Walking: defining new roles

The walking shoe market is finally outgrowing its britches.

Just one year ago, white athletic-looking models designed for the “mature” set typified the walking market. But while athletic companies were concentrating on those looks, casual and dress shoemakers crept in and gave a new definition to the category, in many instances captivating the same consumers the athletic industry was pursuing.

Many athletic sources surveyed by FN drew comparisons between walking and the recently resurrected running category: Both walking and running took a while to gain importance in the industry, and sources are still awaiting a walking boom similar to the running craze of the 1970s.

The sport will drive sales, sources agreed, but even athletic walking shoes are tending to look more casual.

Ironically, many walkers, they observed, are still buying cheap running shoes for their trekking purposes. Walking, other sources said, is merely a word, which, because of its origins in the athletic and mature women’s business, connotes comfort in consumers’ minds. Comfort is the key to growth in walking, according to some companies. Others contended styling advancements will sell the shoes. Either way, the market’s reaction to the new generation of walking shoes will determine which factor pulls the most weight.

Following is a sampling of industry outlooks on the future of the walking market:

Peter Bortolotti, marketing manager, running and walking, Converse, North Reading, Mass.: “Walking is definitely an important market. It’s one that has been a difficult one for athletic footwear manufacturers. At the outset, it was a ‘me, too’ situation. We’ve had good success with our product in the market. We’re looking into it as a growth area. We’re aiming to keep it simple.

“People are not used to buying $70 sneakers. The casual shoe business mindset is probably more closely aligned with that of the consumer. That’s not to say walking shoes as sneakers can’t be a success. Lower price points are the key. People balked at high retail prices. Everyone has come down.”

Jens Bang, vice president, domestic sales and marketing, The Timberland Co., Hampton, N.H.: “There’s no question that there are two ends of the walking market–the aerobic end and the recreational end. We see a great increase in hiking and trekking, which is a recreational activity as opposed to an aerobic one. The hiking is an extension of the walking movement.

“We have no intention of getting into the aerobic end. When the person goes off road, Timberland should be involved in that market. The whole walking movement has created a bigger potential market than just aerobic. The rugged outdoor manufacturer can benefit from the market growth.

“A lot of our handsewn product is worn because it is comfortable. We as a company have put a greater emphasis on the comfort market. There is no question that the walking movement has forced manufacturers to become more conscious about comfort. It has forced every manufacturer to be more sensitive and demanding when putting in comfort features.”

Jay Kent, vice president, sales and marketing, Drew Shoe Corp., Lancaster, Ohio: “There’s no doubt in my mind that the walking craze will continue. Many people, especially those who are overweight, need plantar fasciitis women’s shoes that are available in sizes that accommodate a wider foot. For instance, in our new Harmony line, the shoes are constructed of heavier leathers and offer more support features. We make quads to triple-E to size 13. One of the factors important to the growth of walking is that it’s a routine that people can get into without the need to buy a lot of extra equipment or use a special facility. Just look at all the mall walking. Oddly enough, the walking phenomenon is not new. Some of the features being touted as new, Drew has been putting in shoes for more than 50 years.”

Walt Nizinski, senior vice president and general manager, Naturalizer division, Brown Shoe Co., St. Louis: “Since consumer interest in comfort continues to increase and walking continues to gain acceptance as an exercise activity, we believe strongly that there is room in the market for both high-performance walking footwear and comfort-oriented dress and casual shoes. Naturalizer is uniquely positioned to capitalize on both of these opportunities and has embarked on a two-pronged attack. First, we are aggressively expanding our Naturalizer Soft Shoes, a line of comfort-oriented dress and casual shoes positioned to appeal to working women. The shoes combine special comfort features with updated contemporary styling at volume price points of $45-$55. Naturalizer Soft Shoes have performed very well at retail and have become the premier volume-oriented comfort dress shoe collection in today’s footwear market. Secondly, Naturalizer is capitalizing on the walking trend with a new line of walking shoes called NaturalSport. We believe the walking shoe boom is still in its early stages and that walking will continue to become the exercise of choice for millions of women.

“NaturalSport offers women high-performance walking footwear with the Naturalizer intrinsics of comfort and fit. NaturalSport’s initial entry, PerformanceWalker, has been selling exceptionally well. The NaturalSport line will be expanded to meet every woman’s walking need with additional entries in the SportWalker and TownWalker categories.”

Mickey Schulman, U.S. Shoe Corp., Cincinnati: “We have seen no indication that the walking shoe market is slowing down. The market was strong even before we got into it, and the marketing campaign we’ve launched has won us a share of the existing market or has created a larger market. Over the past 90 days, incoming orders have accelerated and new accounts have increased dramatically. Several things are responsible, among them the overall interest of the general public in health and fitness. Also, I believe most women over 35 don’t enjoy running and feel it is accident prone, and this has contributed to the growth of walking.”

