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Outdoor footwear
April/May 2011

Selling outdoor shoes

to suit the activity

There used to be a time when your outdoor footwear wall would have consisted of a few brown and some technical hiking shoe styles. Nowadays, there is a specialist shoe for all the numerous outdoor, extreme sport and adventure sport activities - as well as the customer who wants one shoe for all. NELLE DU TOIT asked the suppliers for tips on how best to recommend the right shoe for the right activity

Whether your customer is an outdoor enthusiast who wants a suitable shoe for each of the many activities he enjoys, or is looking for one pair of shoes to suit all his outdoor and social needs, he’ll expect you to recommend the perfect shoe.

An outdoor retailer now not only needs to know their shoe brands, styles and prices, but also needs to understand the shoe demands of each activity to recommend an appropriate shoe.

So, how do you make sure that you satisfy your outdoor customer’s footwear needs?

The single most important question a retailer should ask a customer walking in to buy an outdoor shoe is: what is the intended use?

Factors to consider when recommending a shoe would be the terrain where your customer expects to wear it, the weather conditions, whether he or she intends to do a long hike, some light walking or running; as well as the duration of the planned activity (e.g. days or hours) and the intended backpack load, if any.

“Outdoor footwear sales are seasonal, so you will sell more sandals in summer and light hiking boots in winter. Technical hiking will always be a small segment with multi-functional shoes always one of the bigger components,” says Jan van Rooyen from Hi-Tec.

If your customer is buying footwear in summer, you’ll therefore also have to ask if he prefers a sandal or closed shoe.

Summer: think sandals

According to GFK Marketing Services*, outdoor sandals are (unsurprisingly) summer’s biggest seller — comprising 40% of the outdoor footwear units sold in December 2009 and 34% in December 2010.

Sandals provide good ventilation for hot and wet conditions. Depending on the terrain where it will be worn, sandals can provide great support, durability and even traction when crossing rivers etc.

“Whether made of leather or synthetic materials, sandals should have excellent breathability and drying qualities and should also be durable, comfortable and good value for money,” says Jeremy Nel of Rocky. “Our bestselling sandals are outdoor hiking sandals with EVA footbeds and protection on the toe-cap.”

A dramatic drop in sports sandals was noted over the 2010 December holiday period when compared to 2009. The number of units sold were literally half of what was sold in 2009 (26 000 000) and the average price range decreased from R268 in 2009 to R239 in 2010.

Water shoes, however, have been gaining more market share in the summer of 2010 as 32% of all outdoor footwear sold in the summer months of December were water shoes. On top of that consumers are prepared to pay more money for water shoes as in December 2009 42% of all water shoes sold were in the R0-R200 price range and by December 2010 57% were in the R300-R400 price range.

A few factors can be ascribed to this dramatic hike in sales. “Designs have become better as well as becoming more affordable to the consumer,” says van Rooyen.

“A big percentage of water shoes being sold is purely for recreational and fashion use, rather than pure function. Brands are also advancing leaps and bounds in making the aqua shoes look great — and that attracts a wider consumer base than purely for functional use,” explains Zobuzwe Ngobese of adidas.

Lee Besnard of Salomon would not give design all the credit, “I wouldn’t say that the growth in this area is as a result of advanced design or increased interest in water activities but more because this type of shoe fits perfectly into the outdoor lifestyle that we lead and the climatic conditions in South Africa.”

Walking easy trails

While sandals can be worn for light hiking and walking in parks, duration and terrain will usually determine the choice between a sandal and a light hiking or multi-functional closed shoe.

Light hiking shoes are considered to be entry level hiking shoes for use on well-maintained trails. They have enough flexibility to provide comfortable walking without having to spend kilometres walking them in.

“There are tons of options from all the brands that offer suitable covering for light hiking, but normally the upper takes on the breathable synthetic mesh properties with darker colored midsoles plus a TPU wedge to give a little rigidity and structure to the midsole, with a nice aggressive grip lug design,” advises Roger Noades from Wild Elements Apparel, distributor of Columbia.

