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Take a Hike: Why Outdoor Is Footwear’s Biggest Money-Making Opportunity Right Now

If nothing else, the Covid-19 pandemic is nudging consumers to reconnect with the great outdoors. In the months after worldwide stay-at-home orders started to ease up, more people saw the opportunity to go on socially distanced adventures in the wilderness, whether in trails, parks, meadows or mountains. As a result, while a struggling U.S. footwear industry has tried to fight off escalating tariffs and overall declining consumer demand, hiking and outdoor footwear have become the sector’s true diamonds in the rough.

The trend gained momentum during the summer starting in June, according to Beth Goldstein, executive director, industry analyst, accessories and footwear at NPD Group.

“Hiking really picked up in July, growing more than 15 percent, as summer kicked in and consumers looked to the outdoors for socially distant outings,” Goldstein told Sourcing Journal.

NPD data shows total U.S. footwear sales for July reached $2.3 billion, representing a decline of 16 percent versus the previous July. Among categories, while performance footwear was down 16 percent, leisure declined 3 percent and fashion fell 35 percent, illustrating the hiking and outdoor subset’s solid results.

Plus, the hiking and trail footwear market is poised to grow by $4.1 billion from 2019 to 2023, progressing at a compound annual growth rate of almost 8 percent per year during the forecast period, according to an April Technavio report.

Despite the rosy outlook, some brands are better poised for success than others, experts say.

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“The winners are the brands who started two or three years ago or even further back to develop lines that were athleisure and were lifestyle,” said Andy Polk, senior vice president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA). “The ones who didn’t start that a couple years ago are in a really tight spot right now because it’s not easy to just start up a line and throw it into the market right now. I think it’s extremely hard to start up a new brand in this market and get visibility. There’s still opportunities but I think you have to thread the needle now more than ever in this environment, not just in operations but on your marketing and outreach.”

While it’s harder to execute an outright pivot to outdoor or hiking shoes, the brands that are lucky enough to already have skin in the game have started to see a serious boost in demand, especially when places where traditional athletic sneakers are used have been closed to consumers for months on end.

“You can’t go to the climber gym, you couldn’t go to the yoga studio and your gyms were closed,” said Ashley Williams, global marketing director of Keen. “People are now turning to the outdoors, and people who perhaps never really spent much time actively in the outdoors are now turning to it, because it’s one of the few outlets they have left.”

One such brand that isn’t known for its hiking prowess, Reebok, is one of the bold companies looking to capitalize on the trend further. Better known for its running shoes and athletic apparel, Reebok recently expanded its Zig Kinetica lifestyle collection with the debut of the Zig Kinetica Edge, a “mountain-inspired” outdoor sneaker designed to be worn in the city and on the trail. The shoe includes a water-resistant upper, a midsole featuring the company’s signature Floatride Fuel, bungee cord laces and a trail lug outsole for additional flexibility and traction.

“We have seen fourth-quarter seasonal demand for Zig specifically, so we knew there was an appetite for this type of product,” said Greg Korbas, director of product marketing, tech style at Reebok. “Historically, our Zig tech platform has always done well with trail iterations—there’s something about the way adding a luggy trail outsole to our bold Zig midsole design transforms the overall look of the shoe, it has always been received well. And with the improved functionality of the Zig Energy System, this was a perfect opportunity to update a product offering that has continuously been in the range for the last several years.”

While it is far from the first hiking shoe Reebok has ever released, the Zig Kinetica Edge drop may be a sign of things to come for the brand. The shoe is the first of Reebok’s Battle the Elements collection—an upcoming line created to meet the demands of the consumer’s daily environment in style. Aside from the Zig Kinetica Edge, Reebok hasn’t released any details regarding the other shoes that may be included in this line, or when the next shoe will drop. But the emphasis on “the elements” alludes to the fact that the brand is taking outdoor’s current popularity seriously, and indicates that it sees a growth opportunity in the category.

“From our trend and insights team, we know that the idea of getting outdoors is especially important this season and will continue to trend into next year,” Korbas told Sourcing Journal. “Everyone has been stuck inside because of Covid, so there’s an overwhelming desire to get outside and reconnect with nature and the outdoors. Playing at the intersection of functional tech and disruptive style has been a sweet spot for our brand to deliver newness in the market, and we know there is a consumer demand for this type of product.”

