NANCY SINATRA’S INFAMOUS boots may have been made for walking, but were they made for walking on slick city streets during a blizzard, with plenty of style and comfort to spare? If not, today’s picky shoppers will most likely take a pass—demanding their boots look stylish as well as stand up to whatever Mother Nature dishes out.
Wisely, boot manufacturers are not relying solely on the unpredictability of when—or even if—cold and snowy weather may hit to trigger boot sales, keeping customers happy by offering a combination of style and perfor- mance—including features like waterproofing and insulation. The proof is in the category’s continued strong sales: Despite fall’s uncooperatively pleas- ant weather east of the Mississippi River, boot sales increased by more than 10 percent from November 2010 to October 2011, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a consumer market research firm that tracks the footwear industry. And Cohen doesn’t see the category’s trajectory slowing anytime soon, predicting that the momentum will continue in 2012. “Boots have become more diverse,” he notes. “There are specialty boots for rain and others for snow—and even others for show.”
Functionality is a key selling point, offers Rich Bellas, co-owner of Van Boven Shoes in Ann Arbor, MI. “The thing that I’ve noticed most about boots is that people love the feel, look and the comfort of classic Uggs, but they also want it to climb mountains and wade through streams,” he notes, adding, “People want soup to nuts in their shoes.” That’s why Jill Hathaway, owner of J Hathaway Shoe Boutique in Leawood, KS, says Aquatalia boots have been one of her bestsellers of late—despite the luxury price tag—since the brand’s waterproof boots hit the mark in terms of style, comfort and practicality.
Aiming to capitalize on the growing number of customers seeking boots that seamlessly blend function and style, Rob Rask, managing director of Ara Shoes North America, says the brand plans to launch a collection that melds the best of its fashion and performance categories for next fall. “We’re mixing and matching the function of cold-weather hiking boots with fash- ionable, more pointy-toed, more feminine-heeled boots,” he says.
It’s a combination that customers are willing to pay for, says Scott Starbuck, owner of City Soles in Chicago. “They see more value in it,” he notes, add- ing that his shoppers frequently spend $300 or $400 on boots that offer a high level of quality and versatility. “They get more bang for their buck—not only in the leather and the materials, but they know they are going to get a lot more wear out of it.” And for budget-conscious consumers in a still- recovering economy, value and versatility are big selling points.
Sue Marfino, owner of Shoefly in Buffalo, NY, says that while she’s seen a slowdown in sales of weather-proof styles this fall (the snow capital of Amer- ica had no snow on the ground the week before Christmas), her boot sales have continued apace—fueled largely by an emphasis on boots as a fashion item and a greater array of styles on the market. “It was kind of a weird season because it seemed like everything was appropriate, and it seemed like people wanted something they didn’t already have,” she observes. For Marfino, that meant a sharp upshoot in shoppers seeking ankle-length sil- houettes, which she attributes in part to the style’s more affordable price tag. “It’s not as scary as buying a $200 riding boot,” she points out.
Not to mention, ankle boots fit almost every woman with no problem, adds Hathaway. “People are seeing that the ankle boot is a better trend for them as far as wearability, because it makes every calf look feminine, no mat- ter if you’re a size 2 or 22. It’s so beautiful and slimming,” she says, noting that sales of ankle boots have been outpacing her other styles by a margin of 2 to 1. The style, she adds, has also allowed her to expand her hosiery and socks selection, since the boots pair so well with legwear. “It’s just a good look for everybody—and everybody’s already got the classic eques- trian boot,” she says.
Yet, even traditional knee-high styles kept ringing the register this year, says John Heron, general manager for Born, a division of H.H. Brown. “Sales of classic riding boots with unique leather details were as good as they’ve ever been,” he says. Despite fears that the long shelf life of timeless styles would keep customers from picking up another pair this year, Heron notes “just the normal, old causal flat boot was awe- some for us.” Cohen at the NPD Group attributes this to the year-round fashion status boots have acquired. “Styles have become longer-lasting, which creates replenishment,” he notes. “Think of the shearling boots that get worn by younger wearers almost year-round. That means more replenishment to replace their worn ones.”
The only exception to the anything-goes theory for boots, it seems, are the thigh-high and dressy styles that blew out in previous seasons. Marfino, for example, says she simply chose to forego selling boots with high heels this season after running into delivery problems. “I haven’t had a lot of people ask for them,” she points out, adding, “There def- initely has not been a demand.” James Matush, general manager at Resricted, notes the company cut a lot of its dress styles from the line for Fall ’12. “We’re still going to offer a heeled boot because there’s a base out there for it; it’s just not as prevalent as it was before.”
For now, casual boots and styling look to be king. Bellas of Van Boven Shoes says his college-aged shoppers from the nearby University of Michigan love any shoe silhouette, from sneakers to clogs to boots, so long as it’s lined in shearling. “Anytime people can take that real soft, casual, indoor feel outside, that’s what they’re going to do,” he notes, pointing to the ongoing success of Ugg. While sales of classic Uggs have slowed at the store, the brand has “come out with so many models that fill that void,” Bellas notes.
The season’s relatively strong boot sales even weathered the gloomy economy—a trend that should bode well for exhibitors at the recent FFANY show that offered a cornucopia of eclectic boot styles, from classic equestrian and western looks to tough combat hikers and mo- tocross-inspired quilting. Manufacturers seem to be hedging their bets that the boot market will continue on its sales run. Be them short, tall, rugged or fashionable styles, consumers will continue to pick up some- thing new boot-wise next year. As for an overarching theme for Fall ’12, “it’s going to be cowboys and Indians,” predicts Lovely People Presi- dent Kenny Robinson, who notes that the brand has several fringe-style boots and a turquoise cowboy boot in store for the upcoming season. “If you study the boot business throughout the last 30 years, when cowboy boots are hot, Indian, fringe and moccasins follow it.”
Next year’s relaxed, Southwestern-flavored vibe all goes back, says Starbuck, to a customer desire for casual comfort. “I think paramount across the board, comfort is important,” he points out. “Not a dowdy, walking-store type of comfort, but the idea that it should be built into every shoe nowadays.” John Heron at Born agrees, but adds a caveat. “You’ve got to deliver the value, the comfort and the fit all at the same time, but if you don’t have the style, you don’t get to that next level,” he notes. After all, discerning shoppers want boots made for walking—and being seen—and “having good-looking compelling product is where it starts,” Heron notes.
Of course, a little cooperation from Mother Nature would be icing on the boot category’s cake. “The past two seasons [with record snowfalls along the heavily populated East Coast] brought fabulous boots sales,” confirms Ara’s Rask. To that end, he remains ever-hopeful that the cold will inevitably kick in: “We still think the cold is going to come, and we’re in good shape to get it to people when it does,” he says.