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French ski-makers switch quickly to cope with steadily declining sales

The French ski-equipment industry, which includes the world's biggest ski manufacturer, Rossignol SA, and biggest bindings maker, Salomon et Fils, has been struggling to avert failure.

Even a plentiful snowfall in Europe and America this past winter didn't help. According to the industry, recession is the immediate cause of equipment manufacturers' problems.

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Snow sent skiers back to the slopes, company spokesmen say, but the recession and the high cost of equipment made them stay with their old equipment, or rent instead. In France, fewer than 1 in 3 skiers rented their equipment five years ago. Now, 1 in 3 does, explained Georges Sendeu, who is with Energy, a sports-consulting firm.

But even an economic upturn would not turn things completely right for the ski companies, Mr. Sendeu added, because the sport's growth has ''stagnated.'' Until about 1977, the ski market expanded by a whopping 15 to 30 percent annually. Now, ''the number of skiers has stopped increasing,'' he said.

Mr. Sendeu said he believes alpine skiing has lost some of its appeal because it has become expensive and crowded - in short, too much of a hassle and a luxury in these trying times.

The French ski giants foresee the long-term decline of the sport, and have begun to position themselves to attack the problem on two fronts: first, by consolidating and increasing their already large market shares; second, by diversifying.

These moves have not yet restored the industry to health, however. Rossignol, with 25 percent of world ski sales, has posted its first serious deficit since it helped launch the modern ski industry a quarter of a century ago, company spokesman Jean-Jacques Bonpard said.

Salomon, together with its US subsidiary, Salomon North America Inc., with 32 percent of the world's binding market, saw sales remain the same last year, although a successful diversification into ski boots and cross-country ski equipment kept it profitable, spokesman Agnes Boulanger said. And Look SA (Look Sports Inc. in the United States), France's second-largest bindings manufacturer , reported a mere 4.5 million-franc profit (some $659,000), ''our worst year ever,'' according to marketing director Claudine Chatelier.

Rossignol's problems are the most serious. The company, including its US subsidiary, US Rossignol Ski Company, sold about 1.6 million pairs of skis last season, compared with 1.8 million the year before and 2 million the year before that. It lost about 30 million francs (about $4.4 million) last year, Mr. Bonpard said.

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But Rossignol hopes for some growth in the depressed ski market as large inventories, built up during two previous snowless years, dwindle. And it hopes to bite off even more of the market by keeping its technological edge on competitors, marketing director Patrick Peter said.

Rossignol has built its reputation on its technological innovations. In the late 1960s it was the first ski-maker to bring out a fiber-glass ski, and after that it never looked back as it expanded around the world.

The philosophy remains the same today. The company reworked its competitive models this year along a new, ''revolutionary'' computer-formulated design that reduced ski vibration. The result, Mr. Peter said, was 12 World Cup medals, the greatest number accounted for by any company.

''We are continuing our technological research full blast ahead, and we believe we can take away the (market) percentage of other ski- makers,'' he added.

Still, Rossignol is positioning itself for cross-country skiing and tennis to provide its main growth in the future. Cross-country skiing experienced explosive growth during the 1970s, and Mr. Sendeu believes it will continue to become more popular. ''The equipment is less expensive, there are no lift-line waits, it is considered less dangerous, and people consider it a much better way to return to nature,'' he said.

Rossignol entered the cross-country field only a few years ago, long after the Austrian ski manufacturers. Rossignol continues to sell only high-quality cross-country skis, but has earned a niche in the field with sales of 250,000 pairs last year, Bonpard said.

Similarly, Rossignol's effort to make a mark in the tennis-racket field is finally beginning to pay off. When the company brought out a tennis racket in 1977, it floundered. ''Frankly, our rackets weren't any good,'' Bonpard said.

Now, though, Rossignol's glass-fiber racket ''is the best in the world,'' he says. That claim may be open to question, but the racket is selling better, and Rossignol expects it to turn a profit next year. And tennis is a field that is expected to continue to grow.

Salomon has no plans to enter any sports market other than skiing, its marketing director, Mrs. Boulanger, said. Instead, it plans to become a full-line ski-maker. And so far, that strategy has paid off.

Although it was hurt last year by the ski industry's general depression, and saw sales stagnate - sales were ''not very good,'' Mrs. Boulanger noted - it maintained its lead as the world's biggest bindings-maker. And it retained confidence. ''We hope to increase our sales by driving small, vulnerable bindings-makers out of business,'' she said.

Not only does Salomon remain confident in its bindings specialty, it profitably put out an alpine ski-boot line last year, and saw its cross-country equipment sell well. Its new high-quality ski boot was very expensive, but was perceived to be a technological breakthrough, and 200,000 pairs were sold, Mrs. Boulanger said.

The Look company, meanwhile, does not have these stunning statistics to point to. So far, it has stayed with its specialty, bindings, and paid with falling profit figures for its failure to branch out.

''We will diversify,'' marketing director Chatelier said. ''It's still secret what we will do, but it will be something in summer sports.''

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