The brand got its feet wet in the barefoot category through a partnership with Vibram, producing a line of minimalist, lightweight footwear for road and trail running that will drop next month.
Manon Belley, VP of product development at Merrell, said a big part of Merrell’s focus this year is growing the barefoot category. And looking ahead, the brand intends to stay ahead of its competition by introducing product that traverses not just land but also water.
“To be honest, the other brands are going to want to be [in barefoot] as it’s a very strong movement,” said Belley. “We’re thinking about a style that combines a shoe and a sandal, in which women and men will not only be able to run barefoot but also do water activities such as canoeing and kayaking.
“Materials will have to be different; they have to be waterproof, more breathable and non-slip. We’re looking to launch these in 2012,” she added.
Bill Dodge, VP of product development for Wolverine World Wide Inc.’s Outdoor Group, said innovation has always been the key driver of Merrell’s design philosophy.
Throughout its 30-year history, Merrell has become synonymous with innovative styles such as the Jungle Moc and the Land Sandal.
“The Jungle Moc is one of Merrell’s key styles for us, and probably for any retailer,” said Chris Dunn, outdoor footwear buyer at Backcountry.com. “During your next layover, just count how many Jungle Mocs you see in the airport. I bet it’s at least a dozen in a two-hour period.”
Belley recalled that when it debuted, the Jungle Moc was a “game-changer because it was a casual shoe produced by an outdoor company.”
Today, Merrell is upping the stakes again with its Barefoot Collection, which Dodge said has had the “most successful launch ever” in terms of the value of initial orders placed, although he declined to reveal exact figures.
“From all accounts, the retailers are very excited about the possibilities for that consumer base. The barefoot phenomenon changes what people think about footwear,” Dodge added.
“[Backcountry.com] invested pretty heavily into the Barefoot Collection because we expect good things from that trend and we think it’s going to perform very well,” said Dunn.
Yet other segments remain a focus as well. Having launched its first women’s-specific shoe in 1983, Merrell prides itself on being a pioneer in developing and designing women’s product in the outdoor category.
“Twenty years ago, every company in the world thought ‘shrink it and pink it’ when it came to women’s products. This is terminology that makes me laugh,” recalled Belley.
“Outdoor shoes were quite bulky and ugly then. Women didn’t want to wear those shoes, but they had no choice,” she added. “What Merrell did was develop a smaller last that was more refined and that was replete with details on the upper to balance out the proportion of the shoe.”
With new styles came new colors, and today the brand boasts an entire range of product designed for women.
Such innovation in product development is an example, according to Dodge, of “complete focus on bringing new and innovative ideas to the marketplace in a really high-quality way so that what the customer gets is beyond what the expectation is.
“In terms of product, the combination of performance and quality is key,” he added, citing Merrell’s Wilderness boot, Eagle boot and Quest slip-on shoe as examples of items that succeeded commercially. He credited that specifically to fabric-leather combinations that provided outdoor consumers with more versatility.
Moving into 2011, Dodge and Belley acknowledged that global cost pressures are forcing the company to think more carefully about how to increase efficiencies in design and production. But that’s not to say Merrell is slowing down.
In fact, this fall it will expand its product range from two categories to three, with a new assortment dubbed “momentum.”
Dodge said that offering is more fashion influenced and designed to address the needs of younger consumers. Products in that category will be constructed with a variety of materials, including vulcanized rubber and more comfort-oriented ones such as canvas and soft leather for durability.
“There are just tremendous opportunities [for innovation in design] today, more than we’ve seen in many years,” said Dodge. “This stems from the fact that outdoor lifestyle has expanded and been accepted as [something] fashionable in the outdoor world. I look at this as a renaissance period [for the category].”
Belley agreed, noting that Merrell produced a larger line of boots for fall ’10, because “boots are everywhere and even outdoor people want to grow in this category.”
But while Dodge said he noticed today’s consumers want more fun in their outdoor shoes, function will always be at the forefront of any design.
“We’re an outdoor company and have to perform in the outdoors,” he said.
In the end, Merrell’s success is perhaps best illustrated by its performance in the stores.
“In the 10 years we’ve carried Merrell product, the brand’s SKU count has grown exponentially,” said Dunn. “They have a good solid look that everyone recognizes, they do a great job with fit and everyone likes the lasts they use.”