The SGMAs “2008 State of the Industry Survey” lists running as number four on the list of “Hottest Sports for Sales Growth in 2008” behind yoga / pilates, fitness walking and lacrosse. Women play a significant role in keeping running at the top of that list. Whether they run to compete, lose weight, connect with friends or enter charity races to raise funds for worthy causes, women are out on the roads and trails in force. Running USA estimates that there were at least 10 million core runners in the U.S. in 2007 with women representing more than half that number.
With such a large and ready market at their disposal, performance running specialty brands are seizing the opportunity to create a loyal following. Rod Foley, director of marketing, running footwear, at Mizuno USA, reports the womens influence in the running channel is becoming increasingly louder and stronger. “Were focusing on that market as a vehicle for growth for us,” he says.
Dan Sullivan, running business unit manager at New Balance, agrees, “The womens segment is still growing and vibrant. Its been a big initiative for our company in planning from 20082012. We are a brand that has an opportunity to grow in this category.”
Although women represent significant sales opportunities for performance running footwear and apparel brands, a slowing rate of growth means a more competitive marketplace.
Jim Monahan, VP of footwear for ASICS America, notes that the womens market is not growing as much as it once was. “In the overall market, the womens business was flat in 2008,” he says. “At running specialty, womens business continues to be the growth vehicle, but even this channel is not growing as quickly.”
Women who may have entered their first charity fundraising fun run a few years ago are now more informed consumers who are more discriminating in their purchase decisions. Foley comments, “We believe the more women become involved in the running lifestyle, the choices they make on product deal more with whats going to keep them happy and healthy running compared to surface factors [color or fashion] that might have driven their purchases in the past.”
Monahan points out that women are taking a more active role in researching footwear options. “The Internet has allowed consumers to become more educated and selective in their buying decisions,” he suggests. “Women want a product that is fashionable, while at the same time technical, addressing the specific needs of the female runner. We have worked hard to combine both into a product solution that exceeds the consumers expectations.”
Sharon Barbano, VP of public relations and events at Saucony, believes high customer service levels have been essential to bringing women to run specialty. “For women, knowledge is purchasing power and women do their homework before buying, be it on the Internet, speaking to their friends or at a run specialty retailer where product education precedes and often determines the buying decision,” says Barbano.
According to the “How America Shops” report published by The SportsOneSource Group, 49 percent of women surveyed said that staff and service influence their decisions about retailers they visit. In comparison, only 39 percent of men make the same claim. Using consumer focus groups and consulting with retailers, Brooks has identified some differences in the way men and women select footwear.
Tamara Hills, Brooks spokesperson, comments, “We know women often have different purchase triggers than men. While function remains important for both genders, aesthetics and an emotional connection to a shoe can play a significant role in attracting women to one style over another.”
Foley also sees a shift in womens purchase criteria. “The female customer is evolved and is now more serious and concerned about staying healthy and issues like color are falling to the wayside. They just want the best shoe for their biomechanics. Color and styling are secondary. Its still important, but not as important as previously,” he says.
Faced with a more informed and committed consumer, brands are responding with new footwear designs and technologies specifically tailored to women.
One of the most significant changes in footwear design is the introduction of womens-specific models. No
longer unisex or mens smalls in a limited number of models, women now find a wide selection of performance running footwear created for their unique biomechanical needs.
Mizuno, New Balance and Salomon have introduced new footwear models built on womens-specific lasts. Mizuno launched its Gender Engineering technology in January, 2009. Foley explains the concept. He says, “With older shoe models it was hard to tell the difference between mens and womens shoes. In 2009, we are creating separate mid-soles and outsoles based on gender differences. Now our shoes are completely different for men and women.” Gender Engineering is currently available in four models of Mizuno running shoes: Wave Nirvana 5, Wave Inspire 5, Wave Creation 10, and Wave Rider 12.
New Balance has spent more than three years designing, testing and fine-tuning a new womens footwear offering. Sullivan reports, “Weve created a specific womens running last that is tailored and contoured to fit women. Instead of having a unisex last, we are now gender-specific with our technical performance-
Sullivan notes that men may have preferred the fit in previous New Balance offerings, but womens needs may not have been addressed. “The shape of our shoes may not been as flattering to women as we would like it to be,” he says. “With our new product now hitting the market, we are definitely addressing the look. It has a sleeker, more flattering appeal to women when they look down at their foot or see it on the shelf. The fit and comfort is also more appealing to women. When women put on the shoe, they are going to notice the clean overall fit and comfort of the shoe. Thats going to really help us grow in the womens market.”
