I recently got a reader email asking my thoughts on stiff boots for women. It’s a topic that’s been discussed a million times, memed into oblivion, and yet, stiff boots are scarce on the shelves at most ski shops. What gives? Turns out, it’s a complex business problem. Some boot product line managers see the how crucial this gear is to women’s skiing, and they’re getting creative trying to serve the small-but-stiff boot market. However, since women get so under-served in gear coverage, most of these initiatives aren’t widely known. So let’s dive into the reader question and what’s going on behind the scenes:
I was curious if you’d be interested in writing or collaborating on a blog/post about the extreme lack of stiff women’s ski boots. I am an aggressive skier and ski instructor and spend pretty much every weekend December to April on the mountain. Unsurprisingly, I’ve flexed out of my 110 boots after 3 or 4 seasons. I am in the joyous times of looking for new boots and am amazed (cue unamazed) at the literal lack of options in the Seattle area of a 130 flex women’s ski boots. My feet are larger enough to fit into men’s boots which is great for me but obviously not possible for others. And, women’s feet are indeed different than men’s feet. I experimented this spring with calling every ski shop in the Seattle area and nobody had an answer for me. Countless shops (and men) immediately started telling me their 110 or even 100 flex boot options despite specifically saying that I’m looking for 120 or higher flex.
This reader isn’t the first woman to need a 120+ flex boot and it’s an important product family to address because it allows elite women to continue progressing the sport. But while the memes make it seem like a straightforward solution, there are lots of interesting considerations on the back end and creative strategies in the works from boot brands.
I started doing research on boots when I got a copy of 2019 industry sales that I am absolutely not supposed to have. And I was so excited to do some data analysis and hunt for signs of misogyny. I love feeling like I’ve built a fact-based argument for the industry to give women more consideration. Plus, those are the posts and memes that get a ton of engagement. But the numbers didn’t support my case. Here’s a breakdown of sales by flex. It’s not the cleanest dataset. There are some old clearance models selling 1-2 units, but it at least shows the general pattern in demand for beginner and intermediate flex boots vs advanced to expert:
That was one of the first years that 120+ women’s boots were available, and they made up roughly 0.2% of all women’s boot sales. The models were the Salomon X-Max 120, Rossignol Pure Elite 120, Lange RS 120 SC (a short cuff race boot), and Tecnica Mach1 Pro LV.
The reporting also includes in-store vs. online sales for each model, and there’s a correlation between the flex a woman buys and where she finds her boot. The vast, vast majority of women are buying boots in store, but as flex gets stiffer, there are small shifts into online ordering as you move from a 60 flex to a 105. But over a 110 flex, there’s a huge jump in online purchases and over a third of women are shopping online. This tells me that women feel a little more confident with online purchasing as they move from beginner to intermediate to advanced skier. But very few shops are stocking gear for expert women.
In other words, the ski brands recognized the need for stiff boots, but ski shops don’t see enough demand to feel confident putting that boot in store.
Let’s go back to your comment about skis. If I’m a ski shop, most of my ski inventory is out on the wall. Some stores put 1 ski per stall. Some others, like Pro Ski Seattle, will double up to maximize the options with limited floor space. If I want to serve the most ripping woman skier, I can bring in the Secret 102. It comes in 3 sizes, and every woman who fits the Secret’s customer persona can ski that ski. Anatomical differences like a wide foot or low instep don’t disqualify her purchase. A shop owner can order a few units, merchandise them in the same stall as the hot selling Secret 96 and it’s a low-risk way to test the sales for the most aggressive women’s skis on the market.
If I’m selling boots, I have my options on the boot wall, and the inventory is tucked away off the sales floor where customers aren’t going to wreak havoc trying on their own boots and putting them away incorrectly. So I have to arrange my assortment to serve the maximum number of customers with a set number of models. And unlike skis, there are anatomical considerations to make. I don’t need to stock a Line Pandora 84, Salomon Spark 85, Mindbender Alliance 85, and Atomic Maven 83 to serve a beginnermediate woman. They target the same niche so I can bring in one or two. But I might need to carry 3-5 80 flex boot models to adequately serve that same niche, with variances in instep height and cuff shape. Do you bring in a single 120 flex boot that won’t fit all of your hard charging female customers, or do you carry another 90-flex option that has a stiffer version orderable online?
Not to mention, for boots, you need to order into 5-6 sizes per model. It’s not just a bigger opportunity cost, but the investment per line grows if you stand behind the full size run.
I haven’t seen any other annual sales report, but I don’t get the impression that they’re a smashing success. The 2019 Rossignol Pure Elite still has units marked down to $389. The 2021 Tecnica Mach1 Pro LV has been 60% off and is almost as cheap as an aftermarket liner. The 2020 Mach1 Pro has a full size run is in stock at Sierra. (TJMaxx group generally pays 3-5% of wholesale cost to take offloaded softgoods, so they tend to be a last resort for aged inventory). The 2020 Dabello Asolo Factory dropped from a 120 flex to a 115 after a year of sales. And yet brands are still serving this market with the K2 Anthem Pro and Tecnica Cochise Pro joining the market in 2021 and 2022, respectively. So long as skiing exists within a capitalistic model, no amount of feminism can make up for unprofitable models.
