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Professor Kicks

Matt Powell, senior industry advisor Sports for the NPD Group, on what’s right, what’s wrong and a few possible solutions to what ails today’s athletic footwear business.

Matt Powell tells it like it is, and he does so often in blunt yet spot-on terms. Armed with reams of sales analytics and backed by decades of market experience, he’s a student of all things sneakers. He’s up to speed on both the micro and macroeconomics of the business, spanning up-and-coming brands as well as tectonic plate-shifting issues. And while the former retailer-turned-industry-analyst is known to get into his share of Twitter feuds with some of his 25,000 followers—many young, passionate sneakerheads—the Sneaker Sage welcomes such (heated and healthy) debates because, like any good teacher, he knows being a lifelong student is the only way to stay atop this fast-paced and topsy-turvy game.    

Here, Powell sounds off on some key trends and takeaways from 2018, and what needs to happen going forward to right some wrongs. And while he may not have all the answers (who does?), what Powell does know serves as valuable lessons in athletic footwear and categories beyond. 

What were the year’s highlights in sneakers? The rise of small brands, fresh looks in retro and the Adidas Parley (recycled ocean plastics) campaign. 

How would you assess 2018 overall? Lackluster and disappointing so far. There’s too much performance product coupled with the lack of understanding of the fundamental sea change in the market to the new normal of athleisure.

Meaning? Athleisure has changed the world of sport footwear. Brands and retailers have not responded. The business model that Phil Knight invented 40 years ago is still in place today. We have to abandon that model and move on.

 What should that new model be? Stop trying to force performance footwear on the market. Operate like a fashion brand—faster to market. Look to Allbirds: whole sizes only, the same outsole for multiple styles, leverage upper materials, no futures, better margins and don’t release pictures of shoes months before they hit retail.

What does Allbirds’ rapid rise to prominence—built largely on one silhouette and a DTC platform—signal to the market at large? Allbirds shows that walking away from conventional wisdom is a powerful tool.

With Nike full speed ahead on its DTC efforts and other brands following suit, will sneaker shopping as we now know it even exist in five or 10 years? There will always be multi-brand physical stores, but there will be fewer of them. The best players will still be thriving. 

Tweet, tweet: Allbirds has
rewritten the sneaker playbook, says industry analyst Matt Powell.

Having covered the sports retail business for four decades, is this so-called Retail Apocalypse unchartered territory? We have far too many stores in the U.S. selling the same stuff. We have far too many over-leveraged retailers that must service their debt rather than invest in their stores and people. This rationalization is needed, as painful as it may be.

Does anything about this business surprise you anymore? I’m amazed that we keep doing the same things over and over, expecting a different result.

What are you most excited about this business going forward? The tremendous power of small brands and the women’s opportunity. 

Might the women’s market present a new gold rush? We can only hope so. Women’s is our greatest failure and our greatest opportunity.

What’s your take on some of the big dogs—Vans, Nike and Adidas? Any mid-tier brands ready to challenge for a top-tier position? I think we are seeing a sea change in the way small brands are influencing the market.

And that may be good for the market as a whole because? Competition makes us all better.

What are some smaller brands on your radar? Fila, Puma, Reebok and Champion. 

I read the streetwear bubble might burst soon. What implications might that have on the sneaker business? I don’t think streetwear has had a commercial impact on the industry.

Are luxury brands long for the sneaker market or just passing through? Luxury brands should be embarrassed by their knockoff product. 

Are we in danger of collab fatigue? That has already happened. The dishonest collab model is broken.

What should replace it? Honest, authentic, non-compensated micro-influencers.

What keeps you lacing up your sneakers and heading into work each day? I learn something every day.

The April/May 2024 Issue

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