Winter pastime is snowed under

The Baltimore Sun

These are desperate times for sledding and its urban fans.

The scant inch of snow that greeted Northeasterners on a recent Sunday morning drove them to the nearest park, clutching fleets of brightly colored plastic sleds, eager to catch any snow for the few hours that it lasted.

"We wanted to get out today because you never know when you'll get more snow," said Paul Model, who was holding an inflatable inner tube sled for his son, Corey, 9.

Anyone who didn't already have a sled stashed in his closet that morning might have been out of luck: Toy retailers, in New York and across the country, have largely pushed sleds and toboggans off their shelves and out of their catalog pages. Sales of winter sports toys, a category that includes most sleds, which are not tracked separately, have been dropping since 2004; in 2006 they were down 40 percent from 2005, to $29 million from $49 million, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Once the quintessential under-the-Christmas-tree gift, wooden sleds have largely disappeared from the holiday mix, victims of warmer weather (which makes scooters more appealing) and the changing tastes of children (who might prefer a Sony PlayStation or Nintendo Wii).

The remaining manufacturers market them mainly as nostalgia items or serious sporting equipment designed for ski slopes. And increasingly, the sleds that do show up in toy and sporting goods stores are the disposable plastic kind, impulsively bought and easily forgotten on the local hill at the end of the day.

It doesn't snow often in Baltimore, and space is at a premium in urban homes, said Claudia Towles, who owns aMuse, a Fells Point toy store. "We don't have the basements. We don't have the attics," she said.

"Who wants to see those in their living room for three months when there's no snow?" she said.

The store keeps a few in its warehouse and can specially order them but usually only sells four or five a year, she said. A Rosebud-style traditional wooden sled can cost $100 to $300, Towles said. She said most families will just buy an inflatable or plastic variety at a mass-market retailer when the snow hits.

"The wooden sled is dying in the city," said Barry Kingham, a lawyer who lives on New York's Upper East Side and accompanied his 8-year-old son, Will, on a scooter ride in Central Park on a crisp Saturday last month. "I grew up here in the '50s, and there was lots of snow," Kingham said. Now, "even if it snows, it melts faster."

The weather does seem to be a major culprit in the sled's demise. Manufacturers say that national retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have decreased floor space for their products during the past several years, and that the late arrival of cold weather in the Northeast in recent years has pushed their sales window past the lucrative holiday shopping season. Last winter, the first snowflakes in New York City did not arrive until Jan. 10 - the latest in 129 years, and well after the holidays.

And despite the earlier snowfall this year, manufacturers remain concerned about the climate and its long-term effect on sales.

"I worry about the weather all the time," said Mojde Esfandiari, chief executive of Wham-O, which sells about 50 kinds of sleds, snowboards and related products. Retailers want winter toys off their shelves by the end of December, she said, and that is a big problem when snow comes late.

"There is still some resistance to extending the season," Esfandiari said, adding that sled makers now must persuade retailers to stock their products into January and February. "The actual business is smaller, the window tightens - it does make it more challenging."

Sales of all snow-dependent equipment have fallen. This year Arctic Cat, a snowmobile maker, announced a 30 percent drop in production, citing a "lack of snowfall for 10 consecutive years" in North America. According to SnowSports Industries America, a trade group, sales of equipment like skis and snowboards at snow sports specialty stores have fallen steadily during the past six years.

"Last year was a killer," said Jeff Kabat, founder and owner of Blades Board & Skate, a New York-based snowboard retailer. When the time came to place orders for equipment this year, Kabat decreased his order by about 25 percent to 30 percent, he said.

"The problem is not, 'Is the winter in total a cold winter?' It's 'How much snow and cold do you get before the holidays?'" Kabat said, adding that once January arrives, customers will expect post-holiday discounts.

Then there is the problem of competition from indoor sports. Even if there is no snow outside on Christmas morning, children can always play Winter Sports: The Ultimate Challenge, a game for the Nintendo Wii that was released this month and features virtual luges and bobsleds.

The handful of companies that still sell high-end sleds are not aiming for the mass market. "We're moving sledding from a recreation to a sport," said Steve Luhr, president of CherryMax Sleds, which makes the $300 aluminum Hammerhead.

Over time, "you're going to lose a lot of mid-market sleds," Luhr said. "It's all going to be about plastic sleds that you can throw away or high-end, mountain-capable sleds" that are meant for trips to ski slopes.

Some retailers said they were immune to the changes. At L.L. Bean, sales of sleds and other outdoor winter toys have remained strong this holiday season, said Laurie Brooks, a spokeswoman. "Our sledding product assortment has grown over the past five years as demand has grown," she said.

Clint Bland, merchandise manager for toys at Wal-Mart, said that the company's inventory of outdoor snow toys this year is "pretty similar to previous years" but that more pronounced changes have been seen in other product lines, such as small battery-operated cars that "have done really great because of the hot weather," he said.

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