Athleisure’s Popularity Is Bad News for the Performance Footwear Market

The rise of athleisure is coming at the expense of performance footwear — and it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.

According to The NPD Group Inc., athleisure accounts for roughly half of all athletic footwear sales and only 16% of people who bought sports footwear in the 12 months ending April 2019 were intending to wear them for sports.

“If we go back to the first 50 years of the modern sneaker business we’ve always had at least one performance category that was in fashion,” NPD’s senior sports industry analyst, Matt Powell, said during his Outdoor Retailer Summer Market presentation Wednesday. “We’re now a few weeks away from four years without having a single performance category within fashion, not having a single performance category trending positively.”

Recognizing this shift, outdoor labels are starting to adapt.

“We’re now building a performance shoe that has different design elements than our traditional shoes. We’re taking elements like [Lowa’s polyurethane compound] Dyna PU, synthetic uppers or athletically-inspired midsoles to make newer and lighter products then we have ever done before — that’s about as athleisure as you can ask for,” Lowa GM Peter Sachs told FN. “It youngs the product down and makes it more versatile.”

And Vasque is responding through aesthetics.

“While our attention to both existing and emerging technologies has stayed consistent with what we’ve done for the past 55 years, we have listened to consumers in some of their feedback regarding colorways of our footwear.” Vasque marketing director Joe Peters said. “You’ll see some new, and possibly even unexpected colorways from Vasque in upcoming seasons.”

Vasque Breeze Lite
Vasque Breeze Lite for spring ’20.
CREDIT: Peter Verry

For performance brands, there has been a trend toward outdoor footwear that could still translate to urban settings to maximize commercial appeal, as seen at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2019. Astral emphasized that its signature water shoes are also suitable for the sidewalk and has launched a “performance casual” line. At Vibram, global chief brand officer Fabrizio Gamberini described the design of the finished outsole as being as important as the material, adding that the company works hard to create something aesthetically strong as well as high-performing.

However, these companies remain committed to their “pinnacle customer,” someone who uses the shoe for its intended purpose. Fit technology company Boa Technologies acknowledged that its systems need to look good as well as perform, but still prioritizes designing for the world’s best athletes. Casual use of the product is seen as an added bonus.

“Of course there are going to be products that someone may wear down the street, but that product could be used in extreme conditions too,” Boa CEO Shawn Neville said. “If you look at our low-powered system, if someone wants to go on a 100-mile trail run through all these difficult conditions, our product will withstand that. And again, if they want to walk down the street looking fly, that’s cool too.”

Boa fit system on Adidas Terrex shoe
As retailers look to stock more athleisure styles, brands are being encouraged to incorporate fashion elements into performance products.

And Peters said regardless of the market’s changes, Vasque will live and die with performance.

“Performance has been and will continue to be a cornerstone of Vasque. We continue to push those aspects of our products and with many of our new technologies, we anticipate that the multiuse application of many of our styles might draw some incremental interest and awareness of Vasque in some new demographics,” Peters said.

Despite less people using footwear for its intended use, Sachs believes there are still opportunities making products for the core outdoor adventurer.

“Performance is on the decline but we’re benefitting because we’re still producing products for consumers who are backpacking and doing serious hikes, climbing and mountaineering while others are vacating those spaces,” Sachs said. “There are still going to be customers there and as other brands may leave the space it’ll allow us to grow a little bit more.”

However, if brands want to keep retail partners happy, it may benefit them to pay attention to the athleisure shift.

NPD observed that many retailers are prioritizing athleisure choices over performance, updating their in-store merchandizing selection to stay relevant to this new consumer. And with physical retail constrained by the number of sizes and colorways that can be stored onsite, strategic inventory choice has become more important.

“They can’t stay in stock of every size in every shoe; the internet has got every size,” Powell told FN ahead of Outdoor Retailer. “They can only carry so many colors available in-store; the internet can carry every color. So, if you like that shoe but you’d like it better in blue than green and the store only has green, you can go to the internet and buy the blue.”

Watch the video below to see more shoe designers discuss what designing means to them:

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