Return to Retro: Shoe Biz Gets Throwback Happy

It was only a few years ago that retailers were cashing in on the booming skate-shoe market. They transformed the layout of their stores to accommodate the surging shoe category, swapping prime real estate formally dedicated to clothing and hardgoods for more footwear floorspace.

But as more specialty and mall-based retailers got into the shoe-selling mix, growth in the shoe market was beginning to slow, in part because the market had become saturated. To the average consumer who bought skate shoes more for their form than function, skate shoes had lost some of their luster, leaving some retailers with a substantial amount of unsold goods.

“We saw problems two years ago. That’s when we canceled some orders, much to the dismay of some major suppliers,” says Dave Hollander, owner of Becker Surfboards in Southern California. “I could see my computer report. The turn was down and so was the gross profit, and when your P.O.S. system is telling you all that, you know something’s wrong.”

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It wasn’t all gray skies, however, and Becker didn’t pull out of the shoe business completely. Hollander reevaluated the buy and placed orders according to what he felt his customers wanted. That meant ordering shoes with lower pricepoints, a function of both the economy and of customers yearning for basic, low-tech looking shoes. It also meant bringing in lines you wouldn’t normally find in surf and skate shops such as Puma and adidas.

The change has worked relatively well for Becker. Hollander reports his inventory is up and the shop’s trying out alternate vendors, delving into new segments and pricepoints. But he’s still not thrilled with his shoe business: “It’s purring along, but it’s still not running on all four cylinders. I’m still hearing a lot of clanking and clunking in that engine.”

Some footwear manufacturers are also reporting a slowdown in the skate-shoe biz, although they say the market is still strong. “With such phenomenal growth over the last five years, it was expected that things may slow down a bit, but I think it’s only temporary,” says Timothy Nickloff, who handles P.R. for Etnies. “I’m sure there’s another five years of amazing growth right around the corner.”

Skate Shoes: Out With The New, In With The Old (School)

One of the most notable changes in the skate-shoe market has been the shift in consumer demand from bright, outrageous, and over-the-top footwear to simple, basic shoes in plain, subdued colors. While customers used to want loud shoes that screamed for attention, they’re now going for footwear that meshes quietly with their wardrobe — that whispers, if you will.

In the same way that fashion has turned 180 degrees from teched-out gear to a simpler, cleaner look, so have shoes. IG Boardshop Co-Owner Doug Anderson says the pendulum has swung away from high-tech shoes to subtler models. “I think a few years ago the industry got kind of sucked into this vortex of the whole hip-hop scene and yo! tech shoes, which no skaters really skated in,” he says.

Customers at IG, located in Simi Valley, California, are now looking for shoes that resonate with their apparel, which has been toned down. “Kids aren’t going to wear super-techy shoes with black pants and a black shirt,” says Anderson.

In addition, consumers don’t want their footwear to be the focal point of their wardrobe. “Usually clothes are what make the statement, and in most cases, people don’t want the footwear to be the outfit,” says Jeff Kelley, president of Sanük. “That’s why black and brown are always your best-selling colors {of footwear}.”

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DVS Founder Kevin Dunlap says the current trend of worn-looking clothes in trimmer silhouettes and natural fabrications is making basic, classic-looking shoes more popular. “The customers’ needs have shifted,” he says. “For a while there it was more athletic, now it’s just more of the simplistic, older, retro-stylskate shoe.”

DVS’ old-school Revival shoe was one of the brand’s top sellers last fall. It’s a simple shoe with a limited amount of features (and the features are understated). Dunlap says the no-frills shoe retailed well because it’s basic and inexpensive (around 50 dollars retail) yet also stylish.

The DVS Revival, as well basic-footwear offerings from other shoe companies, also sold well because its main objective is function, a trait skaters look for in a shoe. Dunlap says shoes with extraneous features could potentially hinder its ability to work well as a skate shoe. “The more bells and whistles you have on a shoe, the less likely it is to perform,” he says. “If you have airbags and a big sole and all these gadgets, it’s not going to skate as well as your standard all-around suede skate shoe.”

The bulkiness of some pro skate-shoe models made them difficult to skate in, so many pro skaters chose to skate in basic shoes (or requested simpler pro models from their footwear sponsor). “It’s going back to a more basic shoe, because that’s truly what the skaters have been skating in the whole time,” says Anderson.

