The age of innovation is here. Both behind the scenes and at the consumer level, footwear firms are angling to become better technology-design companies. And why shouldn’t they? Abundant consumer data has aided curation and customization to make firms more powerful than ever before.
Under Armour, for instance, signaled its desire to become a multifaceted player when it joined forces last year with fitness tracking app MyFitnessPal. And Nike continues to up the ante on its suite of Nike+ fitness tracking mobile applications.
To boot, 3-D printing, body scanning and augmented reality could help capture consumers by revealing how products will look or feel on their bodies before purchase. It’s the ultimate in forward-looking technology, which consumers have craved since the 1985 movie “Back to the Future” — or even the Sixties cartoon “The Jetsons.”
It’s an exciting time, to say the least. “We are in the golden age of innovation in footwear right now,” said Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at The NPD Group Inc.
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Here, FN ranks eight of the hottest innovations affecting — and yet to affect — the market.
1. 3-D PRINTING
(Eventually) Coming to a Home Near You
The initial dream of 3-D printing was that consumers could print their own products at home. While the footwear market is not there yet, lower prices for 3-D printers have made the technology accessible to a larger number of shoe manufacturers, which is helping this innovation achieve mainstream recognition.
Recently, athletic powerhouses such as Under Armour, Nike, Adidas and New Balance have produced special runs of sneakers with 3-D midsoles. But in about a year, footwear firms may hit a more-solid milestone: They should be able to produce short runs — including sole-tooling components, midsoles and shanks — that they’ve printed themselves for market introductions.
“We’re just starting to see some examples of [3-D-printed shoe] production,” said Lee Dockstader, director of vertical market development for HP.
In May, the company announced a 3-D printing partnership with Nike, and also revealed a printer that it said is 10 times faster and less expensive than other models.
Dockstader declined to provide specifics on the timing or “strategic footwear applications” of HP’s Nike partnership, but he noted that during the Rio Olympics, 3-D-printed spike plates from New Balance and Nike’s Superfly Flyknit shoes will show the power of this innovation.
“Industrially, in the U.S., 3-D printing is becoming a mainstay,” said Andy Polk, SVP of the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America. “The confidence in a 3-D-printed spike plate on the bottom of a [performance] shoe speaks volumes to what this technology is about, how it’s transforming things.”
As for when consumers could conceivably print, afford to print or even want to print their own shoes at home, industry watchers aren’t optimistic this will happen within the next five years.
However, footwear manufacturers angling to get the attention of younger consumers who are fans of personalization could draw them in with accessories — for instance, selling designs for at-home printing or for printing at a local UPS store (a service that is available at 60 locations so far, with 100 planned).
Scherf Design, in collaboration with Materialise, already has designs available for 3-D-printed high heels. Other ideas could be lace locks or trim that snaps to the side or bottom of shoes.
“Millennials and Gen Xers are more interested in individualized products than a logo,” explained Jason Goldberg, SVP of commerce and content practice at interactive agency Razorfish. “At the moment, 3-D printers work best with things made out of plastic or that are ornamental as opposed to functional.”
2. IMAGE RECOGNITION
See It, Snap It, Buy It
Google’s purchase last month of image recognition startup Moodstocks alerted the world to the potential of this technology.
One company already operating in that space is Slyce, a mobile image technology that recognizes products such as footwear in the real world, according to CEO Ted Mann. It’s being used inside the apps of at least 20 retailers, among them Neiman Marcus, Shoe Carnival, Nordstrom, Shoes.com and JCPenney.
In the search bar of a company’s app, a camera icon appears, allowing users to launch Slyce’s universal scanner. Once the camera snaps a picture, the app utilizes 3-D optic recognition and shows either an exact match or a shoe with similar attributes.
“If a retailer carries a wide variety of brands, we’re trying to get as exact a match as possible,” said Mann. “We want to get that precise pair of New Balance sneakers, or the most visually similar, but still that same brand.”
Another area Slyce is working on involves “using chat-box messaging as a medium for delivering visual search results,” according to Mann. “You submit a picture of something [through a messenger program] and get back an exact match to that product.” Right now, Facebook is the prime messenger platform marketers have their eyes on, given it has more than 1 billion users.
3. 3-D SCANNING
The Fit Is It
Photo technology is also reaching new heights when it comes to getting exact measurements to achieve the best possible shoe or insole fit.
Not unlike the premise of Adidas’ Futurecraft 3-D shoe prototype, some retailers have embarked on 3-D foot scanning to help improve the shopping experience. Zappos.com, for one, recently tested Intel’s RealSense technology. Its three cameras can “‘see’ like the human eye to sense depth,” according to Intel, and scan to create a digital 3-D version of a foot.
Volumental is a 3-D scanning technology that utilizes RealSense cameras to assess feet and give recommendations on shoes. According to the company, Nordstrom is using its scanning device, as is New Balance, which has it in its Boston and Taipei flagship stores.
In another iteration, an app in beta called Fitfully offers a 3-D foot scan that is completed via users’ iPhones. It’s geared toward online retailers and promises to take 30 seconds to reveal a pressure map of how a foot will fit a particular shoe.
4. AUGMENTED REALITY
Even Better Than Virtual Reality
Most market observers agree that virtual reality is an effective marketing strategy for retailers and brands — think watching Milan fashion shows via an Oculus Rift headset after the fact, or trekking the mountains via Merrell’s or The North Face’s VR experiences.
Augmented reality, however, may serve as a bigger revenue-driver, helping consumers find the right products and actually make purchases. The difference, in part, comes from the fact that VR does not yet allow users to see their bodies, while AR can show what products look like on the body and offer 360-degree views.
