Fifty-two percent of the U.S. population over the age of 21 is female. Fifty-two percent also is a majority share in any market. And the female majority of this country is wielding the power that goes with its commanding position – demanding athletic shoes that are made solely with their feet in mind.
The days are past, say athletic manufacturers, of simply using lasts from men’s styles to build copies of popular men’s shoes, incorporating no changes other than different colors, and trying to push the replicas onto the women’s market.
They also say that people in the industry who market women’s athletic footwear the same way they do men’s are not going to sell a lot of women’s shoes.
Today’s women are demanding more of athletic footwear: Performance and general-use features, fashion and price must all be considered when making and selling the women’s athletic shoe.
“The average woman has changed a lot in the last 10 years,” says Bruce MacGregor, vice president of product marketing and design for Avia Athletic Footwear, Portland, Ore. “Her understanding of footwear is phenomenal compared to what it used to be. It used to be, `Well, I’ll buy what my boyfriend wears or what my friends wear.” MacGregor attributes the footwear education of women in large part to aerobics and the plantar fasciitis shoes for men that were born from that activity.
Also, as Gary Patrick, vice president of advertising and promotions for L.A. Gear, Los Angeles, Calif., readily offers: “Women are better shoppers than men.”
Women are taking their careful consumer eyes, further sharpening them with their newly-found knowledge, and are heading to the stores. “K-Swiss … three years ago was probably 85 percent men’s,” says Preston Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for K-Swiss, Pacoima, Calif., “(but) this year represents the best growth (for K-Swiss) in women’s styles.”
Yet a retailer can’t count on selling a women’s version of his best-selling men’s shoe as many women demand technical features while disdaining the technical, heavy looks that are often found in men’s shoes. “The women don’t want their shoes to be overly layered – overly strappy,” MacGregor says. “Women want to have all the support, features and the technology, but they don’t want to have it in a cosmetic package that is blatant in its presentation.”
MacGregor and other design and marketing executives say men often look upon the technical look as a fashion unto itself. “The men are into shoes for just the sake of having technology, even if they’re not going to use the shoes in a performance manner,” MacGregor says. “It’s an image thing. It’s like having a car with a V-8 (engine) and saying `I’ve got 250 horsepower.'”
A desire for softer looks doesn’t mean women are going to accept anything less than the best features when they are buying pretty shoes for bunions for performance uses. “I think in cross training, women have shown themselves to find the more bulky looks acceptable,” says Gordie Nye, senior director for women’s fitness at Reebok International Ltd., Stoughton, Mass.
Still, Nye says, when it comes to less stressful forms of exercise than are associated with the cross-training category, women prefer a less technical look. “As the consumer matures, she is less likely to need a shoe that looks like it’s on steroids.”
So manufacturers have found a way to incorporate technical features into a fashionable presentation, but there is still the problem of how to market the shoe to a group that has shown itself to be less likely to accept common athletic footwear marketing techniques. In other words, a woman isn’t going to buy a shoe just because her favorite professional athlete spends every waking moment in it. “The principle difference is that women respond to the use of celebrity endorsers differently than men,” says Nye. “I don’t think celebrities as they’re used against men are as effective against women.”
Besides, Nye says, the average female consumer, even one who buys the shoes for primary use is less likely to swallow flashy advertising. “That consumer models herself after the aerobics instructor,” he says. “The instructor has an average age of 38 years. If you think about her, which we do, you’re going to end up with a very different product than you’d see on a high school senior or college student in a cross-training look.
“The women’s pitch has to be a lot more personal – a lot more attainable,” Nye goes on to say.
However, delivering a more personal sales pitch doesn’t mean that manufacturers or retailers can use esoteric advertising mediums. “In our print advertising, we took women from strictly athletic media to general-interest,” says Karen Hartmann, women’s product manager at New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., Boston, Mass. “We went from Runners World (Magazine) as our total universe to, say, Time Magazine – trying to get a more general interest out there.”
