While recent snowstorms in the eastern United States broughtmany businesses to a halt, they boosted sales of plastic sleds, snowboards and other downhill recreational products. Retailers reeling from a sluggish Christmas season got a shot in the arm as consumers flocked to the aisles looking for snow-play toys - when consumers could reach the stores.
``Some stores had to close for a day or so but when they reopened, sleds and such products were exactly the types of items people looked for,'' said Keith Morris, spokesman for Wal-Mart Inc.
Morris did not provide sales figures but said there was a surge in northeastern U.S. demand for sleds, snowboards and similar equipment in the first half of January. He said sales in the West, where snowfall has been light, have been normal.
Record snowfalls prolonged the season for Rubbermaid Inc.'s blow molded sled, its first product in this recreational category.
``We sold everything we could make and orders for four to five thousand sleds are still coming in for delivery in February,'' said Donna Ayoub, product manager for Rubbermaid's so-far unnamed sled. The firm's Specialty Products Division makes the high density polyethyelene sled in Winfield, Kan., the division's main blow molding facility.
Rubbermaid will introduce ``further generations'' of its sled this year to expand on its $30 entry, which sold three times faster than Ayoub and others expected after it debuted last year. She said the sled will help Specialty Products spread its sales through the year. Most of its products, such as lawn and garden items, are sold in the January-to-June period.
Snow-covered hills beckon kids and adults to hop on products ranging from simple injection molded HDPE toboggans to composite snowboards costing upwards of $500. Snow storms entice consumers to buy for immediate use and they prime next season's market, too.
``We expect consumers will buy earlier in the 1996 [winter] season because of the memory of this winter,'' said Greg Johnson, president of Quality Sled Inc. in Minneapolis.
Quality debuted its LaserLuge in the United States last year and ``sales have been unbelievable in the East,'' said Johnson. ``We usually stop shipping in November but it's mid-January and we're still shipping.''
Quality's PE LaserLuge is rotationally molded by an undisclosed firm in Toronto, which recently restarted its rotomolding machines to accomodate a late flood of orders.
Quality's parent company, Quality Dino Entertainment Ltd. of Winnipeg, Manitoba, introduced LaserLuge last year in Canada, where sales remain strong. It makes the product under license from the Canadian Luge Association. Johnson predicts U.S. sales of LaserLuge, which is endorsed by the U.S. Luge Association, will double next winter.
Abundant snow fueled sales of already-hot snowboards, according to Chris Sanders, president of Universal Bindings Inc. of Benicia, Calif.
``We are probably running out of stock [for the 1995/96 season],'' said Sanders from California, where sales were strong the previous winter because of heavy snowfalls.
Universal makes snowboard bindings and a sister company, Avalanche Snowboard, also in Benicia, Calif., makes snowboards. Custom molder Master Plastics Inc. of Vacaville, Calif., injection molds Universal's binding components from DuPont's Zytel nylon resin. Sanders said his firm tried other plastics used by competitors, including ultrahigh molecular weight PE, other nylons and ABS. It continues to use relatively expensive Zytel because of its ruggedness and processing characteristics. It also specifies molded thermoplastic polyurethane for binding straps.
Sanders said snowboards contain various amounts of plastic. Many have PU foam cores sandwiched between fiberglass or PE layers. Reaction injection molded urethane on a wood core is a more expensive type but is less costly than laminated wood models.
Snowboard popularity is rising, especially among teenagers and young men lured by its ``radical'' image. More women and children are taking it up too, however, because it is easier to learn than skiing, according to Sanders. He estimated a million snowboards are sold each year around the world in a market growing as much as 40 percent annually.
Rip Snowboard and Skateboard was sold out of snowboards in early January, said a spokeswoman for the Lebanon, Pa., sporting goods retailer, who hopes business will be equally strong next winter.
Wal-Mart can keep its stores well-supplied with sleds and toboggans despite heavy demand because it has a sophisticated order-tracking system and just-in-time delivery schedules with suppliers, Morris said.
``We know these items will be popular regardless of the size of a storm,'' Morris said from Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. ``We are prepared to keep our stores supplied.''