Running has accelerated at a relentless pace over the past two years, and the path to success has been as open as the roads where people log their miles.
Since the onset of the pandemic-created running boom, leaders in the category have been open about the many ways they’ve leaned into the business. But as consumer lifestyles shift once again in 2022, they must enact new strategies to engage athletes of all types.
Below, market experts pinpoint four opportunities that running brands will have to capitalize on to cross the finish line before the competition.
POSITION RUNNING SHOES AS STREETWEAR
Performance running shoes haven’t been in favor with the fashion set for some time, but insiders suggest that is about to change.
“There are more people running, more people are wearing running shoes and people are going to want to look like the next trend. When a fashion element comes in, it changes the dynamics significantly,” said Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser with The NPD Group Inc. “There are a lot of people who want to look like a runner, but not like a hard-core runner. We’re going to see people who want to wear running shoes as casual footwear.”
Wendy Yang, president of the performance and lifestyle group at Deckers Brands, also believes performance run will be adopted for style, and thinks Hoka One One is well positioned to capitalize.
“Running shoes represent the biggest segment of the performance category. While consumers wear them to help them perform, they also buy them for how they make them look and feel,” Yang said. “At Hoka, we call the intersection of performance and trend Lifestyle Athletics. We’ve built this segment in an authentic way at Hoka, by taking some of our most popular performance franchises, such as Bondi and Mafate, and dressed them in interesting materials, with color-blocking and finishings that make them a standout for trend consumers.”
She noted that the adoption of Hoka footwear in the streetwear space provides the brand a key opportunity to widen its consumer fanbase.
As fashion trends start to lean toward running, Powell believes brands need to adjust their approach to product delivery to meet the demand.
“The way performance running shoes are traditionally brought to market is brands transition out of last year’s model during the summer and reintroduce new styles in the fall,” Powell said. “If we see the business becoming more of a fashion [play], the demands for newness are great. There will need to be constant introduction of new products, new colorways, new materials, maybe bringing back dormant styles. The releases will be smaller and faster.”
According to Powell, the athlete who is new to running is going to drive this trend, forcing a change in mindset of the marketplace.
“The new runner does not think about footwear like the old runner did. They want shoes that look cool, they also want shoes to be versatile, that they can wear for more than just running,” Powell said. “New customers are going to buy shoes in a different way, and that will force the market to respond.”
The industry insider believes two brands are well-positioned to lead this trend: Puma and On.
“Puma came out with a new running line 18 months ago that looked trend-right from the beginning. They were able to marry performance and fashion in a shoe,” Powell said. “I’m also seeing On worn by non-runners, and their products lend themselves to fashion. It has a visible technology, people recognize that it’s an On shoe right away, and they have opened their distribution to fashion retailers. That positions them well.”
And with the recent introduction of Lululemon’s first running sneaker first running sneaker, the category could could see a further demand spike among casual wearers.
One of the biggest opportunities for the run market, players in the space say, is also one of the more obvious ones: post-run recovery.
“Most running stores have started playing in that game a little bit. If they haven’t, they should,” said Kris Hartner, owner of Illinois-based Naperville Running Co.
The storeowner said the concept of recovery within the specialty run channel took off 15 years ago with nutrition, then progressed into products such as compression socks and apparel, tools such as the Hyperice suite and more. The footwear portion, according to Hartner, gained momentum with the introduction of Oofos in 2011.
Hartner told FN he saw the opportunity there and was the first run specialty store in the U.S. to carry the brand. And in April 2020, he also made the decision to once again stock comfort favorite Birkenstock.
“For some stores, that combo of having both Oofos and Birkenstock — very cleanly distributed products that are hard to get, they’re not everywhere — is a no-brainer,” Hartner explained.
He said Naperville Running Co. will invest even further in post-run recovery this month. The retailer has turned its Annex door into a Birkenstock pop-up shop, which will remain open until June, and it will launch an Oofos shop-in-shop in its South store.
