Rock Steady

Despite tough economic obstacles, the outdoor category continues its consistent growth trajectory, delivering what consumers increasingly desire: versatile, minimal and fashionable shoes suitable for a rugged hike or a walk in the park. By Mary Avant

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IF THERE’S ONE thing outdoor brands are bragging about of late, it’s their staying power. Despite a difficult economic environment, the outdoor market is robust all around: Category sales are up, the look is definitely in and, from a footwear-centric perspective, it is at the forefront of the minimalist revolution. Roll it all together and it appears it is all good in the great outdoors.

“The expression that ‘outdoor weathers the economy’ is true,” says Tom Berry, vice president of sales, marketing and merchandising for Tecnica, adding there is little reason to fret over a slowdown. “The momentum we’ve seen will continue,” he predicts.

“This segment has always done really well in terms of growth during tough economic times,” agrees Yahn Lebo, product line manager for Wolverine. “Consumers really appreciate that they can go to the outdoor segment and purchase shoes that are a little more timeless.”

According to many top industry execs, the increasing popularity of the great outdoors itself is key to the category’s success at retail. People from all walks of life are spending more time outdoors because it serves as a relatively affordable vacation and an easy mental health getaway. Whether it’s going for a quick run on a local trail or a family hiking trip, consumers are rediscovering the benefits of simply being outside. “People understand now that the outdoors are something to be proud of and interested in,” says Craig Throne, vice president of global marketing for Merrell.

In fact, outdoor activities and the lifestyle that follows have become the newest “it” trend. Specifically, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) reports retail sales of outdoor products for the nine-month fiscal period between February and October of 2011 rose 6.3 percent to $7.7 billion. In addition, OIA’s fifth annual Outdoor Recreation Participation study (involving an online survey of more than 40,000 Americans) reported that nearly 50 percent of all Americans ages six and older participated in outdoor recreation last year. That equates to almost 140 million people participating in 114 different outdoorrelated activities. Running, including trail running, ranked as the most popular activity with more than 50 million participants.

“The outdoors have been becoming more acceptable over the last few years,” says Baffin President Paul Hubner. “People like to associate themselves with an outdoor attitude, and it’s attractive to a lot of people because it’s so accessible to go from the office to the outdoors.”

To that end, Baffin is introducing the Mountain Rebel Series for men this fall—a hiker that can be sported everywhere from the Alaska Range to the city. “No longer is Baffin just Arctic-related,” Hubner says. “We have a broader range of products that can be worn in urban surroundings.”

Whether it’s straight from the office to a weekend in the woods, consumers want a shoe that’s going to keep up with their on-the-go lifestyle and not hold them back or weigh them down. “You don’t have three pairs of shoes in your backpack. You have one and it has to work,” says Laura Young, head of women’s product design at Timberland. And if it doesn’t work, it’ll be left behind. “If the shoe doesn’t go with you, you’re not going to pull it out of the closet in the morning,” remarks Brian Moore, Timberland’s global vice president of men’s footwear. Along such lines, Timberland will introduce the après Camp Mock for fall. The shoe is made of collapsible nylon that is foldable to easily fit inside a backpack. “It’s like a sleeping bag for your feet,” Moore says.

Consumers are also searching for an outdoor shoe that suits them in some unconventional adventures. “You have these creative, innovative, versatile, independent, slightly off-beat attitudes about athletics and sports and the footwear is mirroring that,” offers Brandan Hill, creative director for Chaco, a division of Wolverine World Wide. Some of the hot new activities include kayaking, backcountry camping, adventure racing and climbing, according to the OIA study. Such wild endeavors require shoes loaded with versatile performance features, be it warmth, waterproofing, traction or durability. Or, as Tecnica’s Berry aptly describes, shoes that are “SUVs for your feet.”

At the same time, consumers are also looking for a shoe that is comfortable enough for a lazy day at home. And that’s as much about the need as it is the desire to look the part. “You see a lot of people who just want the outdoor look,” confirms Baffin’s Hubner.

