Forget Running — Why Walking Is a Big Opportunity for Footwear Brands Right Now

Much ink has been spilled about the resurgence of the running and hiking markets during the past year, as consumers have turned to open-air activities as an alternative to gyms or to escape their homes/remote office-schools. But there is another fitness option that could pose an even bigger opportunity for footwear brands.

A study conducted in late March by Rockport and First Insight found that over half of Americans (53%) are now walking 1 to 5 miles more each day than they did pre-pandemic. And they seemingly have developed a regular habit, with 36% walking at least 1 to 2 miles and 21% walking 3 to 4 miles daily.

What’s more significant: Almost all of the respondents (93%) said they are “very” or “somewhat likely” to keep up this activity going forward, even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. (The study included a demographically representative sample of 1,265 adults, ages 18 and older.)

The interest in walking as a lifestyle component is playing out now at the register. In the fourth quarter of 2020, retail sales for walking footwear grew in the low single digits, according to The NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service. By contrast, total athletic shoe sales declined in the low single digits during the same period.

In a recent blog post, Matt Powell, NPD’s VP and senior industry advisor for sports, urged brands to look more closely at the walking category. “What if a smart brand and some smart retailers got behind the idea to build and market a great walking shoe?” he wrote. “To me this is an opportunity to grab some additional sales from a new consumer trend. Perhaps an entirely new category emerges.”

Walking shoes are not a “new-new” concept in the footwear business. Rockport, for instance, introduced its ProWalker style back in 1985, at the height of the aerobics power-walking movement, and it continues to innovate with its Total Motion series.

Rockport Total Motion sneaker
Rockport’s Total Motion Sport knit sneaker.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Rockport

Many brands as well — from New Balance and Skechers to Vionic and Alegria — currently offer sneaker styles built for long treks or casual strolls. However, in recent years, these collections have been marketed not necessarily for walking, but under the more-general term “athleisure,” in order to connect with millennials and the latest fashion trend.

(Meanwhile, according to Powell, others use the approach of selling customers running sneakers for the purpose of walking for fitness.)

But with more Americans lacing up to amble around the block, brands might benefit from a more direct message.

That was the thinking for Strole, a new footwear brand that launched this spring with the tagline: “Enjoy Your Walk.” The label was founded by a group of industry veterans, including Craig Taylor, who recently told FN: “We talked to hundreds of doctors, and they all said the same thing: Give somebody 15 to 30 minutes of simple walking and it will change their lives for the better. So we framed a brand around that idea of self-investment and a simple, attainable, healthy lifestyle.”

Strole wellness brand
Strole launches for spring 2021.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Strole

Amid the many stresses incurred by the pandemic, a growing number of Americans are reportedly discovering — or rediscovering — the advantages of being active, beyond just physical well-being.

In the Rockport/First Insight study, 57% of respondents said they found walking to be a stress reliever, and 67% either strongly agreed or agreed that walking helps clear their mind and create a better sense of control over their lives.

There were also social and personal benefits, as 28% of participants reported using their walks as an opportunity to catch up with family, and one-third used them to take a break from work. (Interestingly, half of respondents said they escape screens entirely during their outings, by leaving their phones at home.)

The other potential draw of walking for brands is its scope. Of all the fitness categories tracked by the Sports Fitness Industry Association, “walking for fitness” has by far the largest participation level: In 2020, 114 million people (age 6 and up) engaged in the activity at least once — a 2.3% increase from 2019. Running, by contrast, had 50.7 million participants in 2020, up 1.2% from the prior year.

And according to SFIA, walking participation has increased each year for the past five years.

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