In Age of Snowboards, Sleds Get High-Tech, High Priced

MOVE over inner tubes. So long cheap plastic saucers. Watch out Flexible Flyer. One of the world's oldest sports is going high-tech.

Among the sleek new offerings in kids' sleds: the SnowBlade, alias a bicycle on a ski; the Sno-Kat, which looks like a miniature catamaran; and the LaserLuge, created by former Canadian Olympic luger Bruce Smith.

These are serious sleds.

Unlike their cheaper, no-name counterparts, these polyurethane models tend to be faster, safer, easier to steer and stop, and, more than likely, will last the span of a child's sledding career. Most are sold at mass retailers such as Toys R Us or Wal-Mart, while a few cater to the Sharper Image crowd.

The blizzards of '96, which blanketed much of the country, helped produce a flurry of sales this winter. But one factor that could chill the warm reception is the hefty price tag. Prices for these souped-up sleds slide in around $30 to $80, compared with $10 or less for plastic saucers or sheets.

The diverse manufacturers of these sleds, largely new entrants to the $50 million snow-toy industry, figure that sledders are ready for something radical.

''It's about time [kids] had a modern alternative to plastic dishes and inner tubes,'' says Jim Farrin, president of SnowBlade Corp., a two-person operation in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

Mr. Farrin claims that the $49.95 Snowblade, which he launched two winters ago, helped fuel the high-tech sled market. ''I wanted to bring out a product where you could get the ease of sledding and the thrill of skiing,'' he says. The target is children between 6 and 16.

First-year sales were lackluster, Farrin says, blaming scant snow and lack of exposure. But this year, he says SnowBlade is doing ''tremendously well.''

Is it fast? ''I've beaten skiers and snowboarders down a hill,'' Farrin says.

The Canadian Luge Association helped launch another new entry, the LaserLuge, made by Quality Dino Entertainment Ltd. ''We were not looking to get into the sled business, but we saw a product that was so revolutionary,'' says Greg Johnson, president of the firm's United States division in Minneapolis. The sled was launched in Canada a year ago. Nearly all the 45,000 units shipped to the US at Christmas have sold.

''Everyone underestimated the demand for the product,'' Mr. Johnson says. At $79.95, the LaserLuge is anything but an impulse buy. ''Do we lose some sales from being high priced?'' Johnson says, ''Yes, but we're after a completely different market'' - the market for snowboards, many costing $500. The company, however, does plan a $30 model as well as a two-person luge.

Then there's the new $69.95 Sno-Kat. It has a steel frame, plastic blades that pivot from side to side, and a mat seat made out of trampoline fabric.

''Adults are going nuts over the sled,'' says Ann Sharma, assistant product manager in the toy division at Roadmaster Industries Inc. of Olney, Ill., which makes bicycles and other recreational toys. In 1993, Roadmaster bought out a rival - the traditional Flexible Flyer. How do high-tech and low-tech compare in sales? So far, the Flexible Flyer ''blows the Sno-Kat away,'' she says. But next year, with a little advertising, Roadmaster expects Sno-Kat sales to be as high.

Even plastics giant Rubbermaid Inc. has hit the slopes. Last June, it launched a line of neon-purple plastic bobsleds that sell for $30. ''We've sold three times more than anticipated,'' says Donna Ayoub, senior product manager.

But high-tech can be a hard sell if the price isn't right. Just ask Len Hammond, president of Hamson Products Inc. in Merrimack, N.H. Three years ago, the company rolled out Scoot-N-Ski, a plastic scooter on a ski for $50. But only 800 sold. The next year, the company knocked the price down to $30 and 3,000 units sold. For this season, Hamson Products slashed production costs and came out with a $20 Scoot-N-Ski. More than 13,000 units have sold.

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