Sizing Up the Kids Market: Growth, Growth and More Growth

From leasing programs to the emerging 'tweener' market, ski and snowboard sales for kids are experiencing rapid growth. SNEWS takes a look at some of the highlights, and what this means for the snowsports market's future.
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When it comes to snowsports, kids continue to rule at the register.

That’s the findings from the Snow Sports Industry Association (SIA), and the sentiment from retailers, manufacturers and resorts--all of whom are encouraged by what this bodes for the industry’s future.

“Kids are absolutely critical to the snow sports market,” said SIA Director of Research Kelly Davis. “Not only do they represent a significant portion of actual participants, but they’re the harbinger of participation for decades to come.”

According to the SIA report “Growing the Snow Sports Industry” (adjusted for 2011 by the Consumer Price Index), a person who begins participating in snow sports at age 10 will spend more than $69,000 on snowsports over his or her life, while those who begin at age 25 spend an average of $19,000 over the courses of their lives.

If this year is any indication, these sales will likely continue to pile up like Sierra snowfall. Dollar sales of kids’ gear increased 19 percent overall this year to $244 million, which represents 9 percent of the total snowsports market. In dollars, kids alpine sales are up 16 percent, kids snowboard equipment increased 9 percent, and kids cross-country sales climbed 19 percent. And all this comes on top of the previous season, which saw Junior ski systems increase 25 percent.

“The kids’ market is very healthy this season as parents who may have put off buying some extras for the family found room in their budgets,” Davis said. “The only category of junior specific equipment, apparel or accessories that decreased was in telemark.”

Indeed, alpine hardgoods manufacturers are riding a surge of business in the sector. “We’ve grown our junior business each of the last three years,” said Tait Wardlaw, vice-president of marketing for Rossignol, Dynastar and Lange. “Last year we even established our own ‘tweener’ business--which includes products aimed at 10- to 16-year-olds--which was all new business for us. The junior and tweener segments are critical for both the sport and establishing brand and product recognition among future skiers.”

The key to growing the segment further, he adds, is having the right products, with the right sizing at the right prices. It’s done this in its new tweener category by developing adult construction lay-ups with wider (80-90mm) waists with soft flexes and shorter lengths at what it calls “tweener pricing.” Said Wardlaw, “It’s a pretty simple concept, but you'd be surprised how hard that can be sometimes.”

Helping companies like Rossignol sell their wares by giving the niche a push is an active multi-group campaign designed to kid gets outside. From January’s National Learn to Ski Month to President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoor Initiative and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Outside campaign, the message to get kids outdoors is sinking in, with snow sports playing a vital role. “It looks like snow sports are doing their part to get kids outside in the winter months,” added Davis, who said that more than 5 million of snowsports’ 20.5 million participants are between the ages of 6 and 17.

Resorts are encouraging and embracing the uptick, happily enjoying increased kid’s lesson revenue and ticket sales. Steamboat Springs has invested in its Kids Vacation Center, as well as its Mountain Watch program by Flaik, a GPS tracking system that lets parents and instructors keep track of their kids on the slopes, and lets kids track their runs back home at the end of the day. “We’re always looking at ways to engage the next generation of skiers and snowboarders,” said the resort’s Loryn Kasten. “Kids have always been a strong focus for us, and we think our efforts are paying off.”

Steamboat’s not alone. Snowmass is riding strong feedback (and sales) for its new $17 million Treehouse Kids Adventure Center, and Keystone has invested heavily in its special Kidtopia weekends and is planning more kid programming next season. All which boils down to better bottom lines at retail.

“The greatest thing we see is business geared toward families,” said Tom Gately, president of Snowsports Merchandising Corp. (SMC), a buying group representing 154 specialty shops. “Wintersports are a great family activity, and junior product is doing especially well right now. Families are buying all the components, and the lease business is off the charts. Families are still going to recreate and they’re spending the money to do so.”

While Gately said his group doesn’t have hard numbers yet for this year, indications from January’s Snow Show in Denver show the category is up. For SMC, he said Junior skis were set to outpace all skis by 4 percent, and twin tips by 7 percent. “I don’t know if that’s held true since we’re still processing orders, but those were the early indicators,” he said. “It likely has a lot to do with how good the junior business--especially the lease programs--was in the fall. I heard all sorts of stories about people running out of retail and lease merchandise, and going into back closets to get whatever they could find. And it stayed that way throughout the entire year.”

Case in point: Joe’s Sporting Goods in Minneapolis. “The youth market is growing huge for us, in everything from systems to twin tips,” said owner Joe Rauscher. “We sold through our junior products faster than we ever have and our lease-for-kids program doubled.”

Gately added that this kind of success bodes well for the ensuing season as well, as retailers flush with cash can now replace or add to their lease and rental fleets. “Many people have capital this year to invest,” he said. “Typically, an operator might replace a third of its inventory. In a bad year they might hold off, in a good year like this it sways the other direction.”

Perhaps no better example can be found than from the trenches, where the registers are ringing. “I was traveling in New England this year and went into three shops jammed with kids and parents,” said SIA president Dave Ingemie. “I’ve never seen it like that. Kids were trying on boots and flexing skis and parents were fully supportive and opening their wallets.”

Added Steve Rogers, president of buying group Sports Specialists Ltd.: “We’ve seen a pleasant resurgence in the category, and its numbers are huge. I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”

And Gately likes what it foretells for the future. "This is great news for the big picture in snow sports,” he said. “It bodes well for the long-term health of the industry."

--Eugene Buchanan

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