For the first 50 odd years of the sneaker business, we’ve always had at least one performance category that was “in fashion.” At least, until recently.
In the early 70s, tennis was the sexy sport. People wanted to look like Jimmy and Chrissy. They wore tennis apparel and footwear on the street and sometimes even played tennis.
Then a thing called “jogging” came along. At cocktail parties people would ask “do you jog?” Jogging morphed into running footwear-as-fashion. And today, running shoes remain the dominant performance footwear category.
Aerobics was the next performance category to blow up as fashion. The trend was so strong that Reebok briefly took number one sneaker market share in the U.S.
Then a guy named Michael Jordan came along and basketball performance shoes were all the rage. Brands paid athletes millions to wear their shoes and stoke the basketball-as-fashion trend.
Next the fashion spinner pointed to cross-training shoes. This was essentially an invented category, but it captured the imagination of the consumer.
Over the next couple of decades, the winds would shift between running and basketball, as new technologies and styles were introduced. Performance-as-fashion appeared firmly rooted in sneaker footwear and culture.
But performance running fell out of fashion at the end of 2013. Performance basketball went into decline in the middle of 2015. We have gone nearly four years without a single performance category trending positively.
Sport lifestyle footwear is now the largest sneaker category and one of the few showing growth over the last several years. Sport lifestyle shoes are inspired by sports or were previously performance shoes; however, these are not intended for sport use.
This seismic shift is a result of the athleisure trend. The NPD Group’s consumer panel in 2018 tells us that only 16 percent of people who purchased a sport shoe intended to use them for sport (Source: The NPD Group, Inc., Consumer Tracking Service, FY 2018). That marks the lowest result I can ever recall. Consumers are buying active apparel and footwear but do not intend to actually do some sort of sport activity wearing them.
The nature of fitness in the U.S. has changed. Consumers remain committed to healthy lifestyles, but that commitment is light-hearted. Consumers are no longer defining themselves by their sports activities. Their approach to sport is no longer steadfast and competitive. Many studio fitness activities do not require footwear at all. Consequently, consumers do not need a pinnacle sport shoe.
Manufacturers are making footwear that is much better than it has been in previous years. A moderately priced shoe today is better than the best shoe was 10 years ago. As a result, consumers have moved to a less technical product.
Innovation in today’s footwear industry is incremental at best. Without leaps in technology, the consumer does not need the best product for their needs.
This tectonic shift will have many implications for sport footwear makers and retailers. For the most part, the industry has failed to understand the implications of this shift. Brands focused on performance will find they are chasing a shrinking business.
Since athletic shoes emerged as a popular footwear choice, manufacturers have relied on technological advances to "one-up" the latest and greatest, thus propelling trends (and consumer spends). With the movement toward athleisure and the accompanying footwear options, the message to manufacturers is clear: technology is of little importance to consumers at this point in time. Fashion brands that have traditionally lacked the technologies touted by athletic footwear companies are now free to enter the space. We’ve seen many brands that were previously not thought of as sneaker brands now making sneakers. The playing field just became more competitive.
Brands and retailers must accept this shift away from performance and embrace all the implications of this change.