The pros’ desire for simpler footwear has trickled down to the average skate-shoe customer and helped spread the popularity of basic skate footwear. Consumers have seen pros rocking simpler shoes in the mags, wanted to emulate their heroes, and have voted with their Visas for basic skate-shoe styles. “The pros out there don’t need all the technical features,” says Chris Todd, shoe buyer for Virginia Beach-based Seventeenth Street, “and with the pros wearing that and the shoes showing up in all the ads, it’s {basic-looking skate shoes} in style again.”

So does that mean the technical skate shoe is dead? Hardly. While general consumers, which arguably account for the bulk of shoe companies’ business, are vying for skate shoes in classic and retro styles — footwear that is often lower tech — hardcore skate customers are still looking for technology in their skate shoes, say some manufacturers. (Others say the technical skate shoe is a “dying breed.”)

“I think the direction skate shoes can go is more wide open than it ever has been,” says Carl Hyndman, DC’s director of promotions and team affairs. “We’re still pushing the envelope of technology.”

DC has introduced many technologies to the market, most recently its Dynamic Grip Technology, or DGT. Shoes with DGT, such as the Tarmac, feature varying durometers of rubber on the bottom of the shoe. The rubber is harder in the heel of sole for durability and softer in the forefoot for better grip.

Although DC is tuned into customers’ inclination for retro-inspired shoes, Hyndman says the company is going to keep advancing shoe technology. “We haven’t abandoned anything that’s going to keep a shoe from falling apart,” he says.

Etnies is also paying close attention to technology. While the brand’s basic Calicut, Lo-Cut II, and Sal 23 shoes have been checking well, Nickloff says innovation will be key in future models. “Pricepoint shoes tend to be a favorite right now,” he says. “However, shoes with such low wholesale prices oftentimes can’t offer the technology needed for today’s skateboarding abuse. I think classic shoes are great, but to reach the next level for skateboarding’s future, technology will play a major role.”

Cary Allington, Globe’s director of marketing, agrees. “The skate shoe is an important part of a skater’s equipment,” he says. “As long as there are technical skaters, there will be a market for technical skate shoes that help those skaters perform at their best.”

Shops haven’t abandoned the technical skate shoe, either. In fact, Dunlap says DVS’ higher-end models such as the Stratos and Central are among the company’s top-selling shoes. IG’s Anderson speculates that tomorrow’s successful models will have hidden technical features. “I think the key to the future is going to be for a company to make their shoes look basic but have all the technical stuff inside,” he says.

Age is a key element to the basic-versus-technical skate-shoe discussion. Retailers report that the majority of their younger customers are into technical skate shoes, while the older, more fashion-conscious set generally opts for basic models. “The {Osiris} D3 is still doing well,” says Todd. “I think the younger riders are still into it, but the older guys, the sixteen-and-up kids, are realizing they don’t really need it.”

A distinction must also be made between the types of customers. “Is the market a hardcore skate market, or is it more general than we’re giving it credit for?” wonders Becker’s Hollander.

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Skate-shoe brands market to their ‘core customer base — they have to — but let’s face it: The majority of their customers aren’t avid skaters. A lot of the shoes they sell will never touch griptape, just like most SUVs will never venture off road — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“We get a lot of customers who don’t really skate,” says Bill Thompson, manager of Pacific Drive in Pacific Beach, California. “They go to the bars and wonder if a shoe is going to grip on a wet floor. The actual skate features don’t really matter to them.”

That jives with what some manufacturers are saying. Doug Weston, VP of operations at Osiris, says his company is altering its offering partly to appeal to the broader mainstream market, which isn’t as into the straight-up skate shoe as it used to be. “Skateboard footwear as a trend has plateaued,” he says. “We need to incorporate retro and more fashion elements to maintain the sales to general consumers.”

Weston says the lifestyle crowd has turned toward “retro trainers” from Puma, Saucony, and Nike. “Companies that capitalize on that look will do well,” he predicts.