New Balance’s shift in advertising direction illustrates the one way in which women’s athletics resembles men’s: Most of the athletic shoes for high arches women buy are not for performance use. Although this doesn’t surprise manufacturers, it’s a fact that may get lost in the design offices of advertising agencies where sports celebrities and primary-use layouts are still pushed on the women’s athletic market. Hartmann points out that many of New Balance’s women’s athletic shoes aren’t even sold through traditional sports outlets. “We sell thousands of units for athletic wear through, say, an L.L. Bean catalog. Often those women want to use those shoes for shopping or running around.”
Still, many of the companies that market performance features to men say they extend the same treatment to their women’s lines. “We don’t want to compete on fashion with L.A. Gear and some of the others out there,” says Dave Pompel, marketing manager for Hi-Tec Sports USA Inc., Modesto, Calif., “but we’re not ignorant of the trends.” Even companies that sell fashionable athletic shoes say they will push performance for their women’s lines. “In the past, we’ve been a little bit gun-shy about (whether or not) Converse will mean performance to women,” says that company’s senior vice president of marketing, Gordon Tucker. That question has been resolved: “Converse is strictly going to focus on the performance end of it,” Tucker says. In a consensus with the other athletics manufacturers, Tucker feels Converse can avoid heavy looks for women, even though his company plans to push performance. “The beefy basketball look that was popular over the last few years isn’t a woman’s look,” he says, “but I still think they’re looking for technology.”
Bringing together the best of fashion and technology, and tailoring marketing strategies would seem to be as much as any company could do to try and grab a large piece of the women’s market. But the women’s careful consumer tendencies can deflate the one-two punch. The fact is, manufacturers say, women have been, and are going to continue to be, more price sensitive about their athletic footwear.
“If you’re talking about primary users,” says Pompel, “there isn’t a cutoff for price.” For streetwear, Pompel says, women will spend between $40 and $60, no more.
Others say women will not even go as high as Pompel’s estimates on streetwear. “That presents some significant marketing challenges in terms of what features to incorporate,” Tucker says.
If women aren’t willing to pay high prices for shoes that most likely won’t be used for athletic performance, can athletic footwear manufacturers hope to keep competing with the newer active-fashion/comfort manufacturers whose shoes may fulfill the same use purposes while carrying lower price points?
Avia’s MacGregor thinks so, as do most athletic manufacturers. “I think the market is so big now, the day of `It’ll be one or the other’ is long gone.”
Mary Pat Blake, director of marketing for Naturalizer and NaturalSport, a division of Brown Shoe Co., St. Louis, Mo., corroborates MacGregor’s statement. “I think the athletic market will always be there. The trend towards active athletics will continue. I do think the activities may shift as baby boomers get older and their bodies can’t take as much of the hardcore pounding.”
“Women customers will buy from both sides of the fence,” says K-Swiss’ Davis, commenting on the viability of athletics against active-fashion/comfort despite differing price points. “We think an athletic shoe can last longer than one season.” He adds that women will come back again to buy the same athletic shoe if the manufacturer pushes for the long term.
“The only thing that could get affected is fashion-athletic footwear,” says Sheri Poe, president and chief executive officer of Ryka Inc., Weymouth, Mass. “But performance athletics will not be affected because a woman still needs to protect her body during a workout.”
Poe, like all other athletics manufacturers, believes every woman who walks into the store looking for casual wear is a potential athletics customer, because athletics, in addition to performance, means comfort.
And selling athletics to women means catering to the anatomical uniqueness of women’s feet in order to sell women’s athletics. As Naturalizer’s Blake says, a “biomechanically-correct fit,” plus features and fashion make the complete women’s athletic shoe.
Blake’s ingredients for a good women’s athletic shoe seem like the ingredients of common sense, but the footwear industry has spent the last 10 years making this discovery. Now that the facts are in, the dollars also should follow. But the bottom line for women’s athletics is going to be in direct proportion to what women want from shoemakers: respect.