They jump right out of a great wall of white.
“They” being colorful lightweight hikers, and the “great wall of white” being athletic shoe displays in sporting goods stores.
The hiking category is ripe for expansion and manufacturers know it. While lightweight hikers may not deliver the market impact of good running shoes for high arches in the early ’80s, hikers – with their eye-catching colors and innovative looks – certainly are a growing presence in athletic shoe stores.
The earth-conscious ’90s are upon us, and what better way for conscientious city slickers to show they’re ecologically aware than to pull on a pair of fashionable hikers and head out into the sunshine. Even if they’re only going out to walk the dog.
Marketing is key: Let consumers think they must have the best hikers, whether or not they ever take to the hills.
Some companies are reporting 40-, 50- and 75-percent increases in hiker sales. Granted, the category was not that big before, but it’s still an increase when other areas of the casual market are slumping.
Where is the growth in hiking coming from? As consumers become tired of jumping up and down to the disco beat at the health club, they may be willing to buy hikers and walk around outdoors.
“The response has been phenomenal,” says Tom Hughes, marketing brand manager for Van Grack, Portland, Ore. Fall 1991 will be Van Grack’s third season in hiking and it’s finally beginning to pay off, according to Hughes. Sales of the hikers are coming almost strictly from the athletic market, Hughes says. “Athletics is dying quickly.
“Athletics will always be there for performance wear, but the uniform has changed,” Hughes continues. The uniform Hughes is referring to is the look of blue jeans, athletic shoes, a sweatshirt and baseball cap for young men. But, he says, those men are beginning to dress in a different manner and want something other than athletic shoes.
“This appears to be really a lot of extra sales at this point,” says Rocky Higginbotham, men’s buyer for FootAction, a Dallas-based retail chain, insisting of 124 stores. “I think we’re seeing a major environmental move. People are looking for outdoor activities now more than the last two or three decades. They want independent athletic activity like hiking, walking and mountain biking.”
Higginbotham says defining the growth of the market depends first on how one defines hiking because it falls into one of two categories: fashion or function. “That category has so many gray areas that can’t easily be lumped together,” he notes.
He points to fashion shoes, such as an Ellesse style with a lug bottom; and L.A. Gear’s Street Hikers, which have a true hiking tone; and then to traditional functional hikers like those from Hi-Tec and Lake of the Woods. “At this point they’re all lumped together, but you really have to differentiate,” says Higginbotham.
“As this grows, it puts more responsibility on the retailer selling the boots to people,” agrees Art Kenyon, president of Vasque Outdoor Footwear, a division of Red Wing Shoe Co., Red Wing, Minn. “There’s a big, big difference. When you start to talk about the difference in fashion and function, it’s not just a cute phrase.”
As retailers continue to work out ways to merchandise all of the boots offered in the hiking market, manufacturers watch closely to see where the expansion is coming from. “It’s intangible,” Higginbotham says. “It’s showing good growth, but you can’t really correlate any category’s demise with the growth of hiking.” But sooner or later, he says, “they have to be taking it away from indoor activities … I’ve got to believe it’s coming out of that.”
But at K-Swiss, Pacoima, Calif, hiking is causing an expansion of the company rather than taking sales away from the athletic end, says Jim Donohue, product manager for K-Swiss. “I think it’ll be here for at least the next three years. The public has taken such an interest in the environment,” Donohue says.
When asked if hiking sales are causing other areas of the company to experience substantial decreases, Donohue said no. “I would think that it might, but with our business it has helped the whole company expand,” Donohue maintains.
Sales for functional hikers are spreading across the country from the Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico markets to college campuses where casual styling is very hot.
The look is even showing up in such warm-weather places as Tampa, Florida, Higginbotham says. “Fashion outdoes function by a longshot.
“In the past 24 months there’s been a swing from flash to substance,” he continues. “People are looking for more for their money.” He points to the surging growth in sales of Jeep-type vehicles, replacing the BMW as the status symbol of the ’90s. Sales of hikers jumped dramatically last summer and continue to be strong at FootAction stores throughout the country, he says.
“There’s no question there’s been a sway from high-top athletic shoes,” says Mike Coogan, director of merchandise and marketing for Dunham Brothers Co., Brattleboro, Vt. “The great, great majority is being sold for casual wear.”
“It’s a combination of environmental consciousness and the athletic-related situation,” says Jerry Hess, vice president and general manager for Lake of the Woods, Prentice, Wis. “It’s hard to separate the true hikers from people wearing the casual shoes for plantar fasciitis as an alternative. People are looking for some alternative to athletic shoes. At least I hope that’s true, with half of the world getting into it.”
“The rugged outdoor look has become the lifestyle statement of the early ’90s,” explains Craig Battisfore, vice president of marketing and sales for Hi-Tec Sports USA Inc., Modesto, Calif. “People are looking for a different look. The people (retailers) who are having success with the outdoor look … are putting them right on the athletic wall.”
“I don’t know if the market is as big as the supply is,” Hess says, adding his business was up 40 percent in the category.
With the average age of Americans climbing every year, consumers are looking for less strenuous activities, such as nature walking, Battisfore says. This has added to the growth. “But I don’t know if more people are actually hiking … or if more people want to evoke the lifestyle.
“The traditional hiking business is not big enough, but what has caused the explosion is the nonhikers,” he contends. “When the explosion wanes, our core business will be bigger. The hiking business doesn’t have to support it – the casual market, that’s supporting it.”
People that grew up in athletic shoes are wearing hikers for work because of the comfort and style factors, according to Dean Estes, vice president and general manager for Wolverine Boots & Shoes and Coleman Footgear, Rockford, Mich. “It’s a statement – a functional shoe that can be worn for style and fashion. I think it’ll be a good item for quite some time.”
Manufacturers say the influx of athletic companies making hikers is helping the business. “Athletic companies getting involved in hiking will help to increase the technology,” Hess admits.
“What we have done is bring the hiker look into the market with athletic technology … you can wear it in the city as well as hiking,” says Richard Clark, vice president of sales, Legends, La Puenta, Calif.
“It has expanded with us and I think the reason it has – it’s just kind of what’s going on in women’s athletic footwear,” says Howie Ellis, vice president and general manager for Tretorn, Brockton, Mass. “It’s more of a casual, outdoor look, more fashion, getting away from the athletic look. It was 25 percent of our business last year and we’re forecasting it to be even bigger this year.
“Women are undergoing an exodus,” he says. “The hardcore audience is real loyal to the hardcore brands like Hi-Tec.” According to Ellis, the surge in women’s sales has to do with women wanting more fashion looks for casual wear than athletic shoes can offer.
Tretorn’s hiking shoes are selling better in department stores and shoe stores than athletic specialty stores, Ellis says. Women are more comfortable shopping in those types of stores and the price of the stretch fabric shoes for bunions is more reasonable in many cases than athletic footwear with price-points hovering between $45-$70.
When the manufacturers talk about the hiking market, they use words like “tremendous,” “explosive,” and “absolutely incredible.”
And we know from experience that may be all the footwear industry needs to hear before everyone starts jumping on the hiking trail … until the next hot market gets tapped.