Nordic walking: Turning a corner around the globe

Now that Nordic walking is nearing its 10th anniversary in Europe -- and is still seeking to get more firmly on its feet after only three years in North America -- it's looking for a new identity, new consumers, and more advanced issues are arising.

Now that Nordic walking is nearing its 10th anniversary in Europe -- and is still seeking to get more firmly on its feet after only three years in North America -- it's looking for a new identity, new consumers, and more advanced issues are arising.

For example, we wrote after the February 2006 winter ispo trade show in Germany that talk is suddenly turning to injuries and the need for more training, whereas before that point, Europe seemed more concerned with convincing retailers of its merit and taking them on walks.

At the OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in July, there weren't even any demo Nordic walk classes being offered. No need. Everybody knows what it is, and there is more interest in marketing and assisting retailers with finding more ways to tap into the consumer market.

In April, pole-specialist Exel announced a partnership with Reebok in the United States (click here to read the SNEWS® story). Although the summer shows, including the IDEA fitness professional show in July and the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in August, were too early for the plans to have reached fruition, all the players appeared and talked up the concept, promising upcoming instructor training programs, club classes, new product and, of course, shoes and clothes to go with it all. This was just the boost needed by the Nordic walking programs this side of the Atlantic still in their infancy. And, Reebok program head Marcy Schwam at Summer Market 2006 promised new programs and events into early 2007 to light a fire under the activity in the United States.

While the United States is still looking for the explosive growth experienced in Europe, the growth curve of Europeans who call themselves Nordic walkers has flattened from the previous years of exponential leaps-and-bounds growth, including in countries like Germany and Austria where the activity is fully embraced. Even its birthplace of Finland, the world headquarters of Exel, felt a ripple -- not a decrease really, but less frothing at the mouth, as it were.

In late summer, Exel's mother ship announced it would lay off a handful of employees, reorganize its company structure, and take a thorough look at costs, including manufacturing and marketing. Why? "The sale of Nordic walking poles has gone down a bit in the last few months," announced CEO of Germany's Exel division, Harald Bierbaumer. "And the recovery of the market hasn't yet begun. Since Exel has primarily focused on Nordic walking, the decrease in sales has become quite noticeable."

Although many promoters are just now tapping into the kids and family market, we have heard suppliers and retailers in Europe note that it has remained mostly an activity for older and less fit consumers who don't do much more than take their poles for a walk. That draws criticism from the outdoor enthusiasts who remain leery of "that kind" of consumer in their arena. But the fitness world would eat up another way to teach the inactive consumer to get active.

Possibilities for real growth do exist. We have also heard from resorts in the European alpine cities and those near ski resorts who tell us (and, yes, we've seen pictures) of events that draw many thousands all poling along and "Nordic walking vacations" that sell out. Could that not become a draw at ski resorts in the summer months, or at spas that offer a palette of activities?

With the U.S. movement just starting to roll a mere three years since it first was introduced by Leki in Summer 2003, we haven't heard the same stories. But just getting a couple of dozen people to an event at a community center has made for utterly ecstatic pole suppliers. This year at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in August, Leki and Exel again promoted an "Early Morning Workout" with Nordic walking sessions divided by level. That alone says something for how far the U.S. market has come. Leki held down the corner and several dozen participants showed up every morning. Exel was there on the first of four show days, but took a small group of media out on their own gig with Reebok on the second day, and then didn't show after that. But that didn't stop Leki's enthusiasm.

"People talk to other people," said Lindy Spiezer, Leki's director of marketing who also oversees its Nordic walk efforts. "There are new people coming every day. It's exciting to see how it continues to grow."

SNEWS® View: We continue to give the nod to growth in the United States for Nordic walking thanks in large part to Leki's continued passion and commitment to the market. However, it will have better chances of significant growth in the fitness market through trainers and clubs who are willing to accept all types of consumers -- at least initially. Unfortunately, although poles are familiar equipment in the outdoor world, with few exceptions most retailers still seem unwilling to truly try to understand the opportunity or embrace the activity and the doors it could open to other demographic communities -- even if that could mean more outdoor enthusiasts down the road. For now, we lay our money on the efforts of a "giant" like Reebok next year as one way to spread the word to spark increased participation. Get the instructor, trainer and fitness clubs turned on to another activity they can teach and promote and it won't take long for the word to spread. That will push the users into stores seeking poles. No, it will never, ever be the huge activity it is in Europe.