"Don lives and breathes skiing," says ski-racing legend Stein Eriksen, who's bought a lot of things from Thomas over the years-including, once, a Studebaker. Thomas' Sporthaus, which has served Detroit-area skiers for 51 years, is the oldest ski shop in America still operated by its founder. At 76, Thomas shows up every day and still "keeps track of everything that goes on in the sport," Eriksen says admiringly. After more than a half-century of working the floor, Thomas knows his way around the shop. His tips for avoiding retail hell:
Do your homework.
Before you walk into a ski shop, read everything you can about what's available and determine the features that are most important to you. "It makes no sense to buy racing gear if you're going to cruise blues," Thomas says.
When you enter a shop, notice whether gear is well-organized. In good shops, merchandise will be easy to find. "If the shop is a mess, with gear strewn all over, go somewhere else," he advises.
Getting the right gear depends on a dialogue between the buyer and seller, so ask the salesperson questions. How much do you ski? Why does the shop carry a particular brand? How long have you worked here? "Salespeople who are the real deal will be eager to talk skiing," Thomas says. "Pretenders will tap dance."
A good salesperson will ask you things like what conditions you like, where you ski, what type of trails you prefer. Conversation reveals your ability and aspirations. The most common problem is getting "over-skied," or buying a ski that's more than you need. "'We sell a lot of these' is useless information," he warns. "You want something suited for you, not based on the shop's sales."
Mind your feet.
"The easiest thing to sell is a ski boot that's too large; the most difficult thing to sell is a ski boot that's the right size." It's rare that a ski boot fits right out of the box. Good shops can customize boots with footbeds and adjustments. If your retailer only has you try on different sizes of the same boot, your chances of getting the correct boots are slim.
Don't be fooled.
There's a huge difference between technical skiwear and look-alikes. What looks good in a big-box store may perform miserably on snow. This is particularly true when it comes to layering. "If that fake ski jacket leaks and soaks your cotton long underwear, you've wasted your money, both on your outfit and your lift ticket," Thomas says.
Ask about service.
Good shops help you maintain your gear. Properly tuned skis perform dramatically better than untuned ones. Good shops want you to ski well so you'll come back. "If you ask about tunes and the salesperson's first thought is an iPod, find another shop."