town people never want to pay full price for anything...you know how it is.
What three things are you most proud of about your shop?
- We've invested hugely in redoing the walls, the lighting and the frontage at massive expense over the last couple of years, it looks awesome now. So that's been an important one for us.
- Year on year our inventory levels drop lower and lower as we sell through better and resist the temptation to load up on closeouts. So having a stock level that is becoming more healthy is something we are stoked about.
- Our shop-floor guys have without doubt the biggest pool of snowboard-specific knowledge in the whole of the Alps. Everyone snowboards, and everyone snowboards almost every day. We live and breathe backcountry snowboarding in this place, which is one of the reasons we do it so well.
What three things would you change if you could?
- We'd work some origami magic on the walls so we could make more show surfaces and display even more product!
- We'd expand to be able to show our bike lines throughout the winter - sales aren't that frequent offseason, but they're big ones when they happen.
- We'd perhaps relocate so we're more central on the Chamonix high street ; our word-of-mouth visitors are one in two, but there are plenty of people who miss us because we're 100 feet off the block.
How was the winter for you?
Yeah, it's been OK ; because Chamonix goes so high we aren't really affected by snowfall, because there's good snow here pretty much every year. In fact, in low snow years we get better frequentation since the lower resorts have no snow. This year the snowfall has been huge and low everywhere. Performance-wise, we were up most of the winter and it's just started going a little flat towards the end.
Where is the French snowboarding market at these days? What have been the recent highlights and low lights?
No one has an easy time of it these days, do they? What we call the Candide (Thoves) Effect has been a big downer, it's taken the under-17 market and put it pretty much exclusively on skis. There just aren't many young snowboarders around nowadays. So I'd say the French snowboard market is slowly aging. The “new gear, every year” thing is dead in the water. But at the same time people are more informed than ever and getting new tech stories across isn't as hard as it could be. The top end of our range has done OK, the bottom end less well this year. But I think that's the same pretty much everywhere.
What brands and gear are you going deep in next year?
I've bought with the theme 'stuff we ride ourselves' this year. We have mountains of Sweet Protection gear coming, that's great stuff, really technical with awesome colours. Classics like black Cartels and Driver Xs are going to be big for us as every year. The new Spark R&D Tesla system is killer and will reduce split setup and transition times. We're opening Mammut, that'll be a good complement to our backcountry corner, they have some really nice hardware.
With the rise in splitboarding there are a whole bunch of new backcountry users out there. We are focusing on making their lives easier. Easier with stuff like high traction skins, solid advice on sidehilling, and crampon use. Safer through on-point advice about what gear they're gonna need out there and initiatives like our new partnership with Chamonix's Avalanche Academy. Now you've bought this transceiver, how about learning how it works ?