For four meager years, the winter sports sector has been asking itself where all the spend-happy consumers have gone. Some of them have pinned their hopes on the "ispo 2005" trade fair.
Already out of fashion
The snowboard boom has abated and after the recent carving craze, snow enthusiasts already have a pair or two of the short, shaped skis, while less frequent skiers rent the newest models for their winter holidays.
"Competition is brutal," said Gerald Palm from Austrian ski manufacturer Fischer.
Since 2001, the winter sport sector has been ailing. Last year alone, turnover slipped by 2 percent to €6.97 billion ($8.96 billion). But the world's biggest sports goods trade fair, "ispo 2005," in Munich from Feb. 6-9, could help breath life into the industry, where hopes are high.
German ski racer Alois Vogl won at World Cup Slalom in Jan.
In November and December turnover climbed, and Werner Haizmann, head of Germany's sports retail association, said he was optimistic.
"The recent world cup victories by Max Rauffer and Alois Vogl will restore skiing's upwards motion," he said.
No snow, no business
But weak consumer spending in Germany has little to do with the slump in winter sports goods sales.
"The margins in ski production are relatively small," said Peter Thürl from the sports retailers' group. "The price ceiling for a pair of skis is quickly reached as a winter vacation is generally very expensive. Then the buyer isn't prepared to shell out lots of money for a pair of skis as well."
Snowy winters bring profits
And unlike other industries, the sports goods sector is entirely dependent on the weather.
"If it doesn't snow enough before Christmas, no one buys skis at all," Thürl said. "Then, for many people, renting is a better deal."
Thus, the sports goods manufacturers have focused their energies on new innovations, technical falderal and accessories. Futuristic-looking aluminum skis with shock-absorbers, heated underwear, ski helmets with built-in music and special skis for women are just a few of the products exhibitors have been showing at "ispo 2005."
And they're trying to launch new trends that will attract people into the shops and onto the slopes with buzzwords like "back country," "slope-style skiing" and "trail-running."
Winter sporting goods producers continue to benefit from the recent Nordic walking trend, which Thürl said was becoming a mass movement. People above the age of 50, who generally have deep pockets, have taken to the sport -- which involves walking with the support of two poles -- in droves.
"Above all, it appeals to unathletic types who just sat on their sofas until now," Haizmann said. Around 2 million Germans are thought to have gotten into Nordic walking.
Though only a few international firms are active in the ski sector, pressure on the smaller fish has been increasing. US company Quicksilver has shown determined interest in leading French brand Rossignol. Rumors have been circulating that Salomon, also French, will shift ski production to Romania. And Germany's Völkl may face a similar scenario. California's K2 Sports, which now owns the company, plans to move ski production from Straubing, in Bavaria, to China.
But former slalom world champion Frank Wörndl, who works for Völkl, said production wouldn't leave Straubing. If the company remained the most innovative ski manufacturer, and continued offering sophisticated handcrafting, the Bavarian town would keep its jobs, Wörndl said. Besides, he added, "many buyers still value 'Made in Germany.'"