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Comfort Checkup: How Comfort Footwear is Faring at Retail

Comfort is king in the footwear market, according to the NPD Group. And if you don’t believe it, just look to the independent retailers across the U.S. which remain the go-to destinations for comfort footwear, despite the popularity of online shopping.

The NPD Group recently reported that more than 75 percent of men said comfort was “extremely important or very important” to them when shopping for shoes. Similarly, 85 percent of women said comfort was the most important quality they seek in footwear, followed by quality and style.

That demand for comfort is reflected in the top brands leading the independent shoe channel. New Balance, Ecco, Keen, Clarks England and SAS are the top five brands for men, according to the NPD Group. For women, New Balance, SAS, Ugg, Dansko and Clarks England are leading sales.

Vamp spoke to four top independent shoe retailers across the country to check up on the comfort market, and found that selling comfort today is about perfecting a potent cocktail of fit, customer service and the right trends.

Eneslow Shoes & Pedorthics — New York, NY
Eneslow Pedorthics, a New York shoe retailer since 1909 with three locations in Manhattan, employs 12 pedorthists who help customers with shoe fit and offer services to “makeover” their shoes to address foot problems they may be causing.

Robert Schwartz, C. Ped, president and CEO of Eneslow Pedorthic Enterprises, Inc., said one of the major issues with non-comfort footwear is when the fit is too small. There are many muscles in the foot, and they cannot function inside shoes that are too tight, he explained. Schwartz believes the brands that are best for foot health are New Balance, SAS, Alden and Aetrex. These types of shoes, he said, offer soles with stability, support and shock absorption.
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To diversify assortment and differentiate from the bigger retailers, Eneslow is having success with several, lesser-known European brands including the German brand Christian Dietz, Austrian brands Hassia and Hartjes, and Portuguese label Tape. As a perk, the brands tend to offer the retailer exclusives and maintain affordable pricing.

For Spring ’15, Schwartz expects “a feeding frenzy on open-toed walking shoes.” He anticipates lots of business in ballet flats with more support, and perforated closed shoes. Looking forward to Fall ’15, Schwartz said he will focus on winter weather footwear, as another harsh winter is expected. Practical outsoles and midsoles, waterproof uppers and low wedges are at the top of his list.

Hanig’s Footwear — Chicago and Wilmette, Illinois
Hanig’s Footwear opened in 1944 on the north side of Chicago. More locations have since launched throughout Chicago and into neighboring suburb Wilmette. As the store branches into new neighborhoods, reaching a new and changing clientele, Hanig’s Footwear owner Daniel Hanig said the stores aim to carry an extensive selection of casual and dress shoes and target a broad 25- to 90-year-old crowd.

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Vamp: Describe the current comfort footwear landscape.
Hanig: The comfort footwear landscape today is a mix of either true pedorthic shoes or euro-comfort styles that combine fashionable looks with moderate orthopedic benefits. The line between a true comfort brand and a non-comfort brand is blurring today because the consumer expects comfort no matter what, and many of the more fashionable footwear brands have worked in extra cushioning and support into their shoes anyway.

Vamp: How were sales during the winter season?
Hanig: Our winter season was terrific, specifically with casual boots. Winters in Chicago have become colder than ever, and our consumer has jumped on waterproof brands like Sorel, La Canadienne and Hunter to ensure they are comfortable for the season.

Vamp: When did you begin to mark down your winter merchandise?
Hanig: We generally start to markdown non-waterproof ‘dress’ styles in November, and we markdown slow waterproof styles usually in late December to early January if they are not moving.

Vamp: Which trends and silhouettes do you expect to have success with this spring?
Hanig: Wedges and comfortable flat sandals will continue to dominate our spring season.

Vamp: What is on your buying list for Fall ’15?
Hanig: We are looking to increase our short bootie style selection for Fall ’15, as well as our waterproof boot selection. We are also increasing our selection of hard to find, boutique euro brands.

Vamp: Which brands have you carried in your store the longest?
Hanig: Some of our brands we’ve carried in our stores the longest are Johnston & Murphy, Ecco, Mephisto, Thierry Rabotin, Arche and many more. All of these brands have continued to update and transform themselves with the times to stay relevant. Each one of the brands has also continued to support us, working with us to help move out slow merchandise, as well help grow their name in our market.

Vamp: What are some of the best new brands you’ve added to your mix?
Hanig: Some of the best new brands we’ve added recently are Rapisardi, Pons Quintana, Jafa and On running shoes.

Beck’s Shoes — Northern California and Nevada
Owned and operated by the Beck family since 1919, Beck’s has blossomed into an eight location retailer with stores in Northern California, Northern Nevada and even two mobile trucks that tour Northern California.

Adam Beck, CFO at Beck’s Shoes, believes the key to the business’s success is retail theater. In order for a sit-and-fit to succeed in an increasingly digital footwear market, he said stores must create “an absolutely unbelievable experience for the consumer.”

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A self-service, DSW-style shopping experience is no longer viable for Beck’s 45 -55-year-old customer base. Beck finds that his consumer still likes to try on her shoes. Though the retailer has lost market share to the online store, Beck said the store can still compete. As baby boomers get older, Beck and his staff can help them with the foot ailments that come with age. And since this demographic has disposable income, he sees “another 20 years of really successful brick-and-mortar retailing.”

As brands like Birkenstock cross over into street fashion, Beck finds that fashion and comfort are blending to open up more opportunities and diversity in footwear styles. In fact, his customers’ tastes mirror those trending in the current footwear market. He said customers are looking for something that is not just comfortable, but also has the style and look. Brands like Aetrex, Arcopedico, Cobb Hill and Earth are fulfilling this request.

Hawley Lane Shoes — Connecticut
Hawley Lane Shoes is Connecticut’s largest independent shoe store. Founded in 1975, the business is celebrating its 40th anniversary and its third generation of owners. Co-owner and vice president Joe Gradia heads up the staff at four locations, which include teams of certified pedorthists to assist shoppers with shoe fittings, which is one crucial benefit online stores cannot offer.

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Vamp: Who are the major players in the comfort market?
Gradia: SAS, New Balance, Uggs, Birkenstock, Finn Comfort, Sperry Top-Sider, Merrell, Toms, Hunter, Sorel, Dansko, Vionic, Reef, Keen, Rockport, Clarks, Earth, On running sneakers, Munro, Skechers and many more.

Vamp: Describe your target consumer.
Gradia: It varies from kids, to young adults, to our grandparents.

Vamp: What does it take for a sit-and-fit to succeed into today’s online world?
Gradia: It’s about educating the customers, you cannot get fit correctly on the Internet. It sometimes takes a customer to have a bad shopping experience online, and they find out it may take more time to buy online.

Vamp: When did you begin to mark down your winter merchandise?
Gradia: We didn’t. We sold out of all winter boots.

Vamp: Which brands do you expect to have success with this spring?
Gradia: Vionic, Toms and On running shoes.