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Comfort Ousts Fashion as Key Criteria for US Shoe Purchasers

US shoe buyers, although still mindful of looks, consider comfort paramount, say attendees at the Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY) Expo, while sourcing remains irrelevant to all but the most high-end consumers.

Photo: Sole suppliers: Exhibitors step up at the FFANY Expo.
Sole suppliers: Exhibitors step up at the FFANY Expo.
Photo: Sole suppliers: Exhibitors step up at the FFANY Expo.
Sole suppliers: Exhibitors step up at the FFANY Expo.

Comfort, colour and brand heritage are the coming trends, according to attendees at the Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY) Expo. While offshore manufacturing continues to be the norm, particularly in the case of China's dominance in the footwear sector, there are some signs of a growing consumer preference for US and European-sourced shoes. This has been spurred be willingness to pay premium prices for the perceived quality advantages offered by western manufacturers.

US tastes vary regionally, with cooler northern customers understandably favouring cooler, more conservative styles than the sunnier looks preferred by their southern cousins. The US market, as a whole, is seen as less adventurous than Europe or Asia, but one with far greater spending power.

On the comfort front, Matt Britt, representing New York's Miz Mooz fashion shoe brand, said: "Buyers want comfort. They want fashion, but they insist on comfort. Where it used to be okay if it was uncomfortable as long as it was cool, now it's got to be comfortable."

This need for comfort was echoed by Courtney Pentimalli, Manager of US Wholesale Sales for BucketFeet, an Illinois-based artist-designed canvas shoe brand. Focussing on consumers twin preferences, she said: "I think comfort and practicality are the trends, but it's also important to be fashionable.

"People want things that are going to last a long time. I think there are two spectrums. They either want something that's special and different – something that no one else has – or they also want something that's simple and is going to last them a really long time."

This perception of a particular consumer preference for comfortable footwear was supported by wider industry statistics. According to one leading electronic point-of-sale market intelligence company, rugged – but highly comfortable – outdoor wear was selling particularly well. The trend is apparently being driven by the baby boomer's generation keen interest in retaining a degree of physical fitness. In line with this, Nike continues to perform strongly, as does Sketchers, the California-based performance shoe brand, particularly at the key US$49-$59 price point.

A good brand 'back story', offering consumers a sense of authenticity, was also seen as working well for some footwear makers. Tim Engel, US Sales Manager for Australian boot brand, Blundstone, said: "The retail world really seems to be seeking out heritage brands.

"All of a sudden, Blundstone's has become fashionable. The brand's not done anything different, it's just that fashion has discovered it. It's sort of like a Hunter boots scenario – they didn't change the boot, everyone just started wearing them.

"The nice thing about the Blundstone brand is that we are who we are. It's not that big a range and in five years' time it's going to look exactly the same. We're not seasonal. We sell from Maine to southern California, from Florida to Seattle. The Canadian market is nuts for the brand and the US market is just waking up to the fact that this brand is hot."

In other moves, Julie Wellman, National Sales Manager for the Deckers Outdoor Corporation, based in Goleta, California, noted demand for brighter footwear in certain markets. She said: "It's definitely all about colour right now. We're seeing vibrancy, colour, tactical… Anything with some sort of texture seems to be resonating.

"When it comes to the different markets – coastal, you're going to get a little more of a fashion push than in the heartland. Overseas, when we look at our Asia-Pacific business, that's very much about the vibrant patterns with the lighter outer soles. That's really not the same colour palette that we do domestically, for sure."

The differences in doing business across the US, compared to the international markets were also noted by Juan de la Pena, Brand Manager for El Naturalista, a New Jersey-based Spanish shoe brand. He said "It's very, very different in the US when compared to Europe. First of all, the collection is normally bigger in Europe, wider even. Here in the US, the focus is more on an item or a family. If that works, people want to expand into different colours. You don't necessarily need to have a big display of many different styles.

"Secondly, here they place the initial order. Then, if something really sells, they want to fill it constantly.

"Thirdly, in the US, in the south, customers want bright colours, in the north they are very basic. It's like the different regions in Europe. New England, for example, would be like Scandinavia, but Florida might be like the south of Italy or the south of Spain. There are many different variations within the US."

Brandon James, Southwest Sales Representative for BucketFeet, noted that the US is more conservative, compared with other markets. He said: "Currently our best markets are Japan and [South] Korea, while Spain is also popular. We also sell throughout the US.

Photo: Bucketfeet: “Comfort and practicality”.
Bucketfeet: "Comfort and practicality".
Photo: Bucketfeet: “Comfort and practicality”.
Bucketfeet: "Comfort and practicality".
Photo: El Naturalista: Spanish style.
El Naturalista: Spanish style.
Photo: El Naturalista: Spanish style.
El Naturalista: Spanish style.

"In Korea, we see that they're a lot more creative. The displays that they've created have been pretty amazing. In the US, by comparison, specialist stores will just put out point-of-purchase material. In Korea, they'll put up this elaborate display and do pop-up shops in malls, There's definitely more creativity in the international market place."

Cara Shreiner, Managing Director of California-based shoemakers TUK, is also very aware of the different tastes and trading conditions in the different markets. She said: "There's definitely some different looks happening in the various markets. There are also differences in the way that retailers buy and the way that the distributors work with retailers. In Asia, for example, there are lots of licenced small shops in department stores, with work conducted on a consignment basis, entailing very different margins.

"Then in Europe, France is very into indoor creepers. In the UK, it's more kind of the quirky catface looks and the combat boots and things like that. Here in the US, it's across the board. We've got a really nice spread of customers, who all have their own feel, so we offer a little bit of everything."

Opinions were divided as to just how buyers and consumers perceive where footwear is actually manufactured. Some show attendees found that consumers didn't care, while others saw place of manufacture as an opportunity to support a higher price point.

For Shreiner, she believes that place of manufacture didn't register much with consumers. She said: "Where stuff's made doesn't matter quite so much any more. We used to manufacture in the UK, as the owner of the company is English with a long family history of shoe making. At first the switch was a bit difficult, but, with the price points that consumers are into now, you have to stay competitive."

Blundstone's Engel largely concurs, saying: "I think there was a time when it mattered where shoes were manufactured, but that time has passed. While I think it can add something to a brand if it maintains its generational roots, I don't think it takes away, if for some reason, be it economic or manpower, it leaves."

Wellman believes, however, that there remains a real opportunity for non-Asian manufactures to support a higher price point. She said: "It used to be that US-made was so important then, over time, we realised that to keep costs down you're going to have to go to Asia. We currently aren't doing anything in the US, but some of our sister brands are and they're doing very well. A lot of our competitors have some niche-type items that they're doing domestically and customers are willing to pay for it. They definitely want to see things domestically made."

At the higher-priced end of the market, however, consumers expect products to be made outside of China. Britt of Miz Mooz said: "It makes a difference to buyers and customers where things are made – they don't like China. You can sustain a higher price point for sure. We have stuff that retails for US$600 and you're not getting that if it's made in China."

Photo: Teva: Colourful and sporty.
Teva: Colourful and sporty.
Photo: Teva: Colourful and sporty.
Teva: Colourful and sporty.
Photo: Tuk: “A little bit of everything.”
Tuk: "A little bit of everything."
Photo: Tuk: “A little bit of everything.”
Tuk: "A little bit of everything."

The Fashion Footwear Association of New York Expo was held at the New York Hilton Midtown hotel on 3-5 December 2014. More than 300 companies showcased 800-plus footwear brands across three halls and floor halls, attracting more than 2,000 US and international visitors.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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