Bonus Chaos on the Women’s Boot Wall

I’ve been on a boot bender recently. I hate it. It’s the opposite of looking at the ski market. Product lines are logical. Customer feedback and customer sales data reinforce each other. It’s obvious where brands are positioning themselves in direct competition. Things just make sense. Women’s boots (exclusively women’s) on the other hand, are chaos.

There’s a lot of weird points that warrant discussion, but I’ll start with the line plan. When line plans lack order, it’s hard for brands to do valuable competitive analysis against each other and see how their sales stack up. When line plans look batshit crazy, customers have a hard time navigating the assortment and landing in the right product.

Boot shopping sucks for everyone. Feet can be infinitely unique and different between customers, yet we get about 20 different shapes of inflexible plastic as options and have to make it work. Flex is also not standardized. It can be linear (the perceived stiffness is the same whether you’re flexing into it a little or a lot) or progressive (it feels softer when you flex into the boot a little, but stiffens up the further the material flexes). With linear flex, you might compare 2 boots against each other, and 1 option could be both stiffer and softer than the other if it has a really progressive flex. No one really enjoys the process, but the industry has made it more challenging for women.

There are 7 flexes on the men’s market: 70, 80, 90, 100, 110, 120 and 130. And there’s a lot of overlap in flex ratings across different product lines. There are 41 major lines for inbound or 50/50 use only 13 (30%) of them have a completely unique range of flexes. For women, there are 13 different flex ratings. And there are 38 lines, and 20 have a completely unique assortment of flexes (52%).

So for men, categorizing boots by flex, assigning them to a customer persona, and ascertaining a fair price becomes easier. For example, if you’re shopping for a low volume downhill boot these are your options. (Flexes 60-95 hidden since no options exist for these lines under this fit type).

A 130 flex might vary from line to line, but we know that all manufacturers are designing their 130 boots as the burliest model that serves heavier skiers and/or expert skiers. We can see that a 120 flex boot is defined for another purpose because most brands produce both a 120 and 130. It serves the “advanced but not expert” cohort or skiers or lighter weight experts. 110 and 100 are clearly a step down from that. It’s less clear whether there’s a significant difference between a 100 and 110, as some brands produce both and others just choose one. But for the most part, they bottom out around the same flex. Overall, it’s pretty easy to figure out where you land. With 7 flexes, if I had to rate how much force I put on a boot from 1-7 compared to other women, I’d say a 6. A low six who wants room to grow. And if I were a man, I’d zero in on 120 boots and have six brands who were all like “great, we built options that directly compete against each other for your customer persona.”

But I’m a woman, so my assortment of narrow inbound options looks like this:

There isn’t the same clean delineation between flex ratings. Part of that is the lack of consistency between brands. It’s also the introduction of flex ratings that end in 5s. Some brands, like Atomic and Nordica, use the _5 flex ratings consistently across their entire lines to indicate which boots are women’s boots. Others break on the 0’s. Tecnica and Dabello mix and match between the two. These extra ratings make categorization a little murkier. Are a 95 and 90 that different? No? How about a 95 and 100? And if those aren’t that different, then how different are the 90 and 100 from each other? It also doesn’t help that a lot of sites equate a women’s 100+ flex to be comparable to a men’s 130. That’s literally over half of the Salomon S/Max line that has been matched to the same customer profile.

The crisp categorization across boots and skier types starts to blur. It makes it less easy for women to ballpark their flex and self-advocate when they’re in the store. I’d also gander that it makes things less straightforward for fitters, especially since few shops are going to carry each boot in multiple 100+ flexes on the stiffer end of the scale. Does she need a 100 or 110? Is this even a brand that makes a 120? Even for brands themselves, I’m wondering how they define competitive sets for their own sales analysis with the range listed above.

Also, on the men’s side, there’s a lot of discussion about a “true” 120 or 130 flex since the market has enough overlapping options to make comparisons and create standards most models converge. But what’s a true 115 flex? If the Hawx Ultra and Promachine feel different, which one’s the standard and which one’s off?

But wait! There’s more. Line plans start to look even weirder when you start considering pricing. I’ll take those two charts and backfill all the X’s with their in season, minimum advertised price. (Brands set minimum pricing from fall to early spring and then let retailers discount as the season winds down).

For men, the pricing matches pretty cleanly with the flex ratings. 110 boots cost less than 120 boots. 120s cost less than 130s. In the sample set we’re using, there are only 2 exceptions, marked with italic and underline:

For women, pricing is a lot less logical. Almost half of the sample boots have a softer competitor that’s more expensive.

$549 can get you a 90 flex boot, or a 95 flex, or 105 flex. And there are even 120 flex boots that aren’t far off price wise ($599). Across the 95 flex rating, price varies from $399 for the Atomic Hawx Ultra to $549 on the Tecnica Mach1 (an almost 40% jump). Is the Mach1 significantly stiffer? If so, should I build my consideration set around the stated flex or the price? And if they don’t flex much differently, what else justifies the substantial price difference?  

We know that boots are complicated and there’s more to price than just the flex. But we want to know. Here’s why: if a customer can’t easily understand the pricing structure, they’re going to read behind the lines and postulate the reasons themselves. And a lot of that hypothesizing will be influenced by the customers’ relationship and trust with the brand or industry. The ski industry has a history of sexism, undermining women’s abilities, and serving up low performance gear. So a confusing line plan brings on speculation that it’s smoke and mirrors covering up gender discrimination.

For example, all women’s 120 flex boots are more expensive than their brand’s men’s 120 offerings. For 3 out of 4, it’s an extra $50. For K2, they make pricing even with the “equivalent” men’s model. (So the Anthem Pro at a 120 flex and a Recon Pro at a 140 flex both cost $699. A step down, the Recon 130 and Anthem 110 are both $599). When brands don’t share their reasoning, skeptical customers consider it a pink tax. (And then drop in my DMs with eyeroll emojis, barf emojis, notes to fuck the patriarchy, and comments about how much they’re loathing the shopping process.)

So brands, if you’re tired of the ever-present boot angst coming from women shoppers, score and price your boots as if they’re for men. It won’t fix everything, but it will clear up confusion. Consistency builds understanding and understanding builds trust.

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