Leisure sneakers have been dominating men’s and women’s footwear sales gains in the U.S. over the last 12 months, according to a recent report from The NPD Group.
Sales for non-performance, athletic inspired sneaker for adults increased 17 percent in dollars. The men’s market, which accounts for more than 60 percent of sales, grew 10 percent, while the women’s market grew the fastest, up 33 percent.
The key driver in this surge in casual sneaker sales? Comfort. Despite the fact that a comfort shoe category exists, leisure sneakers have become the de facto versatile comfy shoe as of late.
“As leisure footwear continues to grow, the fashion-focused players need to take the cues that comfort is not an added benefit anymore; it is a necessity for consumers regardless of the season,” Beth Goldstein, executive director, fashion footwear and accessories analyst, The NPD Group, said.
And fashion is taking note. Even the stubbornly anti-comfort designers like Christian Louboutin, who debuted his first range of performance sneakers last week, are warming up to the kicks.
In fact, high-end designers are fueling this trend. Catwalks now resemble a sartorial spoof of a locker room as the runway has become a breeding ground for the $995 designer sneaker and sought-after collaborations between streetwear stars like Supreme and luxury players like Louis Vuitton. It’s also a place for designers to push the boundaries of consumers’ tastes. The endurance of the “dad sneaker,” spurred on by the popularity of Balenciaga’s jarring Triple S model and Off-White’s ongoing collaboration with Nike, is one of those fashion anomalies that young consumers can’t get enough of.
With that level of buzz and excitement, what brand—be it fashion, work or comfort—there are few brands that wouldn’t want to try their hand at sneakers. But what happens to the comfort shoe category when the feeling of comfort becomes the selling point?
In many cases, comfort stalwarts are lacing up and joining Team Sneaker. The comfort category is defined by players like Birkenstock, Clarks, Dr. Scholl’s Shoes, Naturalizer and Vionic—which all cut their teeth in either sandals or brown shoes—and have since expanded with leisure sneaker lines of their own.
Casual slip-on sneakers like the Midi have become core items in Vionic’s fall and spring collections, updated each season with new materials and colors. The brand continues to grow its range of casual sneakers with suede and leather lace-ups, sneaker mules and high-tops with built-in Orthaheel technology that promotes natural alignment.
This spring, Clarks introduced Privo, an “athluxury” sneaker collection built on sculpted footbeds and seamless engineering. Birkenstock, which helped kicked off consumers’ infatuation with comfort when it became the symbol of “Normcore” footwear in 2013, is capturing more coveted retail space through its line of men’s and women’s sneakers with its signature anatomically formed cork-latex footbed. Meanwhile BZees by Naturalizer, an athleisure line of stretch upper footwear, touts “cloud technology.” The collection is made with molded EVA soles with air bubbles trapped within that allow for them to be lightweight and bouncy.
“Obviously, people have become more casual but they still want style,” Tiss Dahan, Dansko vice president of marketing, said. “If you look at the trends in athleisure, you get the best of both worlds.”
Dansko, which forged its own niche in the comfort business first with clogs in the ’90s, followed by sandals and work/casuals, is continuously looking for new innovative materials that are lighter and more comfortable. As Dahan explained, the design team is “always thinking about anything that can benefit the foot.”
Dansko’s take on comfort sneakers include leather and suede lace ups with perforated uppers and suede and mesh sneakers with elasticized laces with toggle closures. For added performance, the shoes are treated with 3M Scotchgard for stain resistance and feature contoured footbeds with built-inch arch support and durable rubber outsoles.
Comfort brands have long been open to diversifying their assortment, but it’s not to say to say they are unbothered by the comfort-cation of casual footwear. The fact that comfort has become a buzz word is a thorn in the sides of most comfort brands that pride themselves in their know-how in comfort technologies.
For Dr. Scholl’s Shoes, there’s a feeling that fashion’s interest in comfort undercuts the complexity of ingredients—from heel counters to the compound uses for soles—that go into the development of a true comfort shoe. “It’s annoying,” Dr. Scholl’s design director Katie Moore, said. “Dr. Scholl’s has been ‘doing’ comfort for as long as it has been a shoe brand and now there are brands adding a thicker insole and calling it comfort.”
The company’s new line, called The Lab, certainly taps into consumer demand for minimalist, unisex, tech-y sneakers. The capsule, made up of hybrid sneaker silos with sporty translucent rubber bottoms and exposed foam midsoles, serves as an add-on to Dr. Scholl’s robust line up of sandals, ankle boots, loafers and ballet flats with proprietary comfort features like Be Free energy technology. The three-part insole offers extra support under the toes, high-recovery foam to cushion the ball of the foot and dense foam to cradle the heel.
