A friend recently asked for advice on which skis to buy for his girlfriend (who hadn't skied in years) and it struck me that entering a ski shop for the first time can be a daunting experience. My best advice is to act like a 5 year old - appear interested, but like it would take a lot to impress you. Then ask for chocolate.
Some of the best customer service I received came from a representative of Ellis Brigham in Covent Garden many years ago. Just before starting my first season at the tender age of 18, I bought a pair of K2 Apache Recons with Marker bindings and Nordica Olympia ski boots. I happily skied on them for several seasons until eventually the binding fell off entirely and the boot flex was so far gone I could practically lie horizontal on my skis (they now live in my attic because I can't bear to part with them).
The advice I received then was to go with what worked for you personally, not what everyone else was going for. It took a while to convince him that I would be able to manage the heavy K2's, but I loved them. It took even longer to convince me that clients would take me seriously in a pair of gold glittery boots, but actually they were the best fitting pair in the shop and my feet never got cold (okay, they did once but it was -40c).
Since then I have owned skis by Fischer and Rossignol, and tested pairs from Head, Blizzard, Atomic, Salomon and Volkl. Those of you in the know can probably tell from that list that I prefer piste to powder. But if you're a first time buyer what are the things you need to look out for and what questions should you be asking the retail assistant?
1. Be aware that most ski prices are representative of the cost of the ski without bindings. Many stores do an offer of one price for the combined ski and binding, but if quoted separately you need to factor in around another £150-300 for the bindings.
2. With the fluctuating exchange rates between the euro and sterling it can be cheaper to buy from abroad when the pound is strong (those days may have passed, but it's still worth checking). Also if you are in store and can find the same skis online at a competitors for a better price, it's worth asking them to match it.
3. If you only go once or twice a year don't bother buying your kids skis, they will outgrow them way too fast for it to be a good investment. Do, however, consider buying skis at the end of a season if you like the pair you've been renting. Often the ski hire store will want the space for new stock coming in the next year and will consider selling you your rental pair at a massive discount.
4. Some of the smaller specialists like Ski Bartlett often have pieces from last years stock in the back room. If you can't afford the prices of the latest model be upfront about it and see if they can help. (I will be forever grateful to them for my Leki poles that they dug out of the back office for me when I was a poor student, seen below).
5. Think about where you spend most of your time skiing, on-piste, off-piste, in the park, in the bar, etc, and buy a ski suitable for that area. Ellis Brigham offer a great online guide for the best length, width, radius, camber, etc. that you need for each terrain. If it's mostly in the bar go for a cheap option as they may get nicked or end up getting bashed around a lot as you try to carry (or wear) them home.
6. If like me you are a reasonably fast, fairly strong (and heavy) female skier you may prefer a unisex or mans ski. All too often I have entered a ski store and been steered towards those with pretty patterns, in lovely colours, only to find that their flex is more suitable for a child. If you need a stiff ski speak up and remain firm as it's hard to convince most store assistants that you can handle them.
7. At the same time be honest about your skiing capabilities; as an instructor I frequently had clients tell me that they were confident on red runs and were fine on blacks. Five minutes later they were screaming their way down a blue; a ski instructor or a store assistant can only go by what you are telling them. If you say you are the next Ted Ligety expect to be given a world class race ski, if you admit to being a beginner or intermediate level you will be given a ski you can handle that will boost your confidence and help improve your technique.
8. Ask your ski instructor which skis they recommend, but beware. The main advantages are that they have seen how you ski and chances are they will have had the opportunity to test out several of the skis that came out that year. The disadvantage is that they may be biased, as some ski schools are sponsored by brands, or they may have links with a certain shop in the resort. Best to take their advice but to shop around.
9. Try as many different brands as you can - what works for you won't necessarily work for others. Some can make you feel like you're floating through champagne powder, or that you can trust them to stay steady at high speeds, others just don't. Maybe the edges catch or the waist is too wide and you can't feel the snow properly, but other people in the same conditions might find the complete opposite. It's worth asking a rental store if you can try out a different ski each day with the aim of buying your favourite pair at the end of the week.
10. And lastly, when your skis, poles, boots, helmet, goggles and outfit all have matching hues you look so fabulous that your skiing will definitely improve (even if they are gold and glittery).
Oh and definitely NEVER ever buy a pair of skis before, during, or after après!!!