Nike in early July filed a patent for an augmented-reality design system, and such brands as Adidas and Lacoste have tested augmented-reality experiences and shoe try-ons. There is also the new line launched by High Beam Shoes to enhance “Pokemon Go” fun by lighting up and playing music when users are close to a Pokemon. The shoes will be available in the fall.
That said, some footwear firms are testing more robust VR systems as well as planning for a switch-over to all-virtual prototypes, akin to Adidas’ virtual footwear wall found in some of its stores.
Slyce’s Mann predicted that image recognition, augmented reality and possibly 3-D scanning could all unite one day to create a truly seamless buying process. “There will come a time when you’ll see a pair of shoes you like, you’ll be able to use your glasses or some other wearable to key in on those shoes, know what they are and maybe even buy them right there on the spot,” he said.
5. SMART SHOES
Change Is Upon Us
Looking good is not enough — products of the future need to be high-tech wonders as well.
Already there are Altra and Under Armour sneakers that track distance and stride, while self-lacing or adjusting shoes are available in different iterations. Nike recently stepped up innovation in that area. And a company called Powerlace, which raised more than $25,000 in a recent Kickstarter campaign, promises to use a person’s weight to auto-lace sneakers.
Then there’s Shift Sneaker — kicks that change color based on mood or fashion. The product is a creation of U.K.-based Rehabstudio. According to the firm, it uses “experimental technologies,” and although the concept is not available yet, it could be the next evolution of smart sneakers.
The idea is that reactive textiles with adept fibers and mini LED lights change the colors of the sneakers via downloadable design packs. Colors can also change based on movement, temperature or location.
But it’s not just about aesthetics. For instance, if an athlete uses the running pack, the sneakers will glow red, blue or green to show runners whether they’re on time, behind desired time or ahead. “We believe that in the future, when you buy a single pair of sneakers, you will actually be buying 1 million pairs [due to all the color options],” Shift states on its website.
For his part, Razorfish’s Goldberg doesn’t disregard the idea. “Younger demographics want personalized and unique products. One of the ways is to build electronics into them,” he said.
6. ENDLESS-SHELF PROGRAMS
In-Store Shopping with Online Efficiency
At Aldo, a focus on omnichannel retailing has resulted in a test of in-store iPads and touchscreen TVs that consumers can use while shopping in 25 of the brand’s retail stores to see the types of footwear or specific shoes available in that store or other locations, said Grégoire Baret, senior director of omnichannel experience for Aldo.
To take it a bit further, customers’ endless-shelf requests can prompt store associates’ mobile devices, improving the speed at which shoes are brought out by “runners” from storerooms.
“Requesting a product and getting it for a consumer is reduced to the core: scan a product to check availability and tap a button to request it automatically from a runner. This means less time lost in the back-store and more face time for added value with our consumers,” said Baret, who added that conversion and engagement with customers
On Aug. 16, Aldo opened what Baret calls its “most advanced retail location to date” in Westfield World Trade Center in New York.
The company will also be adding a request try-on feature directly from its consumer app, said Baret. In addition, Aldo is working on adding predictive product recommendations to its website.
7. DRONE DELIVERY
Not As Creepy As It Sounds
The rumors are true: Amazon Prime Air is testing drone delivery with more than a dozen prototypes in the U.S., the U.K., Austria and Israel, promising to deliver packages weighing up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less within 10 miles.
Customers will get a message on their devices when a package is arriving at their home via an unmanned aerial vehicle, which uses sense-and-avoid technology to make it to delivery locations in one piece.
In an introductory video to promote the service, Amazon specifically calls out the ease of a shoe delivery (youth size 3 Puma soccer cleats, to be specific, the left foot of the first pair having been eaten by a hypothetical family’s dog). “In time, there will be a whole family of Amazon drones — different designs for different environments,” the video narrator explains.
While Amazon declined to comment on rollout timing beyond previous statements that research “will take some time,” Goldberg suggested that the fairly uniform weight and size of shoeboxes could make for a solid choice in drone delivery.
However, he added, drone delivery may not be the go-to for another few years because it’s “not economically viable,” not to mention the hassles of navigating sticky government regulations.
Still, at least one giant budget retailer, Walmart, is testing drones in its warehouses to handle inventory and speed up cataloging. So there might be a place for drones at the moment after all.
8. DATA COLLECTION
Knowing Is the Whole Battle
By this point, it’s clear that data is more important for competition than ever before. As seen in many of the entries reported here, firms that put the power of data to use will stand apart from their peers. “Now that you literally can see how millions of customers are using your product and how it wears, you can imagine things proactively,” said Razorfish’s Jason Goldberg.
For example, to provide curated assortments and improved “clienteling,” Under Armour and Nike are among the companies building communities online through social media and tracking technologies, which makes sense for customizing future shoe orders and, eventually, products.
Looking ahead, Goldberg sees the possibility of home webcams placed in closets — or even existing home security systems — to capture daily what consumers wear and then analyze the shoes or colors worn most. “It’s collecting new valuable data about what you like or use to make curation better,” he said.
“In five years, I would not be surprised if we are all wearing some kind of device and are wired to our phone,” predicted NPD Group’s Matt Powell. “We’ll all be measuring something.”
However, Goldberg added, “The hurdle for none of these is technology — it’s customer adoption.” As finicky consumers have proven, the crux is sticking with a technology longer to make its benefits last.
— Illustrations by DAVE HOMER