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What’s tripping up footwear sales

A crash in minimalist footwear plus a cold and wet spring have dealt blows to the category. But hiking boots are making a comeback.

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Two steps forward, one step back.

Footwear was the big savior for many outdoor brands and retailers on the heels of the recession. Fast-moving trends — be it minimalist, Vibram Five Fingers, Crocs, Uggs or Sanuks — skyrocketed sales while lower import tariffs fueled higher profits.

But so far in 2013, the gains have stopped dead in their tracks.

Footwear sales at outdoor retail (chain, specialty and Internet) are up just 1 percent in units and 1.3 percent in dollars to $787 million year-to-date through August 2013, according to Leisure Trends Group. At specialty outdoor retail alone, footwear sales have dropped 6 percent in units and 5 percent in dollars.

There’s no debating the main cause of the downturn, said Scott Jaeger, senior retail analyst for Leisure Trends.

“Minimalist footwear came in hard and fast and now is declining almost as fast as it appeared,” he said. The ultralight shoes with zero drop and little cushioning are down 44 percent in units and 47 percent in dollars year-to-date through August, according to Leisure Trends.

Retailers on the frontlines are seeing the same story.

“I think the minimalist trend crashed earlier than even the skeptics thought it would,” said Mike Dahlberg, a buyer for Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis.

He said consumers at the store quickly jumped off the minimalist bandwagon, and have specifically been asking for shoes with more rock protection, more cushion, and most importantly, he said, more durability — “not the stuff that wears out in a few months.” Non-runners, in particular, haven’t been so keen of the zero-drop feel, he added.

Another laggard in footwear this year were spring sales, specifically sandals, which suffered due to a long wet and cold season throughout most of the country. Sales picked back up a little in the summer, but retailers lost out on that “early season buzz,” Dahlberg said. Outdoor retail sandal sales year-to-date through August are up 1 percent in units and 4 percent in dollars, according to Leisure Trends.

There is one bright spot in footwear. The minimalist backlash coupled with a cold and wet spring seems to have helped hiking footwear and boots, which are making a comeback after a few years in the shadows. Boot sales at outdoor retail are up 3 percent in units and 9 percent in dollars year-to-date, primarily driven by a 10 percent increase in hiking boot sales.

“Our most popular styles this year are relatively [in comparison to minimalist] burly mid-cut hiking shoes,” Dahlberg said. “They have really shot up, although maybe not enough to make up for the losses on the other end, but it’s encouraging.” Lightweight footwear remains a top demand, he added, but not at the loss of comfort and durability.

Simple economics likely also plays role in the story. As footwear got hot, particularly with minimalist trends, more brands entered the fray, increasing supply beyond consumer demand, eventually decreasing prices and overall sale figures. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the decline in sturdier footwear eventually cleared some room for today’s gains.

The writing seems to have been on the wall for some brands. In February, SNEWS reported comments by Wolverine Worldwide officials (makers of Merrell, Chaco and Patagonia footwear), who projected “sluggish growth” for the sector in 2013 — albeit for predicted weaker fall/winter orders, whilst defending the minimalist trend. And at Amer Sports (parent to Salomon and Arc’teryx) officials consciously turned their attention to boosting apparel sales as its footwear business went from 39 percent growth in first half of 2011 to just 4 percent in the first half of 2013.

The hit to outdoor footwear may have cost one executive his job. Two weeks ago, Deckers Corp. announced a sudden switch of leadership at Teva, tapping Jeffrey Bua to replace Joel Heath as president without a public transition. While both parties have remained mum, sales at Teva were down 1.3 percent in the first half of 2013, on the heels of a 7.4 percent drop in 2012, compared to (what have you done for me lately) gains of 23.1 percent in 2011 and 30.5 percent in 2010.

Back at Midwest Mountaineering, Dahlberg said he hopes to see the footwear category level out and forget the fads for a while.

“You can make some good money on the upside of these fads but it can really hurt you on the downside with a lot of extra inventory and discounting. If you time it right, maybe, but I think a lot of people are left chasing the fads and the net result can be a decline. Slow and steady trends may not be exciting, but they are more healthy for business.”

–David Clucas