Now, brands are working creatively to address the merchandising issue. How do they create and carry a rad women’s boot without the opportunity cost? I talked to Matt Manser, Atomic’s Boot PM, and liked the creative approach they took with the Hawx Ultra XTD 130. Instead of building a slow selling women’s boot, they made their men’s boot down to a 22.5. The shorter sizes will get a women’s specific cuff because they’re made with women in mind, not short kings. Tons of shops carry the 130 already, so all they need to do is order a few extra units in women’s sizes and train their fitters on this update.
They’re not the only ones playing in unisex boots. I’m not sure how their competitors are handling cuff design for unisex models. (Their product managers don’t follow tiny creators and extend their workday until 10pm to have a virtual boot happy hour). But Dalbello’s Lupo 120 goes to 22.5. Tecnica does the same for their Zero G 130 and Cochise 130. Nordica offers a 22.5 in both versions of their Strider 130. Even if they do a women’s fit for the smaller sizes, it might not be quite as precise in the fit for a woman who’s a 25.5 or 26.5, but it’s at least a practical solution to get more high flex/small size boots in store to test the concept.
Also, I should note that brands and retailers are still playing catch up in terms of how to tell the story of unisex gear. That’s true in the gender-neutral fashion space as well, and we tend to have higher margins and more resources. For example, Evo enabled unisex options for skis this year for truly unisex brands like Fischer, Faction, and Season, but some brands are abusing it. The women’s big mountain ski page is 40% men’s skis that start at 177 that create so much friction in the women’s shopping process. When I reached out, they acknowledged that it wasn’t the ideal experience and their ecomm team was actively working on ways to create a better shopping experience for unisex gear. Atomic has their unisex boot faced out for both gender filters on their website, but I only know the cuff information from talking to Matt. When I see unisex offerings, I want to know the extent that women were included in the fit and testing process and what adjustments are made for smaller/women’s sizing. No one is doing that well. And given the influx of unisex gear, particularly within skis, I think we’ll see some major changes to site infrastructure in the coming seasons, and that 5 years from now, we won’t make men’s vs. women’s the first action we take while browsing websites. I’m also really fascinated to see if this changes the way we organize ski shops. Hold on to your butts, because the ski industry is about to have a serious gender identity crisis.
So if a number of brands are working overtime to get you a stiff boot, where was the breakdown? Shops. Now, to be fair, I’m not sure if the person answering the phone was a bootfitter, or just the closest associate that happened to be near the phone. And given the mass exodus from low-wage work over 2021, I’m not sure whether the level of expertise in associates has changed much for local ski shops. But I have an exceptional bootfitter and can tell you what should have happened for the reader who wrote in. (Side note: go see Brandon Clarke at Evo if you’re a woman craving a positive bootfitting experience). She should have been told on the phone that they don’t carry 120+ flex women’s boot, but that doesn’t mean they can’t sell her that kind of boot. They could get her in for an appointment and try several prongs of attack: 1 – they could try her in the true men’s 120s, 2 – they could try her in a unisex 120, and 3 – they could fit her in a 90-something flex Mach1, Cochise, X-Max, Anthem, and Pure Elite. If they fit well, they could custom order the winner’s stiffer sibling. They could also try some of the 110-115 flex boots that ski stiffer. (Flex is far from standardized, so there’s a chance your stiffer boot could have a lower number on it. When I replaced my Mach1 115s, I bought a pair of stiffer Mach1 105s from a later year with a taller cuff). And if for some reason she was stuck with her existing boots, they could also try tweaks like a Booster strap or Zipfit liner if she doesn’t already have those. They change the way you interface with the boot and the perceived flex of the boot. (Seriously, I’ve tried some boots that were too stiff for me, that felt more accessible when I switched to a lower quality liner). My fitter makes special orders all the time. He knows the market extremely well and Evo has a relationship with most suppliers. If a woman comes in needing a stiffer flex or some special needs post-foot surgery, he knows the best shell to start with and the right modifications to get as close to custom as you can get.
Now, while we’re on the subject of 120+ flex boots for women, I think we need to look at what gear we as the women’s ski community most fervently asks for from gear suppliers. Somehow “stiffer boots!” has become the poster child for sexism in the ski industry. But I have a hard time getting worked up on behalf of the upper echelon of elite skiers who already have a lot of status and deference within the ski community. (Maybe I’m just jealous I don’t shred that hard). But there isn’t a single shell ski pant or jacket for plus size women. No GoreTex, just 10k/10k waterproofing. The average Asian or Hispanic women are 5’1” and only have short cuff kids’ boots as an option since 21.5s and 22.5s are so few and far between. For some reason, the boot industry makes wide boots softer and lower performance than narrow boots. Guess who tends to have narrow feet? White people. We hate when men address their own needs in the ski industry and treat us like an afterthought. But when we make stiff boots our calling card, we’re a group of privileged people with status in the ski community centering our own needs. That’s natural. We tend to think about and address the discrimination that affects us personally. We have firsthand experience and tend to have good ideas for solutions. That applies to me too. (There’s a reason this blog is about women and skiing and not women’s access to education or violence against women.)