Mary OBrien, VP of marketing for Saucony, talks about the brands commitment to female-specific needs, “With our stability shoes, we have designed the medial side, where bunions form, differently than on mens with no overlays and a bit more space in that flex area. It is a nice womens spin thats not a gimmick. Runners are runners at the end of the day, but this is a legitimate difference. It is another feature and benefit that retailers can use as a sales tool.”
At Salomon, Footwear Associate Lance Taylor reports the company is building its first womens-specific shoe from the ground up. Previously, Salomon started with a mens model and offered a derivative for women. Taylor says, “The womens business is definitely an area we want to grow. The XT Whisper is designed for women who want a softer ride and a lighter weight trail shoe.”
ASICS is working to address womens desire for both performance technology and fashion. Monahan describes the approach, “We have been addressing this audience through constantly innovating our womens product collection technically, as well as working on the fine details of styling (color and material).”
Monahan continues, “You can definitely have more fun with your womens collection than your mens collection. We have introduced a host of technologies that address the specific needs of the female runner, whether thats through fit or biomechanics. Our PHF and Biomorphic Fit technologies address fit, while our holistic approach to shoe building, called IGS, introduces a unique trusstic construction for women vs. men, as well as an adaptive heel construction that addresses the different strike angles between men and women.”
Acknowledging the challenge of communicating footwear technology to consumers, New Balance is using tech reps to educate specialty buyers. The company also is seeding new womens footwear with specialty retail buyers to give them an opportunity to experience the difference from previous New Balance womens footwear offerings.
With leading brands introducing womens specific footwear, retailers will have more options to present and consumers will benefit from a wider selection. Sullivan comments on the competitive environment, noting, “All the manufacturers out there are creating great product that gives women a great fit and feel in the colors they want. As a company, we are building a continuum so women can find the perfect shoe for them. We feel the womens segment is our biggest opportunity.”
Foley acknowledges that technological innovations need to connect with the consumer to be meaningful. He explains, “In all of this, there has to be authenticity. When we talk about gender engineering, there has to be substance behind it. There has to be a tangible benefit women see in our shoes versus somebody elses and not just mens shoes shrunken down. Thats the Holy Grail.”
He continues, “We know the physical differences for women and we know what we think will work in how we design and build our product differently. But we have to build a tangible, I get it now reaction. We need them to say, I feel better running. This will keep me healthy and more efficient. If we can show them a tangible difference and that it works, that will garner real brand loyalty.”
Jon Teipen, footwear product line manager at Brooks Sports, agrees that women shoppers are demanding increased technology and better fashion in their athletic footwear.
“We definitely feel the female consumer is more discerning in what she is looking for,” says Teipen. “Not only feel, fit, cushion and how it looks on, but from an overall design standpoint, women want a female-friendly design that makes the foot look smaller and is flattering to the lower leg.”
Barbano notes that in the current economy, creating a positive atmosphere is a powerful way to build long-term loyalty. She says, “Retailers should be focusing on their female customers even more with a customer service experience that reflects her priorities and the way she shops. The more shopper-associate time that takes place, the greater the sale. It is critical to empower every store associate to know the products and deliver top-quality service. Female customers who do pre-shopping research get frustrated when they walk into a store and know more about the products than the floor associate.”
She adds, “When it comes to where she shops, defection comes easy, especially in this economy. Let your female consumer down once and shes off to another. Its not fickleness, its unmet expectations.”
Sullivan says, “When women are passionate about a product or brand, they become strong brand advocates. With social networks and the speed of technology, they spread the word about what they like, directly influencing purchasing decisions with other women, but especially with the men in their lives.”
The 2009 Brand Strength Report, published by The SportsOneSource Group, shows that brand loyalty plays a major factor in purchasing decisions. The report shows that women who are runners in most cases would definitely repurchase their current brand of performance running footwear at extremely high levels.
As the womens running market continues to expand, the brands that can achieve that brand loyalty through new product designed specifically for their consumer will grow with it. Performance and fit are key to the womens running consumers continued business, but brands still need to provide the design aesthetics that will bring the shoe off the wall and onto her foot.