The road from product draft and idea to your retailer’s shelves is long and there are no short cuts. Last weekend, Jon Fewster, Madshus global category manager for boots and poles, was making sure what hits the market in the fall is flawless. At the same time he already has his hands and his head full with testing Nordic poles, backcountry gear and entry-level race boots for the 2011-12 season.
Race-ready touring boot
Fewster is particularly excited about the new Madshus CT100 (women’s Amica 100), a fairly basic-looking classic touring boot that is far from basic in performance. It has a good fit, is supportive, lets you ski comfortably all day, keeps you warm and dry, all with a level of performance generally reserved for higher-priced products, he says.
“I had a very experienced racer come up and say he’d consider racing in this boot. At a store, those kinds of comments are worth a lot,” Fewster says.
Finding the right combination of performance, fit, comfort and price is one of the biggest challenges in the touring segment.
“While top of the line racing boots can feature all kinds of bells and whistles and materials, in touring boots you try to do more with less,” Fewster explains, noting that for the upcoming season, he feels that Madshus has struck that balance.
Poles for the future
On the pole side, Fewster did some early testing of the 2011-12 products.
“We’re continuing our current line of poles with 3D-molded straps, but we’re always looking to raise the bar on performance, improve details such as ease of entry and exit with the straps and expand on the technology and further improve the forward propulsion,” Fewster says. So far, the feedback from testers in Bend was positive, and indicates that things are on track, he says.
All about specificity
“Testing on snow is crucial. It’s a lot more realistic than lab testing. I’d equate this to training and specificity. You can do a lot of general weights, roller skiing and bounding, but only skiing is skiing. When we test on snow, the boots are colder, they’re in snow, so you can test the waterproofness and you can ski uphill and downhill like you’ll use them,” Fewster says. Mechanical testing versus on snow testing is similar, it’s close and it’s as good as you can get in lieu of snow, but it’s not the same.
While snow is the ultimate environment for Nordic gear, testing has to start at the factory. Madshus boots are manufactured in Thailand, where indoor temperatures at the factory are more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the outside temp often tops 90, and the humidity is high. Materials expand and tend to act softer at the factory than they will in colder temperatures. So anything that’s supposed to be stiff, might appear too soft at the factory in Thailand, and what will be a pressure point when the materials are cold might feel perfectly comfortable in the heat down there, Fewster says.
That’s why Fewster hauls the gear around to a variety of venues to address as many issues as possible. Fewster lives in Seattle and works at the K2 headquarters there, so he spends a lot of time testing gear at western Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass and the Cabin Creek cross-country trails. Madshus also performs a significant amount of beta testing at Beitostoelen (Norway) in April, at Sognefjellet (Norway) and Bend, Oregon, in May and June, and in the ski tunnel in Torsby (Sweden) throughout the summer and fall.
World Cup only part of the equation
When testing gear, Fewster lets a variety of skiers loose on the gear. World Cup skiers offer a lot of insight and know exactly what they want, but regular skiers contribute invaluable information as well.
“I love perceptive and articulate feedback from tester no matter who it comes from. I’m looking for experienced people,” Fewster says. “World Cup skiers are gifted and have specific needs. They tell us what they want and we try to cater to that. We learn a lot about fit and function from the World Cup skiers, but you can’t get them in the lab as often and as long, and we also need to make sure the gear works for thousands of people in different conditions.”
During the Bend testing camp, Fewster enlisted everything from shop employees and shop managers to race team athletes and recreational skiers. He then meticulously collected all data on each product and looks for trends and consistencies.
“Elite athletes get what they need, but with the second-tier elite skiers, the regional elite, you can get them to test more often, talk to them more and analyze that feedback,” Fewster says.
He notes every detail of the feedback, from how the test boots compare to their current boots, if there are pressure points or other fit issues, and also what they like with the boot.
The Devil is in the details
Ideally, Fewster needs to have salesman’s samples for the 2011-12 season in production by September 2010 and ready to ship in October. These samples are made in one size only, and changes will be added to the final product based on testing and user feedback all the way up to production. Once the salesman’s samples are done, Fewster starts working on demo fit samples. These are made in anywhere from three to six different sizes and let loose on a wider variety of testers. Finally, the production samples are made in up to 20 different sizes and widely tested to make sure all issues are addressed before the commercial production begins.
“There are a lot of different issues with each size. They’re not simply a scaled down or scaled up version of the prototype,” Fewster says, explaining that each mold for each size must be individually tested for fit and hot spots.