Elliot Schwartz, president, Kangaroos USA Inc., St. Louis: “I think walking is a market, but is moving in the direction of becoming a part of fashion with the look of casual footwear. It’s definitely not a fad. More people are getting involved in walking — the Easy Spirit and Naturalizer thing has broadened the base and taken walking footwear out of the athletic stores and into fashion stores.

Robert Hollenbaugh, vice president, sales and marketing, William Brooks Shoe Co., Nelsonville, Ohio: “I think the walking shoe market will continue to grow and, quite frankly, the reason is it’s manufacturer-driven, through marketing and promotion of walking events. It’s such a large market — even compared to running. Walking is a general health thing. One person, who used to be a runner, told me he likes walking better because he can take his wife with him, and his children, even the dog, and they can all enjoy the scenery, the smells, the birds singing.

“Most of the walkers you will see are in groups. It’s a social thing. Running is a solitary exercise. Walking is more relaxed, yet you can still get the same cardiovascular benefits.”

Pete Pfitzinger, product manager, New Balance, Boston: “There are two separate markets. One is athletic footwear, which is distributed with more athletic retailers. The other market is casual and dressy, which is distributed through traditional shoe stores. Both are doing well but are separate.

“Footwear sold in shoe stores is sold more for comfort than for walking. Our product with price points of $110-$125 is more shoe store oriented. In May, we will be delivering a more athletic model at $70, which will have a split distribution.

“For us, walking has been different than we expected. Our strongest point is width sizing, which is an opportunity for the family shoe store. Our new model, which is white, will be more walking-oriented, but people will wear it for other things. In the future, there has to be a narrowing of product. Now, everyone is (presenting) a walking shoe. It might be similar to where running was seven years ago. Walking has to narrow down.”

Reina Rago O’Connor, spokesperson, The Rockport Co., Marlboro, Mass.: “It’s clear to us that fitness walking is not a fad. With 50 percent of the population doing no exercise, there is an opportunity. Nike and Reebok have athleticized walking. We’ve approached it from a different angle, a la everyday casual shoes. We continue to market the ProWalker as a fitness walker for those who want to feel performance. But our thrust and focus will be to translate walking comfort into basics for men and women. We’ll never be an athletic shoe company. We’ll always be a comfort shoe company. We’ve come full circle. We’re adding style to our product. We’ll also continue to have technologically advanced products. We just won’t say you have to go on a fitness walk. The women’s and men’s product manager will develop women’s wide shoes for bunions for every step of your life.”

Jack Boys, marketing manager, Hamptons, North Reading, Mass.: “Performance is important, and it is equated to comfort. The other thing that’s important is the consumer wants versatility with their footwear, and that’s what is driving them into casual shoes. It’s fueling interest in casual and dress looks. It’s fueling this as an emerging market. The term ‘walking’ has become nebulous. Originally, it was more focused on fitness walking, and now it’s moving toward a general walking and people who are on their feet all day.

“Walking’ is a catchall. Walking and comfort have become closer and closer. That’s fueling a need for additional styles and looks. The consumer wants walking features in dress and casual shoes. People are getting spoiled. Traditional shoes do not feel nearly as comfortable. As the shoe become more and more attractive, the shoes become more versatile. The attitude is that (the consumer) wants to be comfortable and look good, too. That’s our direction. We’ve just added the Energy Wave to all our shoes. It performs and works. It ties us into Converse. To have athletic shoe comfort is a plus for us. Retailers are excited. They see this category as a big opportunity although they are a little unsure of which direction it will go. They are merchandising different price points, trying to cover different bases. It’s a way to attract consumers who were buying athletic shoes for leisure and traditional shoes for work. These shoes are more attractive.

Jim C. Autry, president, Autry Industries, Dallas: “The biggest thing with the walking shoe is the support. You’ve got to have the correct support. It’s like having the correct equipment to play football. You wouldn’t play it with basketball gear, or you’d get hurt. When I come to work in the morning, I pass by a jogging track, and I see 75 people walking and a dozen jogging. The malls open early so that people can walk indoors when the weather is inclement. I think walking is on the increase, and hiking the same. Walking is popular with the over-30 age group, and we’re moving to an aging population. The market is on the increase — it hasn’t even been approached yet.”

Tom Raynor, director of marketing, Brooks Shoe Co., Rockford, Mich.: “You have to look at the technology of the walking shoe. We’re planning for the consumer to use it more, so there’s more cushioning in the heel and more support because the consumer will wear it for a longer time. When you go to buy a walking shoe, you’re planning a specific activity. Absolutely, you’ll see whole sections of walking shoes in retail stores. A retailer who tells customers that ‘a running shoe would be just fine,’ isn’t listening to what his customers say because customers are asking for walking shoes. We had a 40 percent increase in walking shoe sales last year. We expect a 50 percent to 60 percent increase this year, and it’ll be huge for us in 1990, when we project that the business will double.

“The initial introduction of HydroFlow technology (this month) is in running shoes, but in July, the back-to-school collection will have walking, basketball, cross-training and tennis shoes. For spring 1990, there will be a lower-priced HydroFlow walking shoe with a non-visible feature (i.e., the special feature will be hidden).