While Footwear Falters, Hiking Shoes See
Reebok’s Zig Kinetica Edge is accompanied by a background illustration from Cassandra Jean Piedra. The campaign around the shoe is inspired by the life between the city and the trail. Reebok

Versatility is key as outdoor meshes with comfort

Jamie Kirby, senior marketing manager at outdoor sandals brand Chaco, noted that the Wolverine Worldwide-owned company has seen two trends emerge. For one, its latest collection—Chillos Slides—is driving a massive increase in new customers, 80 percent of whom have never shopped on Chacos.com before.

“We intentionally positioned Chillos—an ultra-light, ergonomic athletic slide—for lounging, working, and learning from home, or as recovery footwear for post running, workouts, yoga and cycling,” Kirby said. “That message has resonated strongly with consumers who have been staying home or sheltering in place, and we’ve been able to capitalize as a result.”

As far as a second trend, it appears that the movement toward casualization has impacted the sales of outdoor footwear as well, with more shoppers preferring shoes that could pose as either outdoor and hiking shoes or simply something that keeps feet comfortable. As stores started to reopen, Chaco says it saw a large uptick in sales for its flagship Z/Sandal due to its everyday versatility, despite being specifically designed for outdoor exploration. Like many brands that had to come up with new marketing ideas amid the pandemic, Chaco had to make adjustments as well to address shifting shopper preferences.

“Rather than sticking to our typical content, we have shifted our messaging to meet consumers where they are: social distancing outdoors, living an active lifestyle, and mindful relaxation and escapes found in nature,” said Kirby. “These have all been winning propositions.”

Chris Hufnagel, global brand president at one of Wolverine Worldwide’s other major footwear brands, Merrell, reiterated the increased customer engagement and e-commerce boom (the brand saw online sales increase 100 percent in the second quarter), alongside a continued blurring of the lines between outdoor and comfort.

Hufnagel pointed out how the Hydro Moc collection, which typically is for water activities at a beach or lake, “has seen success as an everyday lifestyle shoe suited for comfort and style, and is being fueled by the stay-close-to-home Covid-19 trend.”

Similarly, Keen’s Williams said that versatility is also key for his brand’s success for two reasons: one, athleisure has shown no signs of slowing down; and two, it’s an easier entry point for shoppers who are new to outdoors adventuring.

“It’s less likely that they will go and buy a hike-specific shoe that they can only wear for hiking,” Williams said. “Versatility has been part of the Keen line from day one with the Newport, which is the most versatile product we have as far as the different applications that we can use for it. That’s something that holds true to most of our product—we don’t often define a specific end use, our products are designed to be versatile.”

Brands must pivot to ‘see now, buy now’ releases

The increased demand for outdoor and hiking shoes supports the “see now, buy now” imperative, a lesson brought to the fore during the pandemic. Lowa, a brand offering hiking and backpacking boots and shoes brand, executes same-day shipping on 98 percent of orders. It’s preparing for 2021 and 2022 to deliver product more that customers can wear in season.

“Instead of delivering spring product in March when Minneapolis still has snow and cold, we may not deliver that stuff until April 15 or May 1,” said Peter Sachs, general manager at Lowa Boots LLC. “The same with cold weather boots. Instead of delivering them at Labor Day, we’ll probably deliver them this year more like Columbus Day to Nov. 1. I think that’s okay because by the time the customer’s ready to come shop, the product doesn’t look old. It still looks new and fresh by pushing these delivery seasons back.”

Lowa also shifted its schedule to introduce Spring 21 collections to buyers after the July 4 holiday, so that it could let partner retailers sell more of what they had in excess inventory after their stores open before “badgering them for next year.” Now, when products get finished in development, Lowa (and other footwear brands) don’t exactly have to adhere to same trade show schedules that may have inhibited from taking them to market at any time they want.

Lowa also introduced a reduced version of its new product than they historically do under the theory that dealers would have higher carry over and less sales data.

“We need to be able to pivot immediately, and we need to be able to say, ‘What worked yesterday or last week may not work tomorrow or next week,’” said Sachs. “When customers put demands on us, we really need to listen to them and say, ‘Okay what do we need to adapt to?’ We have to look at these challenges as opportunities. Our lighter-weight products are not our most successful products, but this year it’s given us an opportunity to put those in front of consumers—and it’s working, we’re selling more of them.”

As brands figure out how to pivot their product releases, some may even opt to take a more seasonless approach rather than focus on “see now, buy now,” especially given the way apparel retailers deferred or flat out cancelled collections at the start of the pandemic, pushing back the typical inventory schedule starting. Many held spring collections into the summer and altered the product cadence for the remainder of the year.