“A shoe with a construction that offers flexibility and comfort and keeps debris out is ideal for a person looking for a light hiker,” adds Liezel Jooste of Medicus, distributor of Merrell footwear in SA.

One shoe fits many activities

You’ll probably have many customers who participate in several outdoor activities — from light hiking to trail running to rowing or cycling — but do not want to buy a separate shoe for every activity. This customer will not be an elite athlete who needs a performance shoe for each activity, but someone who enjoys his outdoor sports.

Light hiking shoe features are often combined with waterproof or running qualities to produce a multi-functional shoe that can be worn for all these activities.

Multi-functional shoes are currently the biggest sellers in outdoor footwear — especially in winter (53%, 52% and 55% of all shoes sold in June, July and August 2010 respectively). According to GFK Marketing these shoes enjoy 23-55% market share in the outdoor category throughout the year. Most multi-functional outdoor shoes are sold in the R400–R500 price range, with between 18-32% sold in that price range in 2010.

Whether a shoe will be worn for light hiking and running, trekking and water sports — or any other combination you can think of — brands spend vast amounts of time developing models with specific purposes in mind.

When looking at a shoe and determining whether the shoe would suit the customers’ multi-outdoor-activities, Ngobese advises: look at the outsole and determine what grip the shoe has. Does it have a water grip, mountain grip, etc? Look at the technology — if intended for water activities, does it have a drainage system that allows water to run out of the shoe if it gets wet? Is it breathable?

For a customer doing a running and paddling event such as the Dusi Canoe Marathon “we would suggest a water shoe that provides extra grip, cushioning for portaging, protection for rocks, and a mesh upper that assists with ventilation and water drainage,” says Besnard.

The braaier

And what about the customer who wants one pair of brown casual shoes for the occasional outdoor activity, his outdoor braai and for socialising with friends?

“This customer is any retailer’s dream,” says Van Rooyen. “He needs a functional, yet practical, everyday shoe. It has to have all the functionality of a light hiker/multi-functional shoe, but still have cosmetics that will make it practical to be worn every day.”

Noades suggests offering this customer a discount as he’s your boerewors customer, who will be back to support you time and again.

For this customer comfort is key as they would wear these shoes for all their outdoor activities.

“Our bestseller is a multi-use elastic sided boot. It suits the client who needs a comfortable boot for the office, farm work, or any other outdoor activity,” says Clare Elder of Emu Creek.

“We have a range that is the traditional leather lined boot which has a steel shank to ensure a correct step flex and point that assists with torsional stability,” she continues.

Serious hiking

Even though some may zealously defend their braai techniques as worthy of a sports award, a bit more consideration will have to be given to protection in shoes your customer will wear for one or multi-day hikes and mountaineering.

As the terrain gets more technical and tougher, support, grip and traction becomes more important in the shoe.

For a day hike on a mountain, a mid-weight boot can be recommended. Mid-weight boots (that look like classical hiking boots) are boots intended for less smooth and light off-trail terrain. The increased support will help on longer multi-day hikes and they usually require some breaking in.

There is, however, also a move towards consumers wearing their running-lasted trail-specific footwear on this terrain, says Noades.

Trail running or adventure racing shoes are shoes with running lasts that have features to facilitate mountain trails, rougher terrains and bad weather.

“Light weight and good traction are key features. You can lose a bit of support in a day hiker in favour of a light weight and responsiveness. Our range that is perfect for these conditions is also built lower to the ground for better feel and responsiveness,” adds van Rooyen.

Multi-day trails

For multi-day hikes, Besnard suggests taking the hiker’s size, weight and pack weight into consideration. “The shoe should have good stability, protection and grip, which will offer the user comfort and confidence without the heavier weight around the ankle associated with a heavy trekking boot.”

For long periods of hiking the weight of the shoe (or lack thereof!) will become increasingly important — as well as the cushioning and comfort of the shoe.

