Over the past few weeks, BOSS presented the first two installments of a three-part SnowSports pre-season trend analysis. The previous articles covered shifts in the ski and snowboard apparel market, the new urban influence on the ski market, backcountry and telemark trends, and the growing women’s market. This week, BOSS takes a closer look at the snowshoe market, and trends in the ski hardgoods market.

Snowshoe hardgoods have been one of the fastest growing segments in the SnowSports market both in terms of participation and sales. According to the SIA and Leisure Trends, snowshoe sales grew roughly 9% last year, and according to the SGMA’s Sports Participation in America report, Snowshoe participation grew 25.0% from 2002-2003, and has grown 47.0% since 1998. But it is also interesting to look inside the numbers a bit at trends that may show some opportunity for targeted growth.

According to Karen Righthand, director of marketing at Atlas Snowshoes, the sport’s growth has slowed down a bit in the last year, but continues its strong growth in the women’s market. The SGMA’s study shows that snowshoe participants are 57% male and 43% female, but Atlas sees this distribution changing with a 17% increase in women’s participation and flat men’s participation last year.

“This change in the demographics has a lot to do with the marketing initiatives we have launched in the past few years,” said Righthand. “We will continue our strong push in the women’s market.”

This year the company has partnered with REI for their “Explore Winter Women’s Workshop,” a program that was so successful last year Atlas has decided to double its size this year. It now includes 53 separate events at 30 different REI retail stores in 10 states. The one-and-a-half hour workshops provide an educational opportunity for customers and a selling opportunity for REI. Other partners include Mountain Hardwear, Gore, Montrail, and Dana Designs.

“It really is amazing,” said Righthand. “These workshops are bringing in new participants and we are actually selling snowshoes to women who have never even tried the sport.”

While the women’s market is a key strategy for Atlas in the snowshoe market, the company is also starting to look at the amateur adventure race market as well as marathon cross-over athletes.

“We are really just starting to look at these markets,” said Righthand. “The cross-over with trail running is quite strong, because the athletes are used to going to a trailhead to get their work-out. There is a bit of a barrier with road running where people are accustomed to just taking off out their back door.”

Recent data suggests that the recent upswing in women’s participation in running can be tied directly to the increase in their participation in running events that are associated with a cause, such as breast cancer research. Perhaps there is a tie-in here as well. BOSS has already seen the association play a role in the success of K2’s women’s snowboard program. Why not a show shoe event for that female runner in the winter?

Last year alpine ski equipment sales dropped 13.8% in specialty stores and roughly 3% in chain stores according to the SIA and Leisure trends. Likewise, the SGMA reported that participation in downhill skiing has fallen 4.2% in the last year and 23.2% since 1985. While these numbers certainly do not bode well for the industry, insiders see some very definite signs of a turn-around on the horizon.

Schultz Greenberg, Volant’s VP of marketing and sales, told BOSS that he feels the alpine ski market “hit the bottom” this past year, but prospects are looking positive. “It’s driven by demographics. The baby-boom generation that grew the ski market is now 45 or older, and their knees just can’t take it,” he said. “Now, there is a younger crowd going off-piste and also growing the free-ride market.”

Efforts to attract the younger generation to the slopes are beginning to succeed. As BOSS discussed in Part I of this series, the park & pipe movement and the evolution of brands like Line Skis and the twin-tip phenomenon has brought younger participants and an urban youth culture onto the slopes.

K2’s VP of global marketing, Anthony DeRocco, said that he feels the trail has been paved by the smaller brands – like Line Skis, Armada, and Forefront, and the larger brands with established distribution channels are now trying to act on the trend.

“I think what companies like Line Skis did was great for the industry,” said DeRocco. “They opened up a whole new generation to skiing.”

In spite of these apparent trends that are introducing a new generation to skiing, according to the SGMA the average age of a downhill skier climbed to 33.2 years in 2004 compared to 30.3 years last year, and compared to an average age of 20.3 years in snowboarding participation.
Regardless, one trip to a resort with a terrain park and it becomes obvious – the youth culture is interested in skiing as well as snowboarding.

Other than these park and pipe trends, the hardgoods ski industry is seeing a move to wider waists in just about every type of ski. Fischer’s Chris Clapp, said that the average waist size has moved from around 70 mm to 90 mm or more, and in the 05/06 season this trend will only push ski geometry even further away from the norm.

Clapp said that Fischer will be following this change closely and pushing the envelope. Part of the motivation behind this is the company’s desire to balance out their brand distribution nationally. Clapp said Fischer currently has roughly 65% of their sales originating in the east, and 35% in the west. The company has shuffled around their sales team in the northwest and hopes this will help increase the brand’s share of the market west of the Mississippi.

Marketing teams are quite pleased with this move to a wider waist. Nearly every ski executive interviewed for this article mentioned the new graphics on the bottom of their wider skis.

“People can finally see our brand while a kid is flying through the air on skis – it used to be only snowboards could do that,” said K2’s DeRocco.

Volant’s Greenberg sees the same trends emerging. “The east is getting wider than it was and the west is getting even more-wide than the east,” said Greenberg. “I really think that the rocky mountain region and the northwest will be taking off this year – exceeding last year by a large margin.”

>>> And you thought the wider waist sizes was just in their jeans…