Competition Heats Up in Wellness Market

The wellness market is growing beyond its core companies.

While rocker-bottom specialists MBT, Ryn and FitFlop remain category leaders, many comfort players are seeking to carve out niches in the rapidly expanding wellness arena. Strong brand recognition, accessible price points and enhanced technical features are giving brands such as Easy Spirit, Spring Step and Waldlaufer an opportunity to join the movement. And retailers said there is space for them, provided they have something new to offer.

“Consumers will give a trusted brand an opportunity,” said Ed Habre, president and CEO of Shoe Mill in Portland, Ore. While MBT remains the store’s top-selling wellness brand, Habre has sprinkled in collections from well-known comfort labels, including Aetrex’s new Body Works line, set to bow in December, as well as Sano by Mephisto and Clarks’ Wave. “We’ve had some success with these brands based on the strength of their overall lure. [Wave has] been very successful.”

Spring Step, too, is making the most of its customer loyalty. After a successful launch in fall ’09 for duty shoes under the Walk ’n Roll wellness line, the brand added a casual assortment this fall and is now sold in 300 accounts.

“A lot of our stores are looking at us due to [Spring Step’s] comfort level and their trust [in us],” said David Ben-Zikry, VP of sales for Spring Footwear in Pompano Beach, Fla. “We sell to a lot of comfort stores looking to find the best solutions for [customers’] feet.”

For Carlsbad, Calif.-based Phoenix Footwear, the track record of its SoftWalk line of lightweight comfort looks sparked interest in its Health Glide wellness collection. “Health Glide takes our legacy of comfort and goes after the white space in the casual walking category,” said CEO Jim Riedman. “We’re not going up against MBT or Skechers. We’re not looking at taking [their] business, but at growing the category. We have a good crack at gaining market share. It’s a viable category for us.”

And Health Glide’s more-moderate price points also give the collection an edge, said Riedman. While MBT sells in the mid-$200 range, Health Glide retails at $139.

Helle Comfort’s new Fitness collection, delivering in February, also will sell for less — around $162. In addition, the line seeks to stand out with enhanced comfort elements, including removable cork-and-latex footbeds designed with arch and metatarsal support, a feature other wellness brands so far have not incorporated. “It’s our edge and point of differentiation,” said Martina Helle, president and CFO of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company.

Marg Bonsall, owner of Foot Solutions, a four-unit retail chain in San Jose, Calif., has placed an order for Helle Fitness, as well as the RollingSoft wellness collection from Gabor, rounding out the store’s current wellness offering that includes Finnamic by Finn Comfort. “Helle offers a little more fashion,” said Bonsall. “When you have something new, I can’t tell you how excited my clients are.”

At Freeport, Maine-based J.L. Coombs, MBT continues to be the brand leader, but president Bob Pearl said that as the category grows, technology remains important. Pearl will test the waters this spring with non-core players Walk ’n Roll and Body Works. “Each has a function,” he said. “We try to appropriately fit the customer to the footwear that will do the most for them. We embellish the category where we think appropriate. We try to make a selection in [our] products that will do [the most] for our customer. If the product has a performance [feature] appropriate for my customer, we don’t look at names.”

Indeed, Gary Weiner, owner of Saxon Shoes in Richmond, Va., said brand name isn’t everything in wellness: Both high-profile players and under-the-radar brands are benefiting from the trend. “Brands that are advertising a lot are bringing people into the market,” he said. “They’re driving people into the store.” However, once customers are at the fitting stool, they’re open to new names.

In fact, Sole Provisions in Huntington Beach, Calif., has seen double-digit annual growth in Waldlaufer’s Dynamic rocker-bottom looks since the store introduced it three years ago. For owner Holden Nagelburg, who distributes and carries Dynamic, exclusivity has been key in his choice of wellness lines. “I don’t want brands that are very commercial,” he said. “I’m more of a boutique store, and I want unique brands.”

That desire for uniqueness also comes from customers, who rely on retailers for the newest the category has to offer. “Customers trust us to know what we have is a superior product,” said Carla Irvin, co-manager of Plum Bottom in Harrisburg, Pa., who’s adding Helle Fitness to the store’s Helle offering. “We wouldn’t bring in a brand just because it’s a name. Customers have asked us about rocker bottoms. They want something that’s a little different from what they’ve seen. We could [even] expand the category if it’s a company with [wellness looks] we already work with. But first we have to fall in love with the shoe.”

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