Editor’s Note: Opportunity Knocks

There is no question business has been challenging, and the small victories that used to be taken for granted mean much more today.

Some hard lessons were learned over the past few years, as the industry moved through one of the most difficult eras in retail history. Footwear, a star performer during the economic crash, emerged with most if its momentum intact. But the radical adjustments have been unsettling at times, as the world’s consumers settle into post-recession spending habits.

The road to success may no longer be paved with the same gold coating as in the heady, pre-recession days when a fired-up shoe market was primed for limitless expansion, but there is still reason to believe the business has a bright future. In fact, the changing economy has encouraged the smart players to move in potentially profitable new directions.

Of course, the level of change and the turmoil it created has made for some anxious moments. There are brands and retailers that no longer hold the same clout they once did. There are names that fell by the wayside. But, by and large, the industry’s incredible resilience and intelligent, disciplined business tactics have allowed most of the major retail and branded players to react and redirect in the most efficient manner.

It is now up to those players to make the most of the new opportunities in front of them. Here’s a look at four strong markets that show incredible promise:

A Luxe Revamp
Perhaps the most fascinating study is the luxury market, where post-recession pricing soared and most of the big brand devotees went along for the spend. However, underneath the glossy surface, the customer has changed, particularly in America. Less inclined to brag about conspicuous consumption and perhaps more adept at mining a clever high/low aesthetic, they are still willing to buy luxe product but are more careful about how they do it. While the market has embraced a raft of new talents, some of the recent entrants have found it difficult to gain traction in a business where the consumer is willing to pay a premium for top names and the best designs, but is much more cautious about the newbies. At the same time, many key retailers have listened to their consumers and have hedged their bets by embracing the newly refined and defined “contemporary” market, where prices are lower and the names include a mix of established and up-and-coming talents. It will be interesting to see how this new class settles in and how many of the designers can sustain the kind of artistic brilliance and commercial viability of Mr. Blahnik and Mr. Louboutin, both operating in peak form.

The New Guy
Both in the luxury sector and more mainstream channels, men are still not getting their due from retailers and wholesalers. This market is primed for explosive growth as more young men enter the workforce and start spending their hard-earned dollars on great clothes and shoes. While the athletic powers continue to mine the rich connection between the young male shopper and hot product, many mainline players aren’t reaching far enough to find this audience. There are glimpses of what will come. The “heritage” brands that have ridden the retro boom know there is an audience hungry for classic looks with clever updates. I wish more players would take more chances to encourage men to mimic the deep connection women have with their shoes.

Kid Power
The children’s market is the unsung hero of the footwear business. The future growth possibilities are limitless in an era when parents openly indulge their kids’ increased fashion awareness. While many American families pared down and cut back on consumption when the economy went bad, kids have become more fashion driven and thoughtful about what they wear and how they wear it. Even with restricted budgets, parents often obsess over their children’s outfits and shoes, sometimes buying a wider range of styles than would appear in their own closets. The name of the game for future growth: fun, innovative looks and clever adult takedowns that grab a child’s eye.

Athletic Moves
The post-recessionary bounce for the athletic category came courtesy of a powerful merging of trends and societal factors. The beneficiaries have been the big brands, the big retailers and a number of smaller labels that keyed into a particular aspect of the propulsive demand for tech-driven performance shoes and hip lifestyle product. The move to lighter and varied materials, minimal silhouettes and, lately, pops of intense color, have driven the consumer back to the stores over and over again. If the majors continue to deliver innovation and the right designs, this category should be a winner for many years to come as the casualization of the world continues to drive business. It’s boom time!

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