Skiing is expensive. Just affording the requisite underwear requires a second mortgage, never mind all the other clothing layers, equipment, travel, lodging and such niceties as food. Every expense seems to beget another: boots need custom insoles, skis need bindings, goggles go with helmets and you need bags of every description just to haul it all around.
At realskiers.com, we tend to attract an upscale clientele that understands the value of expert service, but beyond our reach lies the world of entry-level and low-frequency skiers, often budget-minded members of the beleaguered middle class who seek relief at mass-market superstores that tout low-cost package deals. The biggest problem with this pairing is that one side doesn’t know what they need and the other neither knows nor cares.
I once heard the head of a major sporting goods chain succinctly describe his stores’ credo as, “We sell junk to dopes,” only he didn’t use the word “junk.” Another, sounding like Monty Burns, mentioned one of his chain’s priorities was to reduce their already pitiful staffing level. The competence of said staff wasn’t a subject worthy of consideration.
Store To Slope
I’m sure a great percentage of the folks who patronize mass merchants go straight from store to slope and somehow survive the experience. There’s always a chance the package ski is adequate, and if the ski isn’t tuned or the boot doesn’t fit, how are they to know? After all, skiing’s supposed to be hard, isn’t it?
Actually, no, it isn’t, but it sure is a miserable slog if none of your gear – and particularly your boots – aren’t right for you. It’s like trying to steer a car from the back seat. This is the biggest pitfall of the chain store as your equipment purveyor: when it comes to proper boot fitting, they know not what they do.
If you’re standing in front of a mass merchant’s ski boot display, neither, most likely, do you. Chances are, your only previous ski boot experience was with rentals. This leaves you with some idea of what to avoid but very little notion of what “proper” actually feels like. You’re ripe for the plucking, and boy, do you get plucked.
I can make this bald assertion because I labor in the vineyard of specialty ski retailing, the backstop, emergency room and safety net where all the wreckage caused by the collision of new skier and chain store inevitably arrives.
The most common, irremediable flaw is a lousy boot that’s a minimum of one full size too big. This isn’t something that we, the wise specialists, can fix. Whatever investment in time and money you made in the discount boot is flushed, period.
It’s not that specialty stores never make mistakes; even the most diligent practitioner of the bootfitter’s art will still err. But most of the gaffes will be due to over-reaching, of trying to achieve perfection in an imperfect world. But errors in over-sizing aren’t accidents at chain stores; they’re a way of life.
Just as a chain’s ideal ski doesn’t require mounting, its perfect boot is an amorphous bucket that doesn’t require sizing, or heaven forefend, fitting. If the boot is closed and you’re not complaining, it’s your size! The fact that it fits your foot like an empty Kleenex box with commensurate support shouldn’t bother you too much because despite these flaws they still feel better than the last boots you rented.
Not Only Boots
Boots aren’t the only item where apparent savings may prove ephemeral. Sometimes the best-looking ski deals are, upon closer inspection, the worst. Suppose you find a $900 ski on sale for $99; if there’s an element in the middle of the ski that looks like an exotic cribbage board, this means there’s only one binding that matches that ski and guess who doesn’t have it?
The saddest part of this story is that the people who need every break they can get end up spending more when they might have spent the same or less at a specialty shop if they’d only gone there in the first place. Just because specialty shops know how to take care of experts’ exacting requirements doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten how to cosset beginners. They know better than a mass merchant how to stretch a budget without wasting a penny.
One piece of advice the entry-level skier will hear from every quarter is that the most important piece of equipment is the boot. As this bit of conventional wisdom happens to be true, it only makes sense to shop for boots where it’s the lifeblood of the enterprise.
Nobody needs more help with gear selection and fitting than the budding skier making his or her first purchase, and nobody is less likely to get it than the bargain hunter at the chain store. The only place they’re more likely to waste their time and money procuring gear that won’t work is on the Internet.
Photo: The importance of boot fitting at a specialty shop (realskiers.com)