Whether through breakthrough innovations, some cooperative cold weather early last fall, or just consumers hitting the trail more frequently as part of a new ‘back to basics’ mentality-the boot category is seeing serious momentum in the marketplace.  And while the economic downturn has increased the focus on value, a number of outdoor footwear makers are indicating that consumers are willing to pay up for quality. That’s driving healthy top-line growth for many outdoor footwear brands. “I think people are turning to brands they trust,” said Chris Speak, brand manager for Vasque, which saw significant revenue growth last year. “We are a trusted brand known for footwear that last and it fits. I don’t have to go out and buy three brands. I only have to buy one and I know it will last.” Not that 2009 was an easy year. Many of the gains were driven by replenishment as retailers tried to fill the void left by a shift to tighter inventories.


Vasque, along with other shoe makers, is also working on its value component by lowering prices to hit key price points for the more value-conscious consumer. For example, retail prices on Vasque’s best-selling hiker, Breeze, are heading down to $140 from $160.  “We didn’t do anything to the shoe but we just got better at the way we manufacture it so we’ll be able to offer the consumer a lot more value,” explained Speak in an interview with The B.O.S.S. Report at OR Winter Market.


Indeed, a few boot makers believe they benefited from their brand’s reputation for offering reasonable prices and quality.


“We had 8.5% growth at Hi-Tec last year and I think we’re growing because we offer value,” noted Dennis Hochwender, western regional sales manager at Hi-Tec. “I think the guy that was spending $150 on a pair of hiking boots is realizing that you can buy our Altitude boot for $89.95 and it’s durable and it works for everything you like to do. We’ve even seen more consumers from a higher-income bracket. So we’re very pleased and think [the downturn] has been almost good for us. It’s made consumers more aware of the brand.”


Brian Moore, VP for global men’s footwear at Timberland, likewise said that Timberland is now seeing strength across its range and across channels.

Moore noted that boots have tended to be an item-driven business – pointing to the popularity of Timberland’s classic 10061 yellow boot in the past as well as UGG more recently. But it’s become “much more diversified” and has ultimately become a broader and healthier category.


“There’s a real range out there from traditional to very modern and very progressive boots and it’s fortunate for us because we have a very deep position regardless of the category,” suggested Moore.


He believes the growing appeal of boots can be traced to the downturn. In past recessionary periods, he’s noticed a natural trend toward the rugged boot category as well as authentic brands that have a long history.


“The 80s were all about glam with hair bands, guys wearing makeup, platform boots and everything was way over the top. But after the economy tanked in 1991, grunge arrived and everybody was wearing flannels, baggy jeans and Doc Martens and that’s a brand with a lot of heritage and authenticity,” explained Moore.  Now, Moore sees an even more pronounced shift in the current downturn and believes Timberland is subsequently benefiting.


“When things get really bad, people return to their favorite things and a lot of our boots because we’re not glitz and glam,” Moore added. “They’re just very comfortable brown leather shoes. When you’re not looking to be showy, nothing goes better with a pair of jeans.”


For Fall 2010, a key launch for Timberland is the Furious Fusion under its Mountain Athletics line, which Moore terms “as capable a hiker as we’ve ever made but with a modern design aesthetic.” Other key launches include the Washington Summit traditional alpine hiker and the Earthkeeper 2.0, which can be disassembled and recycled.


Peter Sachs, general manager of Lowa Boots in the U.S., which also saw growth last year, said consumers appear to be coming back to mid-cut boots from lo-cuts and “seem to want better products to get a longer life out of their product or more bang for the buck.” He offered a variety reasons for the possible shift away from low-cut hikers.


“Maybe it’s because the population’s getting a little older and needs a little more stability or they’re tired of getting dirt or water on their feet,” Sachs said. “Or maybe it’s because retailers are using [mid-cut boots] to differentiate their shoe walls from all the running shoes. They can say, ‘Here’s a real outdoor shoe versus a running or walking shoe.’”


For 2010, Lowa specifically focused on delivering a revamped Renegade GTX collection at a $200 MSRP.


“This has historically been our best selling product and we updated it for 2010 with our Monowrap PU injection frame technology,” added Sachs. “We also offered more colors & width offerings than ever before for men & women in both mid & lo-cut models.” 


Lowa also introduced a new traction technology called the 3G Sole. “The easiest way to phrase it is to say it’s skid-pads on the bottom of the sole,” Sachs noted. “In testing, it’s proven to be 30% more slip resistant than a traditional, similar rubber outsole so it’s a little more sticky and more slip resistant for people who are walking on ice or snow.”


Lowa is also coming up with more models for what Sachs describes as the “snowboard or after-ski user,” while Lowa’s kids’ hiking boot business is on the rise after experiencing a shift toward lightweight trail shoes. 


At Vasque, the big story at OR was its new partnership with W.L. Gore. The Mindbender GTX is the first trail runner to launch utilizing a specific new fit enhancing Gore construction, the new GORE-TEX conformable laminate technology. Optimal waterproof properties and fit is accomplished through the application of a new pattern that utilizes a stretch component panel to create a custom bootie exclusive to the Mindbender GTX. Additionally, the gusset folds are eliminated by the use of a floating tongue design which reduces weight and makes for an even better fit.


“We’re very excited about this opportunity with this great partner and it goes right along with our ultimate fit story,” explained Speak. “It’s all about building better waterproof running shoes.”


