NEW YORK -- This winter's tepid temperatures have some snow sport companies reexamining their core business and trying to energize their brands with different categories.
In terms of frequent participation, the five most popular activities among women are: ice hockey, figure skating, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and snowboarding, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
But snow sport companies don't care how much customers get out on the mountain, as long as they buy. Just as activewear companies have realized that nonathletic types can ring up the registers, snow sport brands also are looking toward those less active folks. At the same time, they're not abandoning their customer base and will also introduce new technical products.
Barbara Owen, director of sales and marketing at Sport Obermeyer, said now that more resorts have terrain parks with jumps, half pipes and rails, the likes of free riders, alpine skiers, snowboarders and telemarketers are getting an eyeful of each other's styles and adopting pointers. An influx of color is the most obvious sign of their unofficial time share, said Owen, noting that hot pink and tangerine are two new shades for next year.
Snowboarders, for example, are giving up their signature khaki-colored pants in favor of red, charcoal or black, and they're trying out slimmer styles instead of tried-and-true baggy looks.
This infusion of newness comes at a good time considering stores in the Northeast and the Midwest are weathering a somewhat rocky winter, due to unseasonably warm and dry conditions, Owen said.
"In the snow sport industry, this is the time to go big and have better things to offer," Owen said. "We don't want the stores to look exactly the same. This is the time to step out."
Buyers at last month's Ski Industries of America trade show in Las Vegas turned out in force, she noted. Instead of dwelling on this year's rough patches, they recalled business of previous seasons to try to get a median approach for next winter. They also didn't blink at show organizers' decision to schedule the event for late January instead of March, as a way "to kick off the season sooner," Owen said.Columbia Sportswear is turning more attention to Europe and Canada, and will open a $30 million distribution facility in Cambrai, France, next year to better serve European countries. European and Canadian sales each accounted for about 10 percent of Columbia's business and both climates are prime for snow sports, said Sean Beers, director of investor relations.
Columbia considers the U.S. market to be the most mature of the countries it services. But there are still pockets of growth in outerwear in a variety of price points from $30 to $500, Beers said. The company aims to offer more sportswear and footwear, which now account for 14 percent and 30 percent, respectively, of its business.
Burton, the Burlington, Vt.-based company credited with jump-starting the snowboarding craze, is introducing a "Back to School" sportswear line for fall. Jackets, shirts, cargo pants and accessories will be offered to select specialty stores beginning in June. The collection should help test the waters for a major apparel launch in 2003 or 2004, a Burton spokeswoman said.
REI's women's outerwear sales have increased 30 percent this year, partially due to an upswing of interest in snow sports, a company spokesman said. With 59 stores and three more set to open this spring, the outdoor specialty chain has the buying power to ask manufacturers to develop products to meet their customers' needs.
Next winter, REI plans to keep the momentum going by offering more women's products from Columbia, Patagonia, Helly Hanson and Salomon, as well as its private label. Jackets with vents and panels that can easily be unzipped as weather and conditions change during exercise should continue to be important, the REI spokesman said.
This winter's warm temperatures in the Northeast slowed women's apparel sales so much that the Ski Market, a New England chain, expects to finish the year slightly off, said Christine Senaldi, snowboard apparel buyer. Given that, the retailer will not increase its open-to-buy for next year and will try to mix in any unsold basics with 2003 goods.
Snowboarding and free skiing continue to be areas gaining young female fans, Senaldi said. Those types of winter enthusiasts tend to favor Burton, Bonfire and 686. The latter is an "up-and-coming" San Pedro, Calif.-based company known for its "smarty" technical jackets, with such bonuses as an attached compass, neck gators in a pocket and detachable, wearable items, Senaldi said.Even Abercrombie & Fitch is trying to tie into the snow sport trend. The company picked up press credentials for last month's Winter X Games to shoot daredevils for a winter fashion story for the A&F quarterly, said a spokeswoman for ESPN, the event's organizer. The brand's focus was somewhat blurred, however, with most of the sold-out crowd buzzing more about the Winter Olympics than all the cool clothes, as was the case at last winter's X Games.
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