While Oofos has been clear and steadfast in its focus on recovery since its debut, Birkenstock is a relative newcomer to athletic retail channels. In January 2021, the company tapped industry veteran Jim Van Dine, a former president of Hoka and co-founder of Ahnu, to boost its presence in the run specialty channel.
“The intention is to further emphasize the orthopedic benefit of [Birkenstock] versus just the casual fashion aspect. That is at the heart and soul of what Birkenstock is all about,” Van Dine told FN. “That’s how it started more than 200 years ago in Germany, that’s how it was introduced to the U.S. almost 60 years ago, but the fashion success has overwhelmed [that aspect of the brand].”
Van Dine, who will join Birkenstock as its director of the athletic and outdoor category in April, said he has landed 50 to 60 new accounts in the channel — starting with Naperville Running Co. — and has 10 to 20 more in his queue. The goal, Van Dine said, is 160 doors a year from now.
FOCUS ON TRAIL RUN
Both running participation and visits to outdoor spaces climbed as COVID-19 swept the country two years ago, so it’s fitting that trail running — a marriage of both activities — has become a greater focus for sneaker brands.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Topline Participation Report, 12.5 million hit the trails for a run in 2021, a 5.6% increase over the 11.9 million people who engaged in the activity in 2020 and a 13.9% increase over the 11 million people in 2019.
At The Running Event in Austin, Texas, last December, industry powerhouses such as Altra, Speedland and La Sportiva revealed their upcoming styles for fall ’22, and the most compelling selections were in the trail space.
One of the more eye-catching looks of the show came from Hoka with the Tecton X, its first trail shoe with a carbon plate that will arrive in May. Hoka’s focus on the category, and intent on leading the competition, is intentional, according to Yang.
“Hoka was born in the Alps, and because of that, we will always view trail running as a critical part of our DNA,” she said. “That’s why we deliver a range of trail and hike products for all consumers, whether they are just starting out in their trail running journey or competing on the trails of Chamonix [France].”
Its focus on trail was further realized in October 2021, when the brand signed a multiyear partnership to become the first global premier partner of the UTMB World Series in Chamonix. The partnership extends through 2023, and there are options to extend it to 2024 and beyond.
COMMUNICATE YOUR VISION
Dan Fitzgerald, co-owner of Heartbreak Hill Running Co., believes the market’s greatest opportunity is simply: “Tell me why I should care about you.”
He continued, “The world is flat in terms of making good shoes. There are tons of companies doing a great job, and because there’s a lot of good stuff out there, what’s the differentiator?”
Yang agrees, and pointed to purpose as a worthy differentiator. “The new generation of consumers don’t just purchase based on a product or price — but on how well a brand’s values align with their own. Ethically feeling good about a purchase is more important than ever before,” she explained.
This “proving your value” mindset, according to Fitzgerald, is also critical for retailers.
“Why would you come to a shop? Why would you hear of a shop? You can’t just be talking about GAIT analysis, it can’t just be free runs. What’s going to actually connect?” Fitzgerald explained. “If we can’t tell big stories, link to big moments and infuse our brand into them and make it powerful and fun, then we’re failures.”
For Heartbreak Hill., this was evident in its private-label Internationalist race kit that was released on the eve of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
The retailer created a bold look merging several vastly different bits of inspiration, including the rebellious attitude Fitzgerald became enamored with during his time in the surf industry and Yves Saint Laurent’s famed Piet Mondrian-inspired cocktail dress from 1965. As for the colors, Heartbreak tied them to the Olympic rings — blue, yellow, black, green and red.
That combination of high ideals and high fashion, paired with the desire to celebrate sport, is what Heartbreak consumers crave, said Fitzgerald.
“In its execution, in terms of brand vision and how it looks and releasing it on the eve of Beijing, it came together in a way that is powerfully authentic, even though, if you take any one of those elements alone, it sounds crazy,” he explained.
Looking ahead, the retailer said Heartbreak Hill will story-tell through its private label for the Boston Marathon by focusing on modern medicine and the city’s place in innovating that space. Also, the retailer will carry the story out through efforts to highlight stories of caregivers.