Many companies have already jumped on the classic-shoe look. A number of footwear brands have produced their version of the reissued Nike Dunk, whose return to the scene caused the action-sports community to take another look at the footwear giant. “International markets such as Japan, and the Nike Dunk, helped get the ball rolling as far as retro-style shoes for skate goes,” says Dunlap. Other classic shoes that have inspired skate-shoe designs include the adidas Superstar and Stan Smith.

A common denominator in the rise of retro-inspired skate footwear is price: these basic shoes are relatively cheap. The influx in popularity of classic skate footwear has driven key pricepoints down from 80 to 100 dollars to 50 to 70 dollars. “The customers are realizing they don’t have to spend the 95 bucks anymore,” says Seventeenth Street’s Todd.

Anderson says the increase in popularity of basic — and cheaper — skate shoes has conveniently coincided with the economic slowdown. “It’s actually worked fairly well with the downturn in the economy, because we haven’t been hearing at all, ‘Oh my god, these shoes are so expensive,'” he says. “Two years ago a lot of the shoes were up around 80 to 100 dollars. You’d think we’d be hearing it a lot more now, but most times a basic look means a lower pricepoint. So actually it’s been good.”

Some retailers say their business hasn’t been affected by the lower pricepoint shoes, citing that customers will buy multiple pair of shoes. Others, however, say the surge in pricepoint shoes has impacted their bottom line. “With a lower pricepoint shoe you’re not going to make quite as much {money},” Anderson says. “You’re doing the same number of pieces, but your overall volume in dollars is less because the pricepoints of most popular shoes are ten to fifteen dollars less than they were a year ago.”

Some manufacturers report the increase in sales of pricepoint footwear hasn’t created a financial hardship. In many cases retailers are ordering a greater number of shoes, companies say. “It seems retailers are purchasing narrower, yet y to make their shoes look basic but have all the technical stuff inside,” he says.

Age is a key element to the basic-versus-technical skate-shoe discussion. Retailers report that the majority of their younger customers are into technical skate shoes, while the older, more fashion-conscious set generally opts for basic models. “The {Osiris} D3 is still doing well,” says Todd. “I think the younger riders are still into it, but the older guys, the sixteen-and-up kids, are realizing they don’t really need it.”

A distinction must also be made between the types of customers. “Is the market a hardcore skate market, or is it more general than we’re giving it credit for?” wonders Becker’s Hollander.

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Skate-shoe brands market to their ‘core customer base — they have to — but let’s face it: The majority of their customers aren’t avid skaters. A lot of the shoes they sell will never touch griptape, just like most SUVs will never venture off road — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“We get a lot of customers who don’t really skate,” says Bill Thompson, manager of Pacific Drive in Pacific Beach, California. “They go to the bars and wonder if a shoe is going to grip on a wet floor. The actual skate features don’t really matter to them.”

That jives with what some manufacturers are saying. Doug Weston, VP of operations at Osiris, says his company is altering its offering partly to appeal to the broader mainstream market, which isn’t as into the straight-up skate shoe as it used to be. “Skateboard footwear as a trend has plateaued,” he says. “We need to incorporate retro and more fashion elements to maintain the sales to general consumers.”

Weston says the lifestyle crowd has turned toward “retro trainers” from Puma, Saucony, and Nike. “Companies that capitalize on that look will do well,” he predicts.

Many companies have already jumped on the classic-shoe look. A number of footwear brands have produced their version of the reissued Nike Dunk, whose return to the scene caused the action-sports community to take another look at the footwear giant. “International markets such as Japan, and the Nike Dunk, helped get the ball rolling as far as retro-style shoes for skate goes,” says Dunlap. Other classic shoes that have inspired skate-shoe designs include the adidas Superstar and Stan Smith.

A common denominator in the rise of retro-inspired skate footwear is price: these basic shoes are relatively cheap. The influx in popularity of classic skate footwear has driven key pricepoints down from 80 to 100 dollars to 50 to 70 dollars. “The customers are realizing they don’t have to spend the 95 bucks anymore,” says Seventeenth Street’s Todd.

Anderson says the increase in popularity of basic — and cheaper — skate shoes has conveniently coincided with the economic slowdown. “It’s actually worked fairly well with the downturn in the economy, because we haven’t been hearing at all, ‘Oh my god, these shoes are so expensive,'” he says. “Two years ago a lot of the shoes were up around 80 to 100 dollars. You’d think we’d be hearing it a lot more now, but most times a basic look means a lower pricepoint. So actually it’s been good.”