“If a retailer recommends one shoe for a 5-7 day hike with a water crossing, the shoe has to be waterproof and breathable and has to have an outsole pattern with non-slip properties suitable for the type of terrain. However, offering an additional light water hybrid or sandal for the river crossing would be ideal, as these shoes are designed for this terrain,” remarks Noades.

Leather or synthetic? Ankle support or not?

It seems that the multi-day hiker is becoming more diverse with some hikers choosing the lighter waterproof/breathable characteristics of trail running shoes and others sticking with the traditional leather ankle supported mid-weight boot. Ankle support is recommended for customers prone to ankle injuries, whether in the shoe, or as an extra accessory.

“Though there is a move to new generation trail shoes, our sales show that 80% of shoes sold in our mid-weight hiking ranges have leather uppers,” says Noades.

Mountaineering shoes

“It is a big misconception that the Kilimanjaro customer needs a heavy hiking boot. That is not the case — when you consider that the hiker is only carrying a 30 litre day bag weighing at most 9kg’s when it is fully packed and gets lighter as its contents is consumed. Our suggestion would be a boot which is lightweight and waterproof but at the same time, offers sufficient support, stability and grip,” says Besnard.

“I would say support becomes more crucial on mountaineering shoes and light weight is not that important,” van Rooyen advises. “Look for a harder wearing outsole, higher density midsole, and more support around the metatarsal and heel area.”

Heavy boots have a more technical construction on the toe caps and cemented outsoles, intended to give maximum support and shock absorption while remaining water- resistant/proof and breathable.

The extra height and stiffness of mountaineering boots help support the climber in steep terrain where flexible boots could cause unsure footing. They are often used with crampons and have additional insulation for lower temperatures.

This is, however, a very small part of the market, with mountaineering boots comprising less than 1% of the yearly sales in the outdoor footwear market. The mountaineering customer is often an elite alpinist who is part of a niche mountaineering “cult” and as Ngobese of adidas puts it “the bulk of the market wants a shoe that they can use when hiking in the mountain, or just wear every day because they like its look and comfort”.

What sells?

Overall the sale of outdoor shoes in December — the time of year the largest number of outdoor shoe units are sold — is down in 2010 from the previous year. GFK Marketing Services reports that more than 65 000 units were sold in December 2009, whereas only 39 000 units were sold in December last year. However, in 2009 there was a peak in outdoor shoe sales compared to 2008, when 54 000 units were sold in December.

Whether a sandal, a light hiker, or a mid-weight boot, consumers are prepared to spend relatively more if they are convinced of the durability and function of the shoe. Even though the number of shoes sold dropped significantly at the end of 2010, an increase in average price per pair sold was seen throughout the year.

Overall, the average price in December 2010 increased to R414 a pair from December 2009’s average of R335 a pair — a 24% increase in average price. The average price for multi-functional shoes increased from R550 a pair in December 2009 to R610 a pair in December 2010, an 11% increase. The average price spent on sandals, however dropped from R268 in 2009 to R239 per pair.

Multi-functional shoes are best sellers in the outdoor shoe category, but sandals and light hiking shoes are not far off. The sale of multi-functional shoe units range from 23% of overall outdoor shoe sales in summer to 55% in winter, whereas light hiking sales fluctuate between 10% in summer to 28% in winter, and sandals from 6% in winter to 40% in summer.

Asking the customer what his/her intended outdoor use for the shoe is and understanding the conditions and rigors they will subject the shoe to will help determine the perfect outdoor shoe for the customer and so secure the sale.

*GfK Marketing Services track the sale of sport shoes at participating retailers according to units sold per category and brand, and the revenue generated, by installing free software at retailers willing to participate in the market survey. In turn, the retailers receive detailed feedback of the market trend. Subscribing brands also receive a confidential, detailed analysis of their performance benchmarked against the rest of the industry. In order to be part of the survey, contact Craig Bowen at Tel: 011 803 1300, Fax: 011 803 0111, or Email:

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