These are desperate times for sledding and its urban fans.
The scant inch of snow that greeted New Yorkers on a recent Sunday morning drove them to city parks, clutching fleets of brightly colored plastic sleds, eager to catch any snow for the few hours that it lasted.
"We wanted to get out today because you never know when you'll get more snow," said Paul Model, who was holding an inflatable inner tube sled for his son, Corey, 9. He gestured to the fences still blocking the Central Park hills around East 72nd Street, which are usually replaced with bales of hay in time for sledding season. "This caught the Parks Department by surprise."
Any New Yorker who didn't already have a sled stashed in the closet that morning might have been out of luck: Toy retailers, both in the city and across the country, have largely pushed sleds and toboggans off their shelves and out of their catalog pages. Sales of winter sports toys, a category that includes most sleds, which are not tracked separately, have been dropping since 2004; in 2006 they were down 40 percent from 2005, to $29 million from $49 million, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.
Once the quintessential under-the-Christmas-tree gift, wooden sleds have largely disappeared from the holiday shopping mix, victims of warmer weather (which makes scooters more appealing) and the changing taste of children (who might prefer a Sony PlayStation or Nintendo Wii).
The remaining manufacturers market them mainly as nostalgia items or serious sporting equipment designed for ski slopes. And increasingly, the sleds that do show up in toy and sporting goods stores are the disposable plastic kind, impulsively bought and easily forgotten on the local hill at the end of the day.
"The wooden sled is dying in the city," said Barry Kingham, a lawyer who lives on the Upper East Side and accompanied his 8-year-old son, Will, on a scooter ride in Central Park on a crisp Saturday last month. "I grew up here in the '50s, and there was lots of snow," Kingham said. Now, "even if it snows, it melts faster."
The weather does seem to be a major culprit in the sled's demise. Manufacturers say that national retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have decreased floor space for their products over the past several years, and that the late arrival of cold weather in the Northeast in recent years has pushed their sales window past the lucrative holiday shopping season. Last winter, the first snowflakes in New York City did not arrive until Jan. 10 the latest in 129 years and well after the holidays.
And despite the earlier snowfall this year, manufacturers remain concerned about the volatile climate and its long-term effect on their sales.
"I worry about the weather all the time," said Mojde Esfandiari, chief executive officer of Wham-O, which sells about 50 kinds of sleds, snowboards and related products. Retailers want winter toys off their shelves by the end of December, she said, and that is a big problem when the snow comes late.
"There is still some resistance to extending the season," Esfandiari said, adding that sledmakers now must convince retailers to stock their products into January and February. "The actual business is smaller, the window tightens, it does make it a little more challenging."
Sales of all snow-dependent equipment have fallen. This year Arctic Cat, a snowmobile maker, announced a 30 percent drop in production, citing a "lack of snowfall for 10 consecutive years" in North America. According to SnowSports Industries America, a trade group, sales of equipment like skis and snowboards at snow sports specialty stores have fallen steadily over the past six years.
"Last year was a killer," said Jeff Kabat, founder and owner of Blades Board & Skate, a New York-based retailer of snowboards. When the time came to place orders for equipment this year, Kabat decreased his order by about 25 percent to 30 percent, he said, but even that may have been too much.
"The problem is not is the winter in total a cold winter, it's how much snow and cold do you get before the holidays," Kabat said, adding that once January arrives, customers will expect post-holiday discounts.
Then there is the problem of competition from indoor sports. Even if there is no snow outside on Christmas morning, children can always play "Winter Sports: The Ultimate Challenge," a game for the Nintendo Wii that was released this month and features virtual luges and bobsleds.
"We're definitely in the retro business," said Brice Hoskin, the founder of Mountain Boy Sledworks, which makes several thousand handmade wooden sleds a year.
The handful of companies that still sell high-end sleds are not aiming for the mass market. "We're moving sledding from a recreation to a sport," said Steve Luhr, president of CherryMax Sleds, which makes the $300 aluminum Hammerhead.
Over time, "you're going to lose a lot of mid-market sleds," Luhr said. "It's all going to be about plastic sleds that you can throw away or high-end, mountain-capable sleds" that are meant for trips to ski slopes.
Even Flexible Flyer, the oldest and best-known name in sledding, has had to reposition itself. Since 1889, "Flexible Flyer" has been shorthand for the traditional wooden sled with steel runners. Paricon Inc., a small company in Maine that purchased the Flexible Flyer brand about three years ago, now manufactures mostly plastic and foam sleds under that name.
"Sales have grown every year despite the weather, but if we had more snowy weather early in the season I think our sales would have grown all that more," said Ted Morton, vice president of sales for Paricon. If the snowfall is light, an old-fashioned sled with runners might not work properly, while a plastic saucer could just do the trick.
Some retailers said they were immune to the changes. At L.L. Bean, sales of sleds and other outdoor winter toys have remained strong this holiday season, said Laurie Brooks, a spokeswoman. "Our overall sledding product assortment has grown over the past five years as demand has grown," she said.
Clint Bland, merchandise manager for toys at Wal-Mart, said that the company's inventory of outdoor snow toys this year is "pretty similar to previous years" but that more pronounced changes have been seen in other product lines, such as small battery-operated cars that "have done really great because of the hot weather," he said.
And New Yorkers who, admittedly, see little snow compared with suburban and rural areas also tend to shun sleds and bulky snow toys because of their small apartments. Karl Wong, the floor manager for toys and electronics at Zittles toy store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said that when he finally sold the last heavy wooden sled that had been sitting around, he did not order more. "When the snow comes, they want the cheap plastic ones," he said. "Most of our customers, they come on the way to the park, they leave it in the park afterwards."
A few blocks away, Roger Glazebrook, the manager of Mary Arnold Toys, looked on the bright side. "Sales have been very good of scooters and tricycles." he said. "It's temperate and moderate all through winter, and kids can take their scooters to school."