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The Digital Skeptic: Outdoors Industry Wins Where Web Can't Follow

Tickers in this article: BDE CAB

BOYNE CITY, Mich ( TheStreet) -- John and Shari Thompson wonder what the mountain of Web hoopla is all about.

"We have a website. We're active on Facebook (FB) . We do sell online," Thompson said as he showed me around his pride and joy, Shaggy's Copper Country Skis . He built this four-room factory in the old Knights of Columbus hall here on state Route 75, right down the road from the Boyne Mountain Resort, with its 500-foot vertical drop.

"But it has been no help to us. It's just not an obvious thing."

Thing is, this former framing contractor, who describes himself as a "bit of a pit bull," has got the story that, by rights, should make him be a digital, maker-age superstar: After the economy shut down and his home construction business went south, he and his wife essentially taught themselves how to mass-produce world-beating skis from local materials such as white ash hardwood and fabbed metal meant for the car industry.

He didn't need a magic 3-D desktop printing miracle. Rather, the couple straight up worked night and day and sometimes into the next night using good old-fashioned trial and error. Starting with designs, making some skis, seeing what worked, making more changes and then making more skis. In fact, all the duds are stacked in the corner by an old stage.

"I would go to chat rooms and look for ideas," Thompson told me. "But I realized that if I gave away too much there, I would not get anything for my knowledge."

But somehow, this normal dad who made houses for 15 years now custom fabs the most badass, superhero skis I've seen in some time. A solid pair of skis runs about $600, putting him out in front of major makers such as Europe's Rossignol and Atomic and Salt Lake City's Black Diamond Equipment (BDE) .

Business is growing. Shari told me they sold twice as many skis this year as last, which is remarkable considering that Shaggy's core customer is the limited experienced-skier market.

"These skis are not for sissies. You need to know how to drive 'em," Shari told me.
Wanna know the remarkable, digital age punchline? Despite being straight out of information age central casting and thus primed to hack the Web to marketing greatness, guess what Shaggy's really relies on to sell skis?

"I'm looking to connect to the better retail ski shops that can communicate my brand to customers," he explained.

That's right, friends. When it comes to selling the big outdoors, the Web is nothing more than a random snowdrift that needs to be plowed through.

The mystery of the high margin snow monster
What investors need to know here is that the high-end outdoor industry Thompson works in is a rare bright spot in today's Dark Age 2.0. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the Boulder, Colo.-based industry trade group, last year Americans spent $646 billion on outdoor recreation, roughly double what they spent on pharmaceuticals.