I don’t think the call for stiffer boots is the appropriate one anymore. Six brands are making 120+ flex boots tailored to women’s anatomy. Two others are making stiff boots in women’s sizes (with no confirmation on adjustments for sex-based anatomy differences). The only major boot brand who is not serving this demographic is Lange (and I’m all for bullying them into compliance). So where’s the breakdown? There are 2 culprits:
- Ski media, which I lament on a weekly basis for allocating too little space to talk about women’s gear advancements.
- The shops. 90-95% of women buy their boots in store from a beginner to advanced flex, but for the 110-120 flex products, 39% of women are going online. Men also divert online as experts, but online purchases for 120-130 flex boots is only 17%.
Shops put all their inventory in a backroom and expect me to trust them. But this reader’s experience and these sales patterns show that expert women are supposed to figure it out on their own. Now, if this reader, as an expert woman instructor feels like she’s getting poor service, do you think it’s any better for the recreational intermediate? There may be 7 options for 80-90 flex boots on the wall, but do you think they’re getting evaluated for the right flex for her rate of progression and a performance shell fit?
And doesn’t it check out to be the bootfitters? I adore my regular fitter, but I cringe whenever I have to see others. I’m at the pinnacle of boot privilege (low volume, stiff-yet-still-stock flexes, common size at 23.5, have friends in the industry and a small level of status in the gear space). I’ve still had fitters talk down to me or try to convince me that I needed a larger size while I comfortably walked around in a smaller one. Still better experiences than intermediate friends; I’ve never been professionally fitted in an oversized boot or left a fitting appointment in tears. It’s really not that far of a reach. There are plenty of studies how women get poorer service in the auto industry, healthcare, real estate, banking – the list could go on – so what makes us think the bootfitting world would be any different?
This problem is a far trickier one to address since it’s not as cut and dry. Flex options are easy to measure. Either there are 120 flex boots for women or there aren’t. For fitting service, we have hundreds of shops with a few fitters a piece who each have hundreds of appointments. It takes almost a full season to sus out the level of satisfaction with a fitting, especially if you and your fitter’s strategy is to move slowly and make small adjustments over multiple appointments with ski time in between. How do we measure whether women are getting adequate service and see if men’s is any better?
I have a lot of ideas.
I’ve been really inspired by the survey by Feels on Wheels, a bike blog by a Filipinx rider Roxy Robles. The survey simply asked how comfortable women and non-binary bikers felt in different shops on a scale of 1-5. The results are here, and Seattle Bike Blog has a great recap as well. The survey could also go more in depth for feedback specifically on boot fitting services and specific fitters.
I also think collecting stats like whether a shop offers special ordering for people who can’t work with stock product or whether shops offer training on equity and inclusion. I’d also expect a correlation between high quality women’s fittings and the number of women employed as bootfitters and the greater hardgoods space.
And in the meantime, I’m a believer in good old-fashioned referrals. I keep my fitter stacked with referrals (seriously go see Brandon if you’re in the Seattle area). When you walk in and say “I’m looking for X or my problem with my current boot is Y” he takes it at face value. If he thinks there’s a better solution, he’ll offer it and explain it without discounting your original thoughts and ideas. For example, I had some ankle bone pain in a pair of boots and I thought it was the liner rubbing against my ankle bone. I thought we needed padding. He thought it was the plastic of the shell digging into my ankle and thought I needed a punch. We started with padding since it was the reversible option of the two. In the end, he was right. There’s a lot of respect for my bodily intuition, which is rare for women to experience in any setting.
But in that vein, women will never have access to quality fitters like that on a consistent basis with the current employment practices. Bootfitter wages range from $13 to $35 per hour. The majority of these jobs are in mountain towns or mountain-adjacent urban areas. You’ll never get empathetic, creative problem solvers for those wages. Sturtevant’s Tacoma advertises up to $18 per hour, which means the pay is better for a starting position at Dick’s Drive In or Taco Time. (Not to mention, Dick’s overtime kicks in at 32 hours instead of the traditional 40). Sturtevant’s advertises a free ski pass, but those extra $2 per hour in wage would cover the cost of local passes in 7 to 13 weeks of full time work. They also offer the hardgoods supervisor job with the same wage advertisement. Aspen Snowmass offers $13.50 per hour plus commission in a town that costs 3 times the national average. Vail Resorts offer between $15 to $25 per hour across their portfolio of resorts and standalone shops. Their supervisors are somehow only making $14 to $20 in Vail. IN VAIL! I don’t think we can expect the quality of service to get much better while shops are paying poverty wages for fairly skilled work. No one’s going to smash the patriarchy with that kind of compensation plan. We need to advocate for shops to pay in-line with other skilled trades, attract diverse talent who can relate to diverse clientele, train them to be creative problem solvers, and retain them over time.