Nordic walking report: European growth stunning, U.S. still a bit puzzled

Although the U.S. market is still trying to figure out what Nordic walking is, how and where to sell and promote it, and who its potential participants are, growth of the activity in Europe is booming, leaving a lot of retailers and suppliers stunned at spiraling sales and enthusiastic consumers.
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Although the U.S. market is still trying to figure out what Nordic walking is, how and where to sell and promote it, and who its potential participants are, growth of the activity in Europe is booming, leaving a lot of retailers and suppliers stunned at spiraling sales and enthusiastic consumers.

"I would never have believed we could have sold so many Nordic walking poles," Wolfgang Schnellbuegel, managing director for the Sport 2000 buying group, in a press conference at the recent ispo sporting goods show in Germany. He said six figures worth of poles have been sold by the group's stores in 2004, a trend his group expects to continue at least through 2005.

The "boom" in Nordic walking goes hand-in-hand with a smaller boom of interest in fitness walking and running across the European continent. Of course, now everybody -- even previous skeptics -- want on-board. Still not evident in the United States are the companies that are trying to tap into the wave with a slap of the tag "Nordic walking" in front of the name of some product, from headlamps and shorts to hydration packs and hats.

"A lot of people are riding on the wave," Chris Griffin, international sales manager for Exel, told SNEWS® at the ispo show.

North Americans still unsure what to do with it
In the United States, at the recent Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, the wave was more like a ripple. Pole companies Exel, Leki and Swix are slowly making headway, but the emphasis is on slow. A few other pole companies are dabbling their toes here, such as Gabel, after experiencing success in some European countries. Italy's Gabel, for example, at Winter Market introduced a Nordic walking "set" to be available April 1 that includes poles, a small pack, sunscreen, gloves and an instructional DVD and manual.

Morning all-comers walks at OR -- granted, it was winter in Salt Lake City -- attracted about 10-20 each of two days. Representatives at all companies say the good news is that retailers are now coming into their booths to ask about Nordic walking and to find out what it could mean to them. Not even a year ago, most retailers either hadn't heard of the activity, which now claims about 4 million participants in Europe, or had no idea what Nordic walking was.

A Nordic walking treadmill by Europe's equipment manufacturer Hammer was in some booths to help attendees try it without being forced to parade around the halls. (The treadmill, for those who didn't see it, has TWO additional moving bands, one on each side of the main belt a user walks on, so a walker can plant poles and push independently of the stride.)

Some manufacturers and retailers have told SNEWS® they believe the North American market will be different in its approach, with perhaps more impetus and interest coming from the fitness, wellness and club arena, than just through outdoor retailers.

Sales stun even retailers, give main suppliers huge boost
With close to 25 percent growth expected again in 2005 in Europe -- to hit nearly 5 million participants mostly in the core countries of Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy -- poles and accessories for Nordic walking are one of the hottest topics. That continued to hold true at the February's winter ispo trade show, with roundtable discussions, demonstrations, exhibits, new pole companies coming out of seemingly nowhere, and others slapping the tag "Nordic walking" on random goods to go along for the ride.

"It's a boom market," said Klaus Jost, director of sales and marketing for buying group Intersport, at a press conference at the ispo show. Intersport has more than 4,700 stores in 28 countries.

Intersport's annual report at the show, covering 2004, was titled "Nordic fitness…breaks all records," and reported growth in the area dominated by Nordic walking of 2.5 times over the previous year. Together with running and walking, Jost said, the segment now holds about 10 percent of the total market and is one of the three largest sales categories for Intersport stores.

That alone skyrocketed both Exel and Leki as dominating pole suppliers in Intersport's annual ranking of its top 60 suppliers. Because of pole sales, Exel leapt from its 2003 ranking of 47th to a 2004 ranking of 20th, while Leki moved from 38th to 27th.

Sport 2000 showed similar results. With that group – with more than 3,000 stores across Europe, Leki sprang from 43rd place among its top 50 suppliers in 2003 to 26th place for 2004; Exel jumped from 55th to 31st in 2004.

According to an independent survey cited in a recent trade magazine in Germany, 80 percent of Germans know what Nordic walking is and something about it, and 10 million said they intend to try it soon.

Now not limited to poles
Sport 2000 said that the Nordic walking trend is also the driving force in the apparel area, with more walkers and new fitness and outdoor consumers discovering technical fabrics and clothing, not to mention shoes, fanny packs, pedometers, books, DVDs, hydration packs, heart rate monitors and headlamps, among other accessories.

Certainly, "it's just a pole," as Exel's Griffin said, but it's actually more than that, the company has found and apparently as consumers believe: It's a lifestyle. That's why the accessories and apparel geared for and labeled Nordic walking -- to attract that specific clientele that may not gravitate to applicable gear that is tagged for other sports.

At ispo, SNEWS® spied:

>> A Nordic Watch by Sigma Sport (www.sigmasport.com), where seemingly the other difference is its ability to clip onto the shaft of the pole and tilt upward for a look. We're not sure how a walker will get a good look at the face when it flashes past that quickly, and why a watch on the wrist won't work just fine.

>> A Nordic walking light by Krimmer Outdoor Systems (www.krimmer-outdoor.de). It has a strap that goes around the chest and one that goes diagonally across one shoulder to hold the light at the sternum, so you don't blind your walking buddy, the company's literature says. Hmm, not sure how a woman would wear this comfortably, how it would work with anything other than the relatively perfect male body type, or how it would work with winter clothing. Plus, if you want to light up something not right in front of you, you're forced to twist your body around.

>> New pole company One Way with models wearing mini-skirts and heels. We can't judge the product, but we found the marketing of the new company a bit odd. Plastered around the booth at ispo were pictures of women wearing high-fashion clothing and shoes. The slogan "Fashion for Sport" adorned walls and brochures. Instead of being plain-Jane poles that basically look like ski poles with different handles and tips, these come in a variety of bright colors and designs. This company's target, we were told, is the fitness and physical therapy market, not sport and outdoor.

Griffin pointed out that not everybody who starts Nordic walking will remain strictly a Nordic walker. In fact, as they become more open to going outside, being active and become fit, they may try other activities.

"We're trying to get people active, and then channel them into other activities too," Griffin said. "We can funnel new people into the (sports and outdoor) shops who wouldn't normally go. And the sales of products follow."

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