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A New Way
To Blow Cash
On the Slopes
Prices on Range of Skis Now Exceed $1,000,
As Makers Eye Lucrative Sports Market
By ALEX MARKELS
SPECIAL TO THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 8, 2005; Page D1
Talk about a ski jump.
With weekend athletes, from golfers to mountain bikers, shelling out increasingly large sums of money for the latest gear, ski manufacturers are eager not to miss out. One result is a proliferation of skis that cost $1,000 and up.
Just a few years ago, the suggested retail prices for top-of-the-line skis from companies like Rossignol and K2 Inc. rarely exceeded $650. Now, Volkl Sports Holdings AG has 13 models that retail for more than $1,000, more than twice what it had just two seasons ago. In that same time, Salomon, another major ski maker, has also doubled its offerings in that price range, to six different skis.
Volkl K2 Recon Apachea (right) are $875, sans bindings and $3,000 Bogner skis.
The main reason that more skis are now piercing the $1,000 barrier is the growth of models that come already outfitted with special bindings, or so-called integrated skis. The bindings, which are actually designed into the skis, slide on the skis ever so slightly as you turn, which allows them to flex more. That, manufacturers say, makes it easier for skiers to turn.
It isn't the first time, of course, that pricey skis have shown up on the slopes. It's long been possible to get hand-made skis from boutique manufacturers such as France's Lacroix, whose customers can have skis made to order and finished in their choice of exotic woods. This year, Willy Bogner, a German ski racer-turned-ski designer, is hawking a $3,000 pair made in part from bamboo.
But now it's the mainstream ski companies that are also pumping out ultra-premium models. Some of them come with other bells and whistles that also help to jack up the price. Volant's Platinum HF skis, which go for $2,300, come with computer-enhanced bindings that flash an "OK" when they're properly engaged. (For that price, customers also get a leather carrying case and a subscription to a newsletter with tips on other ways spend large chunks of money, including private ski resorts, high-end watches and concept cars.) Meanwhile, Head's Monster i.M 75 skis have a computer chip that senses the ski's flex. When it detects too much vibration, the chip sends an electronic pulse that causes fibers that run along the skis length to stiffen.
New features aren't the only thing pushing up ski prices. Skyrocketing prices for raw materials of everything from plastic to steel to aluminum are also having a big impact. For example, top-end models typically also have a small amount of a titanium alloy called Titanal, which helps stiffen the ski while keeping it as light as possible. But Titanal adds about $25 to the cost of any ski.
Volant's Platinum HF ($2,300) have computer-enhanced bindings (right)
The escalating euro is also hurting ski shoppers. On average, skis from European makers like Adidas-Salomon, Groupe Rossignol and Atomic, a division of Amer Group PLC, are currently priced about $20 to $40 higher than equivalent skis from K2, the only major U.S.-based manufacturer.
For the industry, the spurt of new high-end skis is aimed at ending a profit drought that has seen sales stagnate at about $800 million a year for the past five years. And, as in other sectors, the ski business has been hit with a rash of recent corporate consolidations, and more companies are now outsourcing their manufacturing to China and Eastern Europe.
"Ski equipment has become a low-growth, low-margin business, which means those who want to make money either have to cut costs or offer something that's really cutting edge," says Seth Masia, editor of Snow Industry News.
While integrated skis sell for about the same as skis and bindings bought separately, they offer higher profit margins. There is another reason why they're good for business: If customers' skis get gouged during a poor-snow year, they have to replace not only the skis but the bindings too, because the two pieces are part of a single package.
With ski equipment, the last big leap forward technologically was in the late 1990s, with the advent of parabolic skis. Their unusual hourglass shape, which requires only the slightest tilt of the knee to initiate a smooth turn, pushed many skiers to trade in their narrow, pencil-shaped boards for the newfangled models.
More recent innovations, however, haven't been so successful. One example is the introduction four years ago of "soft" boots, an attempt to relieve the vise-like discomfort of traditional ski boots by replacing their stiff plastic tongues with soft fabric. "We all thought soft boots were the next big thing," says Kenneth Friedman, a long-time ski retailer whose Biostance Alignment Service offers boot fittings in Beaver Creek, Colo. "But they're pretty much dead."
As for the latest ski trend, Stafford Lindsay, an executive at a graphics company in Boulder, Colo., recently bought the Salomon Scream 10 Pilot ski-and-binding system (list price: $1,025). "I don't know if [the system] makes a difference, but the skiing was sure different for me," says Mr. Lindsay, who tried out at least half-a-dozen brands.
But integrated skis are as much about marketing as performance, according to ski specialists. "There's a slight performance difference," says Scott Speedy, sales manager at retailer Boulder Ski Deals, as he peered down a 30-foot-long row of newfangled skis. "But a lot of it is about getting you to buy your skis and bindings from the same company."
A smart shopper should have no trouble finding a good pair of top-end skis for less than $600, and decent pair for under $400. That's in part because new technology is increasingly trickling down to even moderately priced skis, says Joe Cutts, equipment editor of Ski Magazine. Innovations now available in less-expensive models include the parabolic shape, integrated binding systems and various types of advanced construction to reduce vibration. One example is K2's MOD system, which was introduced four seasons ago in its top-end models and is now available in K2's entire line.
Another good strategy is to count on manufacturers' overproduction, which regularly leaves 25% of skis unsold each year. The glut is on full display during the spring clearance and early-fall ski sales, where discounts can be up to 90% off the retail price. Even now, with the ski season well under way, a number of retailers are already offering discounts of 30% or more on top-end equipment, says Mr. Masia, of Snow Industry News.