Some retailers say their business hasn’t been affected by the lower pricepoint shoes, citing that customers will buy multiple pair of shoes. Others, however, say the surge in pricepoint shoes has impacted their bottom line. “With a lower pricepoint shoe you’re not going to make quite as much {money},” Anderson says. “You’re doing the same number of pieces, but your overall volume in dollars is less because the pricepoints of most popular shoes are ten to fifteen dollars less than they were a year ago.”

Some manufacturers report the increase in sales of pricepoint footwear hasn’t created a financial hardship. In many cases retailers are ordering a greater number of shoes, companies say. “It seems retailers are purchasing narrower, yet deeper,” maintains Etnies’ Nickloff. “If there’s a pricepoint shoe that sells really well, retailers are stocking up rather than buying in limited quantities.”

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Says DVS’ Dunlap, “You definitely have to make it up in quantity. You’re selling a shoe for 30 dollars {wholesale} versus 48. You’ve gotta sell almost two to one.” Fortunately sales are up, so the influx in sales of pricepoint shoes hasn’t hurt his business. Of course, he says it’d easier if the company were selling more high-end footwear.

Whether it’s a technical or retro skate shoe, the most popular colors are the basics. Dunlap says surefire colors are black, white, navy, and gray, with black and white being his best-selling hues. “Brown,” he says, “was pretty popular for a while, but it just got a little oversaturated. So now you have to be really creative with your browns to get good sell-through.”

Retailers report black and white shoes have the best sell-through overall. “If it’s an all-black shoe at a great price, it’ll sell off the hook,” says Todd.

Yet brown shoes and kicks with gum-rubber soles are also popular with customers. “Brown is here to stay. It’s not going to be as big next year as it was for back-to-school,” says Todd, “but I’ll definitely keep buying it in my best-selling shoes.” Thompson notes that navy is popular with the surf crowd.

More colors are on the horizon as we head toward Spring ’03. Globe, IPath, Osiris, Etnies, and DC are each adding more colors to their lineups — and they seem to be booking well with retailers. “I’m noticing that either very basic or very unusual colors have been received quite well,” says Nickloff.

At DC, Hyndman says subdued colors (brown, black, and gray) are most popular with buyers. “But we get surprised once in a while and some brighter colors have been booking well,” he adds.

While suede has stepped into the spotlight in skate-shoe materials — it goes well with current fashion trends — synthetics will still be important in Spring ’03. “Synthetics are and always will be great for skateboarding,” says Nickloff. “They offer vegetarian skateboarders a quality alternative to leather and are quite durable.”

Globe’s line will feature shoes made with synthetics and natural fabrications. “We’re going in both directions,” says Globe Designer Elizabeth Gavigan. “We are offering lots of suede, nubuck, and soft leathers. Synthetics will still be in our line, {but} just not as prevalent as in past seasons.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint what skateboarders, surfers, or the mainstream will demand in the future. Will they want basic skate shoes that flow with their garb, or will they be after super-tech dogs with all the flash? Tough to say, but one thing’s for sure: manufacturers will be right there to answer their call.

Casual Cash Cow?

Not too long ago, many manufacturers and surf retailers were hyped on the fledgling casual-footwear market. They were hoping it’d open up another category to distinguish their offerings from the legions of skate-shoe SKUs. They also were banking on the idea that casual footwear could increase their bottom line.

Was it all wishful thinking? Nope. Even though the casual-footwear business hasn’t exploded out of the blocks, it’s set a consistent pace for an enduring run.

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“We’ve dabbled in the Reef stuff, and we’ve seen some success,” says Seventeenth Street’s Todd. “We haven’t seen huge sell-through, but it’s been a decent business.” The shop’s selection of casual shoes hasn’t flown of the shelves, but Seventeenth Street Owner Tom Brown is sticking with the category. Eventually, he says, it’ll catch on with customers.

A couple years ago Sanük began toying with the idea of offering casual closed-toe footwear along with its sandals. Last spring the company released Chill, a sheepskin-lined boot seen hawked in ads by teamrider Donavon Frankenreiter. It was also designing at least four o