FROM THE RUNWAY TO THE TRAIL

With outdoor activities becoming increasingly popular with a broader slice of consumers, the category continues to evolve beyond its traditional earth-toned color palette and bulky silhouettes. Not afraid to push the fashion envelope, brands no longer shy away from embracing the latest colors and reinterpreting the modern silhouettes and stylish details found on the runway. It’s a natural progression, according to Wolverine’s Lebo: “Fashion brands are putting more comfort and functionality into products, and outdoor brands are bringing extra design and detail effort into their products,” he says.

“The outdoor sector is taking a bolder move to fashion,” agrees Jacqueline van Dine, co-founder and brand manager of Ahnu, a division of Deckers Outdoor. “The outdoors have been brown for a long time, and it’s great to see the pops of color now.” Notes Brian Gothie, senior product manager for trail running and outdoor for New Balance: “Color has really been driving a lot of the decisions for the consumer. I think that will continue to trickle into outdoor.”

In addition to color, several brands are bringing back heritage styles with a modern twist. Outsole maker Vibram USA reports several of its brand partners are going that route. “There’s a reinvention of authentic, vintage brands coming out with more fashionforward outdoor designs inspired by their heritage,” says Marketing Manager Georgia Shaw, adding that some of these heritage sole designs have been around for more than 50 years. “They’ve been used on some of the best hiking boots in the industry, and they’re being reinterpreted today in the fashion sphere.” Companies such as Sorel and Tecnica, which is re-launching its casual après boot for this fall, are taking this fashionable retro approach. “We’re targeting what most women are looking for: to look beautiful while being warm and dry,” Tecnica’s Berry offers.

MINIMALISM IS BIG

The outdoor category’s other big look for fall is a no-brainer: minimalism. “It’s hard to even call this a category anymore, as it is truly a movement that is affecting how everyone approaches product design in all categories,” says Sue-Harvey Brown, marketing manager for Patagonia.

Even brands known for their more substantial constructions, like Baffin and Chaco, are turning to minimalism in some shape or form. “Consumers are more aware of their feet because of the barefoot push,” says Chaco’s Hill. “You’ll see a lot of brands dealing with that awareness, from performance to casual. That’s where we’re focusing our attention.” Chaco’s new collection of “skinny footwear”—a more visually lightweight, yet still durable, line—intends to satisfy the consumer’s demand for a simpler, everyday shoe. Notably, Hill says its men’s “Holt” style channels a Chuck Taylor-esque vibe, complete with a suede and synthetic canvas and rich color blocking for a street-savvy and outdoorfriendly silhouette.

Minimalist category leader Vibram FiveFingers is offering greater cold-weather versatility with the debut of its Lontra model. The brand’s first ever winter-inspired runner features two layers—a microf leece bottom that offers breathable warmth and a top polyester laminate—with all seams sealed for maximum water-resistance. Similarly, Merrell Barefoot’s Fall ’12 collection is about added functionality. The Tempo, a women’s water-repellant shoe, comes with a glove to protect the shoe’s exterior, and the crossover men’s Pulse Glove features more protection in the upper for improved cross-training and gym use.

For VivoBarefoot, the focus is on even greater minimalism: The Aqua and Lucy Lite styles both feature Vivo’s thinnest sole to date—3 mm—and are reverse-engineered to sport a lighter, faster, more breathable mesh upper and maximum protection for gym and road running. The brand’s Neo Trail model features an off-road outsole that’s water resistant and includes multi-directional lugs for superior traction in extreme environments. “We’re seeing more consumers that are just curious about minimal shoes or taking preventative measures by trying out bare foot footwear,” says Michelle Hinsvark, U.S. marketing manager. “As we’ve been working diligently to create a range of products for different performance activities, there are more consumers willing to take a chance with a new type of footwear.”

The continued push for minimal not only means a lighter-weight approach to shoes, but it also means cutting down the design to only what’s necessary across all outdoor categories. “I hear time and time again, don’t overbuild the product. And that’s how we’ve taken the approach to the outdoor market,” says Lebo of Wolverine. “We are making products that have what you need and no extra bells and whistles hanging off the side.”

 

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