OR Winter Market Trends Report: Rock and Ice

The SNEWS® team of six editors spent the entire four days of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2004 scouting out the trade show scene. Here's our take on rock climbing and ice climbing hardgoods and softgoods trends and developments:
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The SNEWS® team of six editors spent the entire four days of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2004 scouting out the trade show scene. In the weeks to come, we'll be publishing our take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations that caught our eyes. No, it is not complete and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. We're only covering product that stood out to us here, so if you're not mentioned, we either did not see you, we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently, or we were just plain clueless -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on rock climbing and ice climbing hardgoods and softgoods trends and developments:

Rock Shoes Action Heats Up…Again

Of all the segments of the climbing industry, rock shoes have long been the most contentious. Sure, the competition is strong in everything from ropes and carabineers to bouldering pads and clothing. But, partly due to the egos of some players, the rock shoe wars are more pitched than ever…generating much of the buzz at OR Winter Market.

Since last summer's show, when Montrail officially entered the market and Boreal tried to save face, things have been ripe for turmoil. It came the first day of the show with the announcement that La Sportiva was dropping the suggested retail of its Italian-made rock shoes by 15 percent while increasing dealer margin to 45 percent.

Explains Mark Day, national sales manager for La Sportiva North America, "This is a move to address the new global economy. We worked closely with the Italians to restructure the entire rock shoe program so that everyone benefits."

The retail price decrease on its most popular rock shoes, plus the Nepal Extreme mountaineering boot, takes effect on April 1. However, the price change went into effect on Feb. 1 for retailers. This gives stores 60 days to adjust their existing inventories.

Day is careful to point out that this move does not imply that La Sportiva has been gouging customers up until now. "We have worked hard to improve our relationship with La Sportiva S.p.A. and have developed a pricing structure that will keep jobs in Italy." This partnership includes the Americans designing shoes and boots that are built in Asia and sold in Europe as well as the United States.

The decrease does not affect the three new La Sportiva rock shoes made in Asia, which will still come in below the new retail prices. Some dealers may readjust their preseason orders but the production version of the Asian models look good. Time will tell whether this gamble pays off for La Sportiva, though the odds look good.

La Sportiva's bold move comes as the new Montrail rock shoes are just hitting the market. Though the most recent entry into a crowded field, Montrail has the advantage of a good reputation with retailers and consumers, plus a strong sales force. Its Asian-made shoes will now only be a few dollars less than the better-known Italian Sportivas, though at the same margin. Yet they won't be as inexpensive as the Asian-made Mad Rock or Sportivas. This mid-range pricing and new-kid-on-the-block status will make things harder for Montrail to gain acceptance with climbers. But we're predicting it'll be around for the long haul.

For the time being, Five Ten is relying on the reputation of its C4 rubber to keep customers coming back. The company has built its own lab for testing new formulations and believes it can stay ahead of the pack. However, it may increasingly prove a hard sell given that its high-end shoes will run $20 to $60 more than the major competition. Five Ten, which has long been one of the top three brands on the market, is clearly at a critical juncture.

Mad Rock has gobbled up most of the market lost by Boreal in recent years and has taken bites out of other pieces of the pie. With a lot of flash and nine models retailing between $70 and $90, Mad Rock has become the talk of the climbing world. Joe Garland has been so preoccupied with rock shoes that Climb Axe, his climbing distribution company, did not even have a booth at the show this time.

Evolv is yet another ex-contractor for Five Ten trying to grab some market. This fairly new brand has little to offer in terms of innovation, price (slightly higher than Montrail with less margin), or a track record. But 11 models certainly fill all the niches and a no-delam guarantee may attract some.

SNEWS View: Certainly consumers won't complain about paying less for the Sportiva shoes they've already come to know. Montrail too is going to garner attention, and probably even guarded acceptance, among climbers.

Since most in the industry agree that the climbing market has largely remained flat for the past several years, the battle is to capture a bigger slice of the rock shoe pie. New climbers -- who tend to enter from indoor rock gyms and/or bouldering with friends -- are less brand conscious than past generations of climbers. They are less interested in fine workmanship by fourth-generation shoemakers and more concerned with price and performance.

At least the falling dollar has also brought a decrease in Internet sales from Europe. A recent check of rock shoe prices on several websites known for discounting showed a selection of models and sizes that wasn't great and, with shipping, the savings were minimal (only about $10 per pair). So some retailers may find it difficult to capture enough volume to offset reduced profit, they can at least get customers in the doors for more than trying on shoes that are bought elsewhere.

Rather like when PreCip hit the market, the genie is now out of the bottle and everyone is going to have to readjust their business plans. With Mammut, Scarpa, Red Chili, Boreal, EB, Icampa, Acopa, Triops, Bufo, Rock Pilars and more all trying to entice climbers with rock shoes, it's likely that we're in for a wild ride in the next couple of years. It's quite likely that some of these brands won't be around in another season or two.

Kids Rock

Before the days of indoor climbing walls and bouldering competitions, parents were often reluctant to purchase rock shoes for the tikes. This meant kid's shoes were rarely stocked by stores so it became self-fulfilling that they weren't worth the effort and expense.