Raymond Sessa, executive vice president, Hush Puppies, Rockford, Mich.: “I guess it’s like the days when running shoes were first introduced, and only 15 percent of the people who bought them actually wore them for running. With walking shoes, people get them on, and they may not be serious walkers, but they get used to the comfort. Everyone has been trying to make the ultimate comfort shoe, the common thread that runs through comfort and career shoes. We have the Body Shoe, with its contoured insoles and memory foam covered with luscious pigskin. We say the Body Shoe is really a walking shoe, but it’s also a casual. The end use is at the customer’s discretion, but we position it as a walking shoe.

“Many retailers never believed the market for walking shoes was that big. But I’ve always maintained that if merchants had a great display of walking shoes, the worst that could happen is that their casual sales would double.”

Frank Legacki, president, Kaepa Inc., San Antonio, Tex.: “It’s your only piece of equipment for walking; it’s got to be functional. With a walking shoe, you’re talking about covering miles. I’m told that cowboy boots are comfortable, but I wouldn’t want to walk five miles in them. Walking shoes are comfortable over the whole distance. We’re already seeing walking-shoe sections in retail stores.

“I believe it’ll grow. I think it’ll also grow with younger people. Our running shoes with high arch support have an action hinge with independent suspension. We have a two-part vamp, which is our specialty. It lends itself to the walking category. We have unique shock absorption — polyurethane plugs in the midsole, with clean, simple designs.”

Ted Gedra, regional sales manager, Wolverine division of Wolverine Worldwide, Rockford, Mich.: “The difference between a walker and a hiking shoe is sometimes styling. The patternwork itself makes it a hiker as opposed to a walking shoe. As things progress, there’s more athletic influence on everybody’s patterns, more crossover looks. As far as the actual sole design, hikers have various lug designs that give a look to the outside.

“We’re not really as tied in to walking as Hush Puppies, but I see more emphasis on comfort, and a casual appearance with walking. The lightweight hiker package offers a number of end uses. That’s one of the reasons the whole category has experienced so much growth. For the rest of this year, it will continue to increase.”

John Thomas, vice president, turntec, Irvine, Calif.: “We put some walking shoe models out on the market, but were just not satisfied with the response, so we pulled them in. Now we’re back to the drawing board. The walking market is a funny market. There is a lot of talk about how fast it is growing, but in fact it is hard to introduce a line. I think most of the walking shoes are still purchased from cheap running shoes and used for an all-purpose shoe. We are looking to add technical aspects to our line before we reintroduce them. We will also be paying attention to price. The main ingredient in walking shoes is comfort, and there is a formula for comfort. If you apply it, it works.

“A person can walk in a soft shoe and be comfortable, but after four hours, they are tired. It is like walking in sand; it requires that the foot do a lot of work. So you need a combination of soft and hard. It is a fine balance.”

Elliot Horowitz, chief financial officer, L.A. Gear Inc., Los Angeles: “Walking is not a particularly strong category for us. We have been in the walking market, and I think it peaked out with the height of Rockport. Since then, it has gone down.

“Some of the other athletic companies that have been in the walking market have not been able to live up to their sales predictions in this category.

“Running, on the other hand is a quarter of a billion dollar business that we have not yet been in. I think we have the potential to Take a bite out of that market.”

Duke Jones, vice chairman, HiTec Sports, Modesto, Calif.: “We have done walking shoes for the last five years, but now we are introducing a line of walking shoes with the same theme as our Air Ball running shoes. They have an air cylinder under the heel that can be replaced, depending on the weight of the customer. We see the walking market as flat right now. Sales have stabilized, but we think that coming out with something more ‘techy’ will increase sales. There is a price barrier of about $45 in walking shoes, and after that there is resistance. But prices are going up with the cost of labor and materials as well as fluctuating dollar.”

Kellee Harris, walking marketing manager, Avia, Portland, Ore.: “For us, the walking market is booming. In fact, probably our most successful shoe ever is the 310 mall walking shoe. We are out of stock with that shoe until June. We plan to expand the category by adding wide widths in both our men’s and women’s walking shoes. We view the walking market as a 40-plus market; however, now we are seeing it drop lower, and our core group is between 35 and 55. The mall walker is 50-plus.”

Betsy Richardson, vice president, marketing, Reebok, Canton, Mass.: “There’s no doubt that we see an evolution of walking. It has gone into greater segmentation. There is a clear performance niche, which is those who are looking for technology. Companies like Reebok are working hard to develop technology to aid the walker. The mall walker fits in here. We are beginning to realize that walking shoes can be developed for a particular vocation or time in your life. With this second group, not a lot of innovation has gone on. The walking shoe manufacturer is looking to this consumer and saying we can offer new technology, new styling. This is an important consumer.

“There are clear needs around women in pregnancy and post natal who look to walking as an activity. We are looking at specific walking needs.”

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