Men’s shoes in the ’80s: How the market was changing
BOSTON – Michael Kerstein watches feet for a living. As they have come in and out of his shoe store in Coolidge Corner the last few years, he has noticed a change.
Feet increasingly are shedding wing tips and other traditional shoes with hard soles and little cushion. Instead, they seem to be jumping pell-mell into either well-padded running shoes or something Kerstein calls casual shoes — more traditional-looking footwear with the light-weight and cushiony comfort of a running shoe.
“Somewhere in here is the next big trend,” Kerstein concludes.
And just about everyone in the shoe business, especially the running shoe manufacturers, agrees with him. The running shoe companies are rushing into the casual shoe market, hoping it will help them maintain their high growth in the face of a slowdown in the sale of jogging shoes.
The running shoe companies — many of them based in New England — are the shoe industry’s equivalent of high tech, accustomed to fast growth and big profits. Nike Inc., for example, was generating $30 million in sales just over five years ago. Today, its revenues exceed $700 million, and there is intense pressure to keep the gains coming.
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Vintage 1980s shoes for men from the 1983 JCPenney catalog
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Creating success with casual shoes for men
By almost every measure, the Rockport Co. is tiny; its $21 million in sales is a mere drop in the running business bucket. But it is this small Marlborough manufacturing company that is showing Nike and the rest of the industry the way. And, ironically, it is the running shoe manufacturers that Rockport credits for its success in casual shoes.
Rockport’s 35-year-old president, Bruce Katz, said the running boom has placed manufacturers of conventional shoes in a bind. Running was never the lifeblood of running shoe sales, he said. Comfort was. And anyone who tried on a running shoe was reluctant to step back into a less-comfortable conventional shoe.
No wonder women walk to work with high heels under their arms and running shoes on their feet, or that Nike estimates 60 percent to 70 percent of its sales are for non-athletic purposes, the so-called athleisure market.
The challenge to Katz was to deve1op cross-breed footwear that had the same comfort as a running shoe, but in styles that were acceptable in various social environments.
The Rocsport was introduced in 1979 as the shoe a runner such as Bill Rodgers would wear when he wasn’t running. It had a casual shoe look with many running shoe features. These included a light-weight and shock-absorbent ethyl vinyl acetate midsole, a Vibram sole and a cushiony internal support system.
The technique worked. Rockport’s sales have been registering increases of 40 percent each year, and the Rocsport is now the best-selling mail-order shoe on the market. Practically the only complaint of the 5,000 retailers who carry the shoe is that they can’t get enough of them.
New footwear is for more than just running
As Rockport’s sales have taken off along with those of knockoffs manufactured by a variety of companies — the running shoe companies have reported a decline in the number of people using their shoes for nonrunning functions.
“We’re entering a period where people are not using their athletic footwear for casual situations,” said Steven Gomez, product manager for casual shoes at Nike.
So, in something of a bind themselves, the same running shoe companies that so skillfully convinced consumers that a tennis shoe could not be used for aerobic exercises, or that a running shoe was unacceptable on the basketball floor, are now setting their sites on casual shoes.
Steven Tannen, president of Etonic in Brockton, conservatively estimates the market’s current size is more than half that of running shoes, or about $250 million. “How big it will become,” he said, “is difficult to forecast. But one thing’s for sure: It’s not a passing fad.”
Rockport is trying to keep the competition at bay by adding four new shoe lines in the last year alone, including a Dress Rocsport, which packages a running shoe feel with the look of a penny loafer. And just as running shoe manufacturers have kept customers coming back by adding new “technology” to their shoes, Rockport recently unveiled a shoe with a new radial sole.
Rockport also increased its advertising and marketing budget six-fold this year to $1.5 million to position the company as the leader and innovator in casual shoes. “Everyone’s making Rockport lookalikes,” said one ad, “but no one’s making Rockport feel-alikes.”
For their part, the running shoe companies are trying to convince customers to transfer their loyalties in running shoes to regular shoes.
Etonic, a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive, markets its casual shoe as a reflection of its running shoe. New Balance in Allston is doing the same. Converse in Wilmington also is counting heavily on its running shoe reputation to build a business expected to account for 20 percent of sales in 1984.
Nike, the leader in running shoes, is trying to offer the casual shoe consumer something different with its Nike Air Casual. The shoe employs the same air cushion insole used in Nike basketball and running shoes.
Gomez sees the Air Casual as a logical extension of the company’s athletic footwear lines. But he admits the concept is harder to sell, since conventional shoe buyers are less familiar with the shoe technology.
“Marketing air as a concept is difficult,” he said.
– Article from The Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey) – September 21, 1983