Tech Triumphs in Running

It’s a brave new world in running.

After seeing lightweight and minimal dominate the conversation over the past several years, athletic companies are debuting a host of technologies in 2013. High-profile launches from Nike, Adidas and Puma have hit stores, and more advancements are set to come.

Retailers said that amid some softness in the category as a whole, consumers are clearly looking for something new. “There continues to be more and more demand for products that have greater performance attributes,” said Sam Sato, president and chief merchandising officer at Indianapolis-based Finish Line Inc. Because the chain has been challenged in the category overall, Sato said he is upbeat about the new direction. “Everybody is ramping [technology] up, and we remain hopeful and bullish around the energy in the running category.”

Greg Zuckerman, running footwear buyer for Boston-based City Sports, said the deepening emphasis on innovation is offsetting the weakening minimal business. “Everyone recognizes it’s not as exciting as it used to be,” he said. “This exciting technology [push] is spawned by demand for something [fresh].”

And in the running market, freshness means updating the shoes themselves, according to Chris Santaella, VP and GMM of footwear for New York-based Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker and Footaction. “While basketball can have new athletes, running doesn’t have athletes, so it’s got to be technology,” he said.

Patrik Nilsson, president of Portland, Ore.-based Adidas North America, agreed, noting it is one of the reasons the brand has planted a flag this year with two new launches: Boost and Springblade.

“When it comes to running, our athletes have been winning more or less all the marathons, but that doesn’t really help us when it comes to selling shoes. What drives sales in the running category is innovation, and that’s why these two innovations are [our] evolution,” he said. “We believe that what Derrick Rose did for our basketball shoe, this is going to do for our running shoes.”

Inside the Technology
While the lightweight attributes that drove the running category over the past several years are still present in today’s statement-making shoes, cushioning, outsole geometries and uppers are getting much more attention.

This spring, Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike launched the Flyknit Lunar1+, a $160 neutral training shoe that combines its Lunarlon cushioning material with Flyknit — the one-piece, almost-seamless woven polyester upper that was meant to fit almost like a sock. (Flyknit initially debuted for the London Olympic Games.)

“The demand from a consumer standpoint is huge,” Don Blair, VP and CFO of Nike Inc., said on the company’s conference call with analysts late last month. “There is no question in my mind that this technology will allow us to do things we have never been able to do before. … [And it] will continue to resonate at a very high level with consumers.”

Also in February, Adidas unveiled Boost, a proprietary midsole material made of foamed TPU, in its $150 trainer called Energy Boost. The firm claims the Boost material is not only more durable but overwhelmingly more responsive than traditional EVA.

Adidas is so confident in the material that it plans to use Boost in place of EVA throughout its running line by 2014, and will expand the material into other categories going forward.

“Boost is a marriage of two previously counter-[positioned] benefits,” said Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource. “It’s lightweight and provides stability — you didn’t have those things together before.”

Similarly, Puma is stepping into cushioning, but with a twist. In February, the brand launched Mobium, a biomechanically designed shoe meant to flex and react in concert with a runner’s foot, with a high-tension band in the outsole that facilitates the energy-returning motion.

The shoe is intended to “help the foot move more naturally,” while adding more comfort through cushioning, according to Christian Harig, head of research and insight at the Puma Advanced Technologies, Trends & Concepts group. “We’ve changed the geometry so the influence of the shoe is as small as possible,” he said.

The industry’s focus on technology is set to ramp up even more heading into the back half of the year.

Adidas will launch a second running technology called Springblade at the mall and in sporting-goods stores for back-to-school. “From a performance perspective, there’s a lot of research and development behind [Springblade], and clearly from an aesthetic perspective … the consumer is going to react really well,” said Sato. “What we continue to find is that this consumer is looking for innovation that not only looks great but works.”

And Under Armour, which released its lightweight and flexible Spine running product in the sporting-goods channel and the mall last year, will delve further into the tech game this summer with a top-secret running shoe set to launch June 1.

Dave Dombrow, senior creative director of footwear at Under Armour, described the project as “redefining performance fit with a focus on precision manufacturing.”

He noted that the shoe, which initially is being targeted to specialty running shops, will not be manufactured in traditional footwear factories and feels completely different on the foot. “We aren’t going to make shoes. We will clothe your feet,” Dombrow said.

The Retail Response

Amid all the hype surrounding the launches, it remains unclear what ideas will truly resonate with consumers.

“There was minimal, and then for a little while color was [considered] technology. Now you have all these things and there will be a little bit of randomness until something sticks,” said Brian Trask, footwear category manager at City Sports.

Daniel Kittaka, assistant buyer for Fleet Feet Sports Chicago, said the highly dedicated runners who frequent their store are becoming more open to trying new things.

“One of the results of the trend toward minimal and barefoot is that people are definitely questioning what they’re running in, even if they stay in the same shoes they’ve always worn,” he said.

Some of the styles have already garnered favorable initial reviews. Naperville Running Co. owner Kris Hartner said the consumer response to Adidas’ Boost launch has been strong. “Midsole foam, as a technology, is not always very exciting, but when consumers came in, they tried on the shoes and they bought them,” he said.

In fact, his shop in Naperville, Ill., sold out its entire selection of shoes in three mid-week days. “It was maybe the best launch of new product and new technology that we’ve ever had,” Hartner said.

Sato noted that early results at Finish Line for Nike’s Flyknit Lunar1+ have been “really good,” and the company is looking forward to the launch of Nike’s next effort, which will combine the Flyknit upper with a Nike Free outsole later this year.

Foot Locker’s Santaella told Footwear News he’s energized by the new running ideas all across the board. He explained, “Our consumer lives in a world of authenticity and innovation, and running is driven by innovation. That’s what our kid is looking for.”

At City Sports, Zuckerman predicted the latest wave of technical product is going to be a key part of keeping sales going. “The only way you can maintain right now is by making sure you still communicate to the consumer that you have the most innovative product,” he said.


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