“The market for soft leather comfort shoes will always exist, but as office culture and fashion evolve into something more casual, it is shrinking,” Thomas Dixon, Ecco North American product manager, said.
Casual dress sneakers with leather uppers are bridging that gap for Ecco. The leather sneaker has become a large part of Ecco’s men’s business as the brand focuses on creating product with functionality and urban styling. As Dixon described, this hybridization of footwear is led by a macro trend for well-considered products.
“People in general are buying more hybrid products, from clothing and cellphones, to food products and cars. It is more about creating a product with functional elements and modern utility. The ideal shoe is good for multiple purposes,” he said. “It’s good for us and competitors to look at shoes not just for a singular use.”
Like tie clips and briefcases, the men’s comfort shoe category might have become one of the casualties of the casualization of work places, but Samuel Hubbard has made a strong case for leather shoes in recent seasons.
The brand is the product of the first family of comfort footwear. Bruce Katz, who famously co-founded Rockport with his father, Saul, in 1971, took a 28-year hiatus from footwear, but when he returned to launch Samuel Hubbard in 2014, the industry was unrecognizable. “When I came back from having no idea what was going on, I was amazed by how many people were incorporating orthotics and soft soles,” he said. “I saw a lot of improvements.”
Applying athletic and performance level comfort features to “brown shoes” was nothing new to Katz—he had done that at Rockport decades earlier—but the industry had caught up and he knew that for Samuel Hubbard to standout, he would have to beat the sneaker giants at what they do best.
“I felt like there was a group of people who would wear shoes if they were more comfortable, especially on the men’s side of business,” Katz said. “So we tried to comeback and meet the standards of comfort today, which is mostly based on what’s happening in athletic.”
The brand has a laser sharp focus on comfort. “We will fuss with a shoe for years,” Katz said, adding that most comfort shoe brands do not have the time, resources or motivation between seasons to get a shoe right.
Katz admits the brand is somewhat of an anomaly in the footwear sector. Samuel Hubbard has successfully sold colorful footwear to men when the retailers said it wasn’t impossible. Its wholesale business is as robust as its online direct-to-consumer business. And whereas competitors price out around the $150 mark, Samuel Hubbard has consistently sold footwear for $210 and up, even when merchants said their clientele wouldn’t spend that much.
If consumers understand the benefits of a shoe, they will spend. Dixon pointed out that consumers are investing the time to research the products they buy. “They have more information and options. They may be buying less, but when they do buy, they are spending more,” he said.
Dr. Scholl’s and Dansko have relied on digital word-of-mouth to help validate their comfort offerings. Both brands profile brand ambassadors wearing the shoes in the day-to-day life. Sharing personal stories is strong for outreach and building brand loyalty, but the fact is footwear is playing to a sharper customer than ever before. “What we have today are consumers that are better informed because they have access to more information at their fingertips. If they see a shoe with PU soles or EVA, they can look that up and see what those materials do,” Dahan said.
And don’t underestimate the “ahh” experience customers feel when they try on comfort shoes in stores. When Camtrade Footwear CEO Frank Cammarata and his team began to develop a new women’s shoe line in 2014, they knew accessible comfort had to take precedent. That’s where Soft Comfort came in. It’s a line of relaxed, sporty-casual looks with extra-padded insoles, elasticized uppers and breathable fabric linings.
“We focus on fit and comfort,” Cammarata said. “Comfort is essential and not a luxury.”
Cammarata said the company has found that an emphasis on good design, comfort and value resonates with online comfort-minded shoppers. “It’s the whole package. When you have all three components and underscore that with price, it works very well,” he explained.
While online exposure is critical to the mid-tier brand’s visibility, brick-and-mortar allows consumers to feel the shoes’ instant comfort. “We usually say it feels like you’re walking on a cloud,” he said.
The comfort section of a department store is no longer the “old lady section,” NPD’s Goldstein quipped. “I think there’s opportunity at retail to shake things up,” she said, adding that department stores are not doing brands or themselves any favors by keeping comfort in its own corner.
Goldstein urged department stores to create a sense of discovery by housing designer, moderate, comfort and juniors brands together.
“Comfort is not isolated to older consumers anymore,” she said. “Younger consumers are bragging about how comfortable their shoes are.”