Minimalism Dominates at OR

The barefoot trend shows no sign of slowing down, and it ruled the latest Outdoor Retailer trade show.

“The movement is finding its way from road running into every category of footwear,” said Denise Friend, footwear buyer for Kent, Wash.-based REI. “I saw it in casual, water shoes, hiking, trail running and fitness.”

Friend was particularly impressed with Brooks’ minimalism-influenced Pure Project, the new Merrell water, road and casual product in its Barefoot collection, and Vibram’s continued evolution of its FiveFingers line, as well as the offering from trail specialist Salomon, which she hailed for its “new product and great use of color.”

Friend plans to expand her overall selection for spring at the expense of other categories.

“Until now, the minimalist styles were a layer on top of our other footwear business. This year, to make room on our wall for the expansion of minimalist styles into the other categories, we cut back on traditional casuals and sandals,” she said.

For Old Saybrook, Conn.-based North Cover Outfitters, deciding how deeply to go into minimal product has been the big question, according to footwear buyer John Sahadi.

“My big concern is how traditional footwear is going to transition — walking, hiking and everything,” Sahadi said. He added the store will bring in some Merrell Barefoot offerings and potentially other brands for spring ’12, to round out the Vibram FiveFingers styles the independent has carried for several seasons. But Sahadi said the retailer is being cautious about jumping in too fast. “It’s been such a sudden change in one season. We want to wait and see what happens,” he said.

Still, Sahadi could not deny the appeal of the product. “It’s bringing in a customer who has never been in our store in 23 years,” he said.

Dennis Lunsford, owner of The Runner’s Shop in Rapid City, S.D., said his running-focused store has also weighed how much minimal product it should carry.

While he doesn’t sell FiveFingers — “the Vibrams, as far as I’m concerned, are not a running shoe,” he said — the store stocks New Balance and other brands, and will move into some of Asics’ more minimal product as well.

Outside of the barefoot explosion, price increases and continued cost pressures were also on show attendees’ minds.

Vendors said inflationary pressures are continuing to drive up product costs. In fact, some estimated retail prices will increase by at least $5 for the season. “I’ve never seen anything like this in 30 years in the footwear business, not even close,” said Jim Van Dine, president of the Ahnu brand.

Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource who attended the show, said that while pricing is clearly a big issue for vendors, consumers are still willing to pay for new, innovative product. Customers, and especially teens, he added, have a short memory for historical prices and are therefore less wedded to the price points that vendors and retailers think are key.

“I’m a little skeptical of the ‘magic number’ theory of pricing,” Powell said. “I don’t think customers think that way.”

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