Warm weather, economy shredding snow-gear sales

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DENVER (AP) – Rising unemployment and foreclosures that have dampened business at ski reports are only slightly affecting the sale of ski gear.

Revenue from items like skis, snowboard sand helmets were up about 1.4 percent for the last quarter of 2008, but the number of units sold was down about 4 percent, SnowSports Industries America research director Kelly Davis said.

Local retailers reported a strong December, but say they are competing with online businesses, as well as the bad economy.

“We’re so much weather driven, and with the economy, we are struggling with some things,” said Matt Chmierlarczyk, manager of Mountain Chalet. “It’s been so warm, sales are down.”

Shoppers looking for bargains turn to Mountain Chalet for expert advice, but buy equipment online, he said.

“So we’ve had to start some policies,” he said. “For instance, we’ll still tune skis that were purchased online, but if you buy them here, we’ll set them up and tune them why you wait. We make that happen. If you buy them somewhere else, we’ll put our customers first. There’s a graceful way to make that point – and a thousand clumsy ways. But it’s something we’ve been forced to do.”

Bright spots for the industry include sales of helmets, which some resorts now mandate for staff or ski school students. Fat skis are also a big hit.

“It’s the trend we’ve been waiting for after twin-tip skis,” she said.

A dip of 7 percent in snowboard sales so far this season, compared with last season, might be due to young skiers switching to fat skis and twin-tips that let them land forward or backward doing tricks.

Mountain Chalet caters more to the back-country skiers – people who need a different set of equipment.

“We have some customers who buy a new set of skis every year,” Chmierlarczyk said. “But mostly, once you have back country equipment, the activity is free. So we have people who turn to cross-country skiing during a bad economy instead of going to a resort.”

People who get into snow sports before they turn 18 spend an estimated $60,000 in a lifetime on lift tickets, gear and apparel to participate. If they start after age 25, they spend about $16,000.

The industry is on track to sell more than 1 million helmets this season, a 29 percent increase. The trend in rising helmet sales could last a couple of years.

One thing that keeps selling, even in a recession: snowshoes.

“Snowshoes are a cheap way to enjoy the weather,” Davis said. “It’s cheap, healthy and fun. That’s the challenge of America, how do you move people from sedentary to active? Snowshoes are the gateway drug.”

Snow sports gear sales will be $2.9 billion this season up from $2.8 billion last season.

Amy Gillentine contributed to this story.