“The industry cannot expect to drive significant growth and consumer interest simply with bi-annual product launches,” Barry McGeough, vice president of advanced concepts at Wolverine Worldwide, told Sourcing Journal. “Rather, we have entered the realm of the seasonless cycles. This is a time of heightened importance around delivering insights-driven, consumer-centric drops on a ridiculously regular cadence and providing experience-rich websites that build a loyalty-rich environment and encourage increased engagement and time on-site to drive brand-dedicated transactional behavior.”

Material innovation continues to factor at Muck Boot, Keen, Oboz

Admittedly, one of the Covid-19 pandemic’s biggest impacts within footwear has been the constraint of budgets, forcing many companies to stray away from new materials and tests due to the high costs and risks involved. But while brands may be hesitant to go above and beyond to improve the quality of their footwear, some companies are still putting in the effort to go even further into the materials landscape.

The Original Muck Boot Company is one such footwear provider that is constantly seeking to keep feet warm and dry throughout even the muddiest of hikes, introducing new materials for its Spring 2021 Outscape collection, including a new neoprene upper and an advanced toe and heel outsole protection offering.

The upper, called Muckskin, is a waterproof, vacuum-formed, rubber neoprene that features high-abrasion resistance for a lightweight material. The Outscape also brings a new dimension to the outsole technology, with the Guarden Rubber toe and heel designed to provide excellent durability with self-cleaning outsole lugs for optimal traction.

Tests during product development showed that Muckskin offers a twofold improvement in abrasion resistance while remaining the same weight as the most common upper material on the market.

The Muck Outscape is available in two different heights (ankle and low) for all genders, and features a Dual Density footbed for all-day comfort with antimicrobial protection.
The Muck Outscape is available in two different heights (ankle and low) for all genders, and features a Dual Density footbed for all-day comfort with antimicrobial protection. Muck Boots

And Keen is bringing its Bellows Flex technology to its hiking boots in January, enabling the products to bend more easily in flex areas, like the base of the tongue and at the ankle. While Keen’s work boots already feature the tech, it will include the pliable thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) insert in the forefoot area of its Tempo Flex and Ridge Flex boots.

The material required less energy to flex during third-party testing, making it easier for the wearer to take a step. When Keen tested against similar boots in the hiking category, the Ridge Flex required 60 percent less energy to bend on average, the company said.

In early August, Oboz Footwear decided to leverage more sustainable materials in releasing its Bozeman Collection, a shoe line inspired by the company’s Bozeman, Mont., headquarters and built for mountain town living with technical trail performance acumen.

The shoes feature the new Bozeman bottom package, with 3.5 millimeter rubber lugs and a supportive TPU heel cup, with Repreve recycled materials comprising the footwear’s laces and webbing. Additionally, the collection has a new O-Fit insole made with a sustainable Bloom Algae Foam biomass. The O-Fit Bloom insoles, released for the fall 2020 season, are molded to match the specific shape and construction of each style they’re placed in, and provide a more sustainable option relative to other insoles without compromising on durability and comfort, the company says.

The Bozeman is available in leather and synthetic styles, and low and mid heights for men and women.

While Footwear Falters, Hiking Shoes See
Seen here is the Oboz Women’s Bozeman Low shoe, “built for mountain town living with technical trail performance acumen.” Oboz

Expect continued sales growth as outdoors trips remain local

The momentum of the summer should continue into a “record” fall and a huge winter, said FDRA’s Polk, unlocking opportunities for brands to find new consumers who may not traditionally have bought their product because they weren’t typically “outdoor people,” especially since they’re likely not going on typical big vacations.

“I think that’s reflected even in the flight out of urban areas to the countryside for all these mortgage applications,” Polk said, alluding to the mass exodus of city dwellers to second homes, or brand-new bucolic dwellings. “If you just look at that, that tells you where the market’s headed, and it’s people wanting to get outside and have space. All those things point to why outdoor brands and lifestyle brands are going to continue to do really well.”

Sachs, of Lowa, agreed with the sentiment that outdoors is going to be an important factor for shoppers for the year ahead, noting a renewed interest in local attractions in times when traveling cross-country simply isn’t an option.

“I’m in Connecticut, and I’m going to hike on trails that are dirt and mud covered, frequently wet, but I have no chance to go hiking in the canyons of Utah, because even if you get there, you have to come home and quarantine for two weeks,” Sachs said. “People will continue to do things, but it’s going to be whatever is local in their region of the country that they can do on days and weekends.”