The Columbia brand also continued to push the envelope on innovation following the wildly successful launch of the Bugathermo electronically-heated boots last fall.   For Fall 2010, that push continues with the launch of Omni-Heat series that includes an extension of its battery technology through Omni-Heat Electric but also Omni-Heat Reflective, a proprietary-lining material that reflects heat across apparel and equipment as well as footwear. Columbia claims this patent pending technology provides an average heat boost of 20% without any additional weight or bulk, and helps regulate body temperature by reflecting and retaining the warmth a body generates, while dissipating moisture and excess heat. Top models include the Bugathermo Techlite boot for men and the Snowfall Thermo for women.


“We think Omni-Heat innovation is going to be a game changer in the marketplace,” said Mark Nenow, VP of global footwear and merchandising at Columbia Sportswear, also overseeing Sorel and Montrail. “One of the big things for us is to leverage our winter heritage and tell real innovation stories such as Bugathermo. We are making a big push to make this brand enormously relevant on the trail, whether in trail running, multi-sport or hiking.”


But Nenow noted all three of Columbia Sportswear’s footwear brands continue to benefit from investments in building infrastructure.  “This team continues to lift the bar as far as development and sourcing,” added Nenow.


Sorel is especially focusing on the women’s side attempting to tap into the UGG phenomenon. The Sorel booth even had girls dancing on platforms. “Sorel has been king of winter pac boots and that’s great,” Nenow explained.  “But I think it can deliver the warmth, traction, water-proofness, and all those elements, but with a more stylized functional aesthetic. So it’s about creating a new visual appeal for the brand, especially for the female consumer.”


Montrail continues to focus on innovation and build on its winning Gear of the Year in 2009 from Outside Magazine for its Mountain Masochist trail running model. For Fall/Winter 2010, advances include the Mountain Masochist GTX and Sabino Trail GTX trail runners for fall, as well as the Mountain Masochist Mid GTX hiker for winter.


Kamik introduced a new compound called Rubber (He) or Helium Rubber in boots that is extremely durable in cold weather, but has the same look and feel as natural rubber, is PVC free and is much lighter than traditional rubber.  “Helium Rubber reduces the weight of our boots significantly which consumers love,” noted Catherine Cook, marketing director at Kamik.


On the boot side, general trends that Kamik is seeing include functional yet stylish design and a new interest in comfort and lightweight boots. Rain boots continue to be a healthy category for Kamik, especially stylish models such as ones featuring faux shearling collars. Polartec-lined rain boots have also done well.


With manufacturing facilities in both Littleton, NH and Montreal, Quebec, one focus for Kamik is getting the word out about its commitment to North American manufacturing. “We’re playing it up a bit more,” Cook  added. “People are becoming more conscious with the downturn.”


But Cook said the brand continued to grow across categories last year and she attributed that to Kamik’s reputation for functional boots at a good value. “We’re known as just a basic boot company, nothing extravagant, and consumers know it’s good quality,” noted Cook. “So they can justify spending $90 on a winter boot because they know it’s going to be warm, waterproof and dry.”


At Hi-Tec, insulation continues to be the big story with the success of its Ion-Mask boot’s repellent polymer technology.  Hi-Tec continues to be the only footwear manufacturer using the technology in insulated footwear, although Hochwender said Nike has talked about using it in a soccer shoe and ECCO has it in a running shoe. He’s hoping that the attention in other categories will increase awareness to the technology.  “Ion Mask is a big deal,” Hochwender boasted. “You get five times the abrasion resistance than leather and yet it has a lot more breathability and is much lighter.”


The North Face introduced consumer-friendly boots at the show in the sub-$100 category for fall 2010-a direct response to the greater demand for value. For example, The Nuptse Pull-On ($90) boasts 600 fill down insulation, faux fur and recycled PET upper, while the Snow Beast and Betty ($70) offers water and weather protection in an insulated boot with EVA shell.

“We've taken that category and included features that consumers won't find on other boots in that price range – high-down fill, EVA shells, and recycled textiles to name a few,” boasted Johnny Hawthorne, director of footwear sales for The North Face. “Consumers get a good set of features and a great value.”


But Hawthorne also sees many trends working in boots. in women's boots, the cold weather category continues to maintain technical benefits with fashion.


“Boots are getting higher up to the knee and over the knee. Colors are staying neutral and earthy, with grey becoming more popular this season,” Hawthorne said adding, ” For men, boots are staying tried and true, but becoming lighter within the same classic looks.” One standout model for men is the Back-To-Berkeley Boot ($110), a mid-cut boot with retro styling.


Oboz introduced its first line of flip flops. According to Josh Fairchilds, VP of product development and marketing for Oboz, all models include a tubular webbing technique for support as well as an adjustable buckle reminiscent of climbing shoes. They also feature an anatomical footbed to cup and support the foot, a secure strap system and a lugged, high-friction outsole for traction.


For Spring 2010, Oboz also introduced its own insole, B-Fit, for its footwear line that it believes is equivalent to most after-market footbeds around the marketplace.


“It provides better fit and support and stabilizes the foot and it’s durable,” said Oboz President John Connelly. ”We also use 3-D gender specific injection molded external counters on our boots. These provide longer lasting support and a great heel-cup/fit.”         


For Fall 2010, Oboz introduced another mid-high hiker, the Gallatin. Connelly said mid-weight and lighter weight boots, especially mid-cut hikers have performed very well.


“We just don’t have as many folks doing extended backpacking trips these days,” said Connelly. “Consumers going to our retailers are looking for versatility, lighter weight and little to no break-in time, and they want boots that are waterproof. Good looking, low-cut multi-sport styles taken up to mid-highs are doing well. The sweet spot for specialty in mid-high waterproof boots is $130-150.”


With a solid boost coming from mainstream fashion and new technology, the outdoor footwear market is poised for a solid 2010-2011 season.