Why do skiers buy new ski boots? According to Kneissl's Scott Mellin, it can be explained in five simple words: "Damn, my ski boots hurt!"
It's rare to find a skier who is completely satisfied in the boot department. "If you look at the ski-boot market, everyone has problems with fit, warmth, and comfort," says Rossignol's George Couperthwait. "People have been waiting for this technology for 30 years."
Couperthwait is referring to soft boots, and he should know: Rossignol is one of three major manufacturers offering soft boots in its 2001-02 boot line.
"Everyone used to think that price is what drove the boot industry," says Mike Aicher of Salomon, whose Verse series is among the leaders of the soft boot trend. "But with only one in five leisure skiers coming back to the sport, we realized that something was up. We needed to do something different."
Mellin, whose Kneissl Rail 22 softie has garnered rave reviews, says, "We wanted to make more comfortable boots that could perform at the same high level." And manufacturers have done just that. These new lines of boots offer improved comfort over previous models, with softer, cushier materials like leather, and despite being targeted at beginner and intermediate skiers, in some cases the boots' performance is precise enough for more advanced skiers. "Skiers will expect to give something up in performance," says Couperthwait. "But when they go out and ski them, they'll realize they're even better in some ways."
"These boots are in our 'leisure' category," says Aicher, "but the intent is to give non-committal skiers an easy-to-use, comfortable, accessible boot, making their skiing experience more enjoyable. We're trying to take some of the guessing out of the game for the leisure buyers. Hopefully, then, they'll become more committed skiers and customers."
"The response so far has been really strong," adds Aicher. "We've had people take them out onto the snow, and come back later wanting to buy a pair. We got comments in Vegas at the March SIA trade show that ran the gamut, but the consumer demand is out there, so it depends on retailers' willingness to move ahead."
According to Couperthwait, it won't be long before that happens. "Most retailers see the soft boot as an innovative product. They've gotten behind it and are making a big push for the fall."
Mellin is more skeptical, likening the response to soft boots to the industry's reluctant acceptance of shaped skis several years ago. "New technology is always poo-pooed at first," he says, "which leads to a hiccup at the beginning. But once the benefits are explained and accepted, people will see that this is some truly innovative technology."
Mike Curtis of Dolomite, whose global launch of a soft boot was marred by a "lack of definition" stateside leading to a year delay of a U.S. launch, takes Mellin's sentiment a step further. "This is not going to happen overnight," says Curtis, "and that's why we're holding off. The consumer demand isn't there yet and the other products out there aren't yet so well-developed. Still, we're not running away from it."
Rick Kahl, editor-in-chief at SKIING Magazine, has tested the Salomon and Rossi models. "According to our results," Kahl says, "the Verse has hit its novice target audience right on. If anything, it performs above expectations."
"The Rossi Soft is a more versatile boot," says Kahl, "and will do the job for beginners through low experts as long as there is a snug fit around the cuff. The level of performance seems to be very dependent on fit."