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Innovation Vies with Heritage and Tradition at US Footwear Expo

While comfort trumps style every time, according to exhibitors at the recent FN Platform event in Las Vegas, consumers are also wooed by heritage styles, while not entirely unaverse to such recent technical innovations as self-lacing shoes.

Photo: Majoring on style or comfort? – An eternal quandary for the global shoemaking community.
Majoring on style or comfort? – An eternal quandary for the global shoemaking community.
Photo: Majoring on style or comfort? – An eternal quandary for the global shoemaking community.
Majoring on style or comfort? – An eternal quandary for the global shoemaking community.

Above all, comfort is the must-have feature for any footwear range looking to appeal to US consumers, with many exhibitors at the recent FN (Footwear News) Platform event singling it out as the key element in any purchase decision. Overall, it was also widely acknowledged that American consumers tend to be more accepting of casual attire than their European counterparts, although even the most formal footwear must be suitably snug if it's to sell well in the US.

Acknowledging this particular phenomenon, Pedro Sanchez Ibernon, the Manager of Pinaz, an Alicante-based footwear manufacturer, said: "In my experience, the US customer always prefers something more comfortable. In Europe, though, the emphasis is more on fashion."

Striking a slightly different note, Benjamin Steckmeister, the Manager of Germany's Esgano footwear brand, said: "The trend is absolutely for comfortable shoes. With comfort in mind, all of our shoes have removable insoles. For Europeans and Americans, comfortable shoes made with fine leather are always what they want.

"For most people around the world, European-made shoes are seen as a good thing. Buyers know that they will get good quality and that there will be no problems with nasty chemicals."

It was not just Spanish and German exhibitors, however, who were keen to push the benefits of European-made footwear, with Florida-based Spring Footwear, an established importer of high-quality shoe brands, also a clear advocate. This year, the company was representing seven brands at the Las Vegas event, with the majority of them sourced from Europe.

Explaining the company's preference, Sales Operations Manager Doug Susman said: "If a customer is faced with two similar products at around the same price point, if one of them was made in Europe it will generally win out. This is the reason why 50%-60% of our stock is European-sourced."

As well as differences in product preferences, many of the overseas exhibitors were only too aware of differences in US footwear industry buying patterns, with Ibernon saying: "Distribution is managed very differently here in America, with wholesalers always needing quick deliveries with very little lead time."

One consequence of this reliance on rapid turnaround is that wholesalers are always obliged to play safe, only ordering variants that they are confident will sell quickly, while avoiding colours and styles that they perceive as risky. Highlighting this particular issue, Ibernon said: "As everyone wants to work from stock, the focus is always on taupe, black and white – nothing too new. That said, red is becoming more popular in the US right now, as is navy blue."

While rapid stock-turnaround times are hardly just a US phenomenon, one particular footwear style does seem to be pre-eminently American – the cowboy boot. This year, this staple of the US scene, popular even beyond its southern heartland, was championed by Ferrini, a Texas-based specialist in this high-heeled, pointy-toed footwear style.

Keen to highlight the cowboy boot's current ubiquity, National Sales Manager Mark Claver said: "While it's certainly stronger in the southern states where there's more of a boot-wearing population, we sell in all 50 states, as well as abroad.

Photo: Never knowingly understated: The Ferrini range.
Never knowingly understated: The Ferrini range.
Photo: Never knowingly understated: The Ferrini range.
Never knowingly understated: The Ferrini range.
Photo: Sole searching: 3-D scanning from Superfeet.
Sole searching: 3-D scanning from Superfeet.
Photo: Sole searching: 3-D scanning from Superfeet.
Sole searching: 3-D scanning from Superfeet.

"We are actually seeing a huge growth in the east right now. While the preferred silhouette of the boot might be a little different in New York or Maine compared with Texas, it's still clearly a boot. On the East Coast, it's much more of a traditional 'r' toe together with an undershot heel, as opposed to Texas where it is much more horse-oriented; much more of a roper block heel, complete with a square toe.

"Trends also come and go too, especially with regard to the ladies' boot. Right now, the fringed, shorter boot is in, as are more basic cowboy or cowgirl boots, as opposed to those heavily blinged."

While the cowboy boot – blinged or unblinged – relies on generations of tradition and a heritage look redolent of the Old West for its allure, a number of exhibitors at this year's event were hoping to woo buyers with more innovative and contemporary offerings. One such company was New York's Synclaire, which was debuting its ZeroTie hands-free lace tying system.

Introducing the concept, company Consultant Victoria Staten said: "Essentially, the ZeroTie system allows you to put on your shoes and lace them up without using your hands. You just slip the shoe on, then tighten the laces by drawing your heel back across the floor, with all of this controlled by a mechanism in the back of the shoe.

"It has been through a lot of testing and is already on sale under another brand name in South Korea. Hundreds of thousands of pairs have been sold and the defect rate has turned out to be less than 1%."

The company sees the technology as having applications across a variety of market sectors, although it expects to do particularly well with two specific demographics – older people struggling with dexterity and co-ordination, and children who have yet to master tying their laces. Although open to licensing agreements, the company's primary focus is on developing and marketing the brand themselves, although they are currently also looking for Asian distributors.

Another company trusting in innovation to win it market share was Superfeet, a Washington state-based insole specialist, which was showcasing its new 3-D scanning system at the event. Explaining just what makes the company's system quite so innovative, Lifestyle Channel Manager Steven Greenstein said: "Our Fit Station technology allows us to take a laser scan of a customer's foot at a retail store. Based on that 3-D scan, we can then do a whole range of things.

"We can, for instance, advise as to which of our Superfeet insoles or shoes will fit their foot perfectly. We can also create a 3-D custom printed insole – the ME3D – which can then be sent to the customer.

"On top of that, we can also recommend perfectly fitting shoes. Depending on just what stock any given retailer carries, we can tell the consumer that they are a size nine in a particular brand of shoe, but maybe a size eight in another brand."

At present, the system is still very new, with only a handful of machines in operation across the US, primarily in outlets specialising in the sale of running shoes. Explaining this initial focus, Greenstein said: "Currently, the system is being used to sell custom insoles, as well as for shoe and gait analysis – procedures routinely conducted in running-shoe stores.

"By the end of the year, though, we want to move into creating custom footwear. We are also partnering with a number of other brands and this will give us the facility to order a customised shoe from a runner's preferred brand based on our initial scan."

The ME3D insoles currently retail at about US$150 per pair, while a number of different options are available for the purchase or lease of the Fit Station 3-D measuring system.

Photo: FN Platform 2017: The annual Las Vegas focus on all things footwear.
FN Platform 2017: The annual Las Vegas focus on all things footwear.
Photo: FN Platform 2017: The annual Las Vegas focus on all things footwear.
FN Platform 2017: The annual Las Vegas focus on all things footwear.

FN Platform 2017 took place from 14-16 August at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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