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World Cup Ski & Cycle out in front with services

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It's not enough anymore in the world of independent retail to just set up shop in a good location with a defined set of products and services.

Internet retail has changed the game, said Lee Gonder, co-owner of World Cup Ski & Cycle in Camp Hill. Now, you need to do more and focus even harder on differentiating yourself, he said.

"We're hitting that small growth every year," Gonder said, "but as the number gets bigger, it becomes harder to maintain that growth rate."

World Cup had about $1.1 million in revenue last year, he said.

Gonder, his co-owner brother Dave Gonder and their staff of six are doing something right. In February, the Pennsylvania Retailers' Association named World Cup — the retailer of skis, bicycles, and accessories — its "Independent Retailer of the Year."

Association President Brian A. Rider heaped praise on the Gonders.

"They're honest businesspeople," he said, which helps the company maintain strong customer loyalty and repeat business. From there, new business comes from word-of-mouth.

It's refreshing to see a local specialty retailer doing so well, he said.

"Unfortunately, the majority of small businesses fail within their first five years," Rider said. "But they've continued to be successful for the last 18 years."

World Cup's move to 3804 Gettysburg Road two years ago was a big deal, Gonder said. The old "Hattie Harris" location on Gettysburg Road had a third of the space, multiple buildings and tractor-trailers in the parking lot.

The new shop has everything in one building, with room to grow, Gonder said.

For all the attention that "location, location, location" gets in retail, physical space means less than service and staff development when anyone can go onto the Internet and buy six bike tires for a cut rate, he said.

If consumers aren't using stores as showrooms, then buying online, they're researching online and buying in the store, Gonder said. Suddenly, your local expert has been replaced by hundreds online.

The local guy becomes an intermediary order filler, he said.

"When I look at retail, I think it's one of the harder sides of business," said George Book, president and CEO of the West Shore Chamber of Commerce.

Independent retailers have to stay on top of their industry trends, serve the customer, stock the store, manage employees, balance the books and do routine maintenance, he said.

"That's a lot for a small business to do, because they do everything," Book said. "If you look at a big company, they have entire staff dedicated to these things."

Specialty shops do well at that by attacking their niches with dedication, he said.

Other West Shore retailers are going the same route.

"Our big challenge right now is that we're going through growth," said Cindy Washburn, owner of Oxford Hall, a New Cumberland shop specializing in gifts, jewelry, books, food and tea inspired by and from Ireland and the United Kingdom, the heart of Celtic culture.

Washburn dropped the "Celtic Shop" from the store's name recently, reflecting its growth beyond Celtic gifts. She hired a cook to serve patrons authentic food, is working on a new e-commerce website to sell nationally, and is connecting with more Irish and British artisans.

"We're doing this so people can come in and have a true transportative experience," Washburn said.

For Gonder, the solution is to pedal harder through the curves.

"We're doing a lot of internal work," he said, "like getting to a focused staff of full-timers so we can offer customers enthusiastic staff who really care about skiing and cycling."

Events are another winning combination. Last summer, World Cup invited customers to meet with representatives from winter clothing manufacturers, getting the scoop on the latest gear. The event went over well for everyone involved, he said.

"We're trying to do more of these events, as well as get a bigger online presence," Gonder said.

That's the thing with the Internet: It presents some knee-jolting moguls for retailers to navigate, but it's also an avenue to broaden their customer base.

"Your customers are global," Gonder said.

Add high-end products and specialty services — like Fischer ski boots vacuum-formed to the individual athlete or travel bike-fitting services — and retailers chip away at the convenience factor propelling the Internet over bricks-and-mortar retailers.

But it isn't easy, and you need to love it.

"I look at business like having a kid," Gonder said. "You think you know, but you don't know until you have one."

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