NIS, we kept a secret that wasn't -- We all like a good surprise -- especially when it comes to something new and exciting in cross-country ski gear. Conversations with Rossignol, Alpina, Madshus and Rottefella back in October revealed that something very new by way of an integrated boot binding system would be unveiled at SIA. GearTrendsÂ® was given the details on the system and then sworn to secrecy and promised not to print, let alone say, a word about the system until days before the show. And then only with broad-brush remarks and few details.
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But as the show approached, we began getting calls from a few retailers asking how much we knew about the new Nordic Integrated System (NIS). Not much we demurred (hey, a promise is a promise) only to find that complete details about the integrated system were all over some Norwegian cross-country websites and the word was spreading as to exactly what it was all about.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, here goes. NIS is a very well-thought-out and conceived system. The system has a lot of benefits which include simply getting away from screws to affix bindings to skis which creates a more solid binding-to-ski link with no lateral play. The design allows a user to move a binding forward or back to accommodate technique or to adapt the skis to better work in certain snow conditions. Of course, the fact that binding installation is now a 30-second affair isn't a bad thing either.
Noteworthy at the SIA unveiling was the obvious cohesiveness among the partners (Rossignol, Madshus, Alpina and Rottefella) throughout the entire process from product conception to birth. As Rottefella's Torbjorn Ragg noted: "It was hard for us at Rottefella to keep the project secret but even harder with so many partners, but everyone did a fantastic job at not saying anything."
XC getting more fun -- The mood at the unveiling was extremely upbeat and it led to the observation that Alpina in particular seems to have a new energy and less somber feel under the new ownership. Alpina appears to have shed its conservative skin to reveal the body of a more fun and involved player in the business. From its funny rat trap stickers with a rat trapped in a "rat trap" binding to its "screw off" NIS T-shirts, Alpina was no longer a chore to cover.
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Also coming in for high marks on the energy side, Rossignol accomplished the impossible by losing a dedicated product manager, Kurt Hoeffler, to the company's alpine division, and getting a replacement, Robert Lazzaroni, who keeps the program right on course without missing a beat.
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Salomon expands -- Salomon had a lot to show (expanding the line from seven to 27 SKUs) and as always, a lot of well-conceived product both in intended use and graphics. The new race skis are handsome and if they ski as well as they look, they'll sell-through well like Salomon's in-track touring skis did this season.
As far as the new off-track touring skis go, they also look good and, matched with the new SNS-BC boots, should make Salomon a solid BC brand to contend with.
Swix amps up -- It ain't just about wax and sticks anymore. Swix now offers a complete technical underwear program along with soft shells, waterproof/breathable shells, etc., all to go along with its expanded hat and glove programs. The new technical cross-country racing suit is pretty nifty, too.
And if that is not enough, Swix is also distributing the Vegard Ulvang underwear hat and sock line from Norway. The Ulvang line is all wool and wool/synthetic blended goods, while the Swix line is cotton/poly blends. Attesting to Ulvang's continued popularity as one of Norway's greatest ski racers and sportsmen, 1.2 million pairs of his branded wool socks have sold in Norway, according to Swix.
Quick Apparel Notes --Craft's line remains strong, especially in thermal tights, and at SportHill, the company keeps impressing buyers by staying simple with what one retailer called, "just good solid basics." And there was a surprise new Nordic apparel brand for most North American buyers at the show. It's Halti, the 30-year-old Finnish alpine and Nordic apparel company making its North American debut. Halti's design and quality are high and the line gets our "surprise of the show" designation.
Poling Along -- It appears as if the pole business is beginning to fracture. Swix remains the market leader -- and with Exel off chasing Nordic walking and Toko dropping poles -- things look pretty secure for the company in 2005. Clearly, Exel is back trying to regain some momentum on the XC end, but it's going to be more difficult now that an increasing number of retailers tell GearTrendsÂ® they're giving more of their pole business to their ski suppliers. For example, Atomic, Rossignol and Salomon all have seen their pole sales increase this season.
Leki too has seen a significant rise in its XC pole orders. "We've never really pushed hard in XC," Leki's Greg Wozer told us, "but we are starting to see a lot of interest of late." For next season, there's likely to be even more interest from consumers since Leki is taking its excellent Trigger strap system concept down to the $59 retail pole level.
Potions -- The level of interest in Start's Grip tape was up sharply this season and putting the same performance in a liquid form in an easy-to-use dispenser (Ultra) was one of the highlights of the show for shops that do a brisk wax business.
For shops that have a healthy racing business, having both Atomic and Fischer offer smooth-to-the-touch, chemically-treated waxless inserts on new race skis created a buzz. Yes, the smooth chemical waxless base inserts have been tried before without any luck on touring skis and some racing skis. The difference this time around is that the inserts are being promoted, at least by Atomic, more like "hairies" of many moons ago -- roughing up the insert with sandpaper or an abrader helps their grip.
Da feet -- Grabbing onto another old but very pertinent theme, Karhu has redesigned its 75 mm backcountry touring boots and they look very solid as does the new Atomic 75 mm backcountry touring boot.
Off Track -- We also noticed that companies such as Karhu and Atomic, along with Rossignol,Salomon, Fischer and Alpina, have found that the traditional off-track ski touring and casual backcountry skiing markets are far from dead and are, in fact, growing.
Not growing but shrinking, touring ski length continues to drop and with this show, mid-length (in the general 160 to 200 centimeters range) skis are it for in-track and out-of-track touring. Hey, they work and make skiers happier by giving them more stability and control. So be it.
Peeking ahead -- No report from SIA would be complete without a look into the future of XC. Perhaps the most enlightening glimpse was given by Michael Messler who is sourcing, a la K2 with its alpine and tele skis, his Whitewoods cross-country boots in China.
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Holding one of his XC boots in hand, purposefully designed to look rather like a hiking-boot to attract consumers who don't want a 'ski' boot look, Messler told us that, "What used to take me a year to get designed and have samples ready, now takes me 13 weeks."
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Thirteen weeks for a nice-looking, well-priced product. Made in China may indeed be the big SIA cross-country story next year at this time -- at least for hardgoods. Softgoods, like in other industries, is finding India looking very fine.