Now things appear to be changing, with kids clambering up the walls at birthday parties and climbing teams forming around the country. And more parents and stores are realizing that it pays to get kids hooked on the outdoors instead of Nintendo. It also helps that brands like Patagonia, Marmot and The North Face are making a real push with quality outdoor wear for kids. And stores are even starting to merchandise for the moms who do the buying.

Next season, Five Ten will offer the company's first shoe for children with the exciting name "Kid's Velcro." La Sportiva will update the Junior with the Fuego. And Montrail is introducing the Grommet, which retails for $40 and has flashy graphics that will make adults jealous.

Ice Moves

As we mentioned in the 2004 Winter Outdoor GearTrends® magazine, most of the ice climbing suppliers are catching their breath for next season. Leashless tools are still a great unknown for most American climbers -- many are still skeptical because of they way leashless has been portrayed as only for extreme mixed climbs and competitions.

Two of the best known leashless tools, the Black Diamond Fusion and Petzl Ergo, remain the same for next season. Trango has found a better grip material for the Madame Hook that is softer and stickier but otherwise the tool will remain the same (it's the only truly convertible model on the market). The Camp Awax is also getting a lot of attention for being very light weight without sacrificing performance.

Grivel introduced the first leashless tools and is now entering the third generation with two new models. The Racing Wing features an improved C-shaped grip that allows a variety of hand positions and better matching of hands. Perhaps more appealing to the average climber, the Taa-K-Oon features the finger trigger that offers superb control and a more refined grip and shaft than its predecessor (Top Wing is discontinued).

Now that we've actually seen the new Grivel/Scarpa binding system for crampons, the concept (a hook fitting into a hole in the midsole) appears valid and has a nice simplicity. The big concern remains about how easily the hole in the boot will clog with mud, though a removable plug is offered. Unfortunately, the only compatible model of Scarpa boot available in the United States next season will be the $950 Scarpa Phantom 8000 (the world's most expensive mountaineering boot). So most climbers will have to wait another season to even get a look at the system -- good news for Montrail, which continues to tout its own boot/crampon system.

As we mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the Scarpa Phantom 8000 is indeed a nice high-altitude mountaineering boot, but it has an astronomical price. The new Kayland 8000 is a bit more reasonable ($800) and could prove to be the boot of choice for serious mountaineers. Lighter and less clunky than the disappointing La Sportiva Olympus Mons, the Kayland has a unique integrated gaiter that fits over down pants yet adjusts to thinner layers without bagginess.

The popular La Sportiva Trango Ice will be even better next season. Renamed the Ice Evo, it will have a much easier to use lacing and gaiter system.

Cams

It's been a couple of years since we've seen anything significantly new in rock climbing protection. So it was no surprise that two new camming units generated a lot of attention at the show.

The Link Cam by Omega Pacific at first glance resembles a standard 4-cam unit with a flexible central stem. But as the cams are retracted, they articulate on hinges to shrink in size far more than would normally be possible. Although still in the prototype stage, the design is claimed to cover the expansion range of four standard cams. While this is great in theory, the relatively complex Link Cams appear as if gumming with sand and durability may be problems. Plus, they are projected to be heavy and expensive ($80). Though we are skeptical, when it's ready, the final design will definitely be worth checking out.

The first reaction for many people seeing the new Trango MaxCam is "what a great idea!" By cleverly using three axis points, instead of one or two, the MaxCams achieve a very wide expansion range while keeping the design simple. Only testing of production versions in real rock will prove whether the design is truly effective and has good holding power. But the concept is promising and the construction, weight and price all appear good.

Trango also redesigned its line of Flex Cams to make them more competitive against the price point camming units offered by several brands. These, and other changes in the line, are starting to reposition Trango as a purveyor of quality climbing gear instead of a brand best known for decent but cheap equipment -- it's about time.

New Clothing Lines

There were several new technical clothing lines making their debut at OR Winter Market. While this is certainly already a crowded field, each of these brands is banking on their added twists to attract customers.

Sherpa Adventure Gear actually was at last summer's trade show but with a limited rollout of products. This time, the company had a full line of fleece, shell and lifestyle pieces, as well as a line of sleeping bags, that reflect a mountain heritage. Although the products are made in China, the brand is using the cachet of the Sherpa culture to lend authenticity. For example, each of the bags is named after a prominent climbing Sherpa and the packaging tells the full story.

Along the same lines, 66° North is hoping that its Icelandic origins will convince consumers that the clothing is built for serious conditions. The company has been around since 1926, so this is a well fleshed collection of technical and lifestyle clothing. The company is also getting support from the Iceland Tourist Board -- even the president of Iceland made an appearance in Salt Lake City for the brand's U.S. launch.

The most exciting new brand for serious alpinists is the Boulder-based The Magic Line. Since Wild Things, once the keeper of the faith for hard-core products, has been fading into obscurity, it was refreshing to see a new collection emerge for purists. Designed and self-financed by Fabrizio Zangrilli, himself a serious climber, the soft shells, alpine pack, sleeping bag and gloves are the real deal for anyone playing hard. Only a handful of specialty stores are suited to carry The Magic Line, so this brand is no threat to the majors. However, it is a product line that reeks of authenticity and may show others where they've been dropping the ball.

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