Tales From the Slopes

Steve Kopitz, owner and president of Birmingham, Mich.-based Don Thomas Sporthaus, brought 18 employees to the top of Blyme Mountain in Northern Michigan for the annual 2007 MRA Test Fest last February. Although the skiing-goods retailer attends Test Fest annually (a several-day event that allows retailers to preview, test and review the upcoming season’s latest winter-sports equipment) this year took a different turn.

After each of the employees flew down the mountain with a pair of test skis, which varied in brand, style and user-level, they met a videographer at the bottom to record a 30-second unscripted, unedited review. The testimonials were posted online in September—in time for the new season—at the retailer’s Web site, www.skis.com. These videos take typical online reviews to the next level.

“Buying an expensive item on a Web site can be scary,” Kopitz said. “If you’re going to be spending hundreds of dollars on a product like skis, you want it to be perfect for you. With so many high-quality skis now out in the market, it makes it difficult for consumers to narrow their choices.”

Don Thomas Sporthaus is owned by Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Summit Sports, which operates 10 sporting-goods stores throughout the state under the Summit Sports banner and one under the Don Thomas banner. While Summit Sports sell a wide variety of sporting goods, Don Thomas Sporthaus caters to outdoor-sports enthusiasts with mid- to high-end ski, snowboard and inline-skate equipment, accessories and apparel. Since it is known for its ski merchandise, shoppers expect top-notch recommendations and tips from the sales team.

“Shoppers put a lot of faith into the salesperson because many skis look alike. They want as much information as possible in order to feel confident about making a purchase decision,” Kopitz said.

Most of the testers, who ranged from salespeople and store managers to professional ski instructors and slope patrollers, have advanced knowledge of ski equipment—and their honest reactions to their test skis show in each clip.

For example, one reviewer said, “This is the lightest ski I put on my foot all day. My initial reaction was that this would have chattering speed, but when I laid into my first turn, I was totally surprised and had the opposite reaction.” Another reviewer raved about the same product, but warned, “I wouldn’t recommend this one for the expert skier.”

“Many sites have reviews on them, but it’s hard to tell if the feedback is legit or not,” Kopitz said. “With a video, there is no doubt that they just tested the product. It becomes instantly more credible than written reviews.”

Since Don Thomas Sporthaus now provides more information about its products online, Kopitz decided to give customers access to the same insight while shopping in-store. If a shopper has an inquiry about a set of skis, a salesperson can wheel over a laptop station and show them a video review.

Not only are customers making more confident purchasing decisions, sales are up 156% year to date over last year, Kopitz said. And since posting the videos, Skis.com has received 20,000 unique visitors per week, which is an increase of 15% to 20% each week. The company is expecting 75,000 to 100,000 unique visitors per week in the peak season.

Looking ahead, Don Thomas Sporthaus plans to use the video testimonials on other products, too, from jackets to goggles. It plans to implement another online feature next year that asks shoppers a series of questions to pair them with the best product for their lifestyle, preferences and skills.

Kopitz said his team will be hitting Blyme Mountain once again in February 2008 to film, preview and review the latest in next year’s product offerings.