Big business of footwear on display at outdoor retail expo

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Footwear's position as the second largest segment in lucrative outdoor retail industry is on full display at a trade expo in Salt Lake City this week with a wide array of colors, prints and designs of sandals, shoes and boots that companies promote as being lighter and more versatile.

The basic designs of different types of footwear have stayed largely the same for years, so companies try to pique interest among retailers with fashionable designs or new technology innovations. One company has a long block of ice at its booth at the Outdoor Retailer show to demonstrate a special sole designed to prevent slipping on ice.

Retail stores are looking for footwear that strikes the right balance between performance and fashion, said Julia Clark Day, executive director of business development for the sports division of the market research firm NPD Group. Hikers want a shoe that won't give them blisters while on the trail but still look good while getting drinks afterward, she said.

Footwear has long been a key segment in the industry, and sales in recent years have held steady. It accounted for $4.7 billion in sales 2016, second only to outerwear within an industry that did $18.8 billion in sales last year, according to data from the NPD group. Running shoes make up more than half of the sales.

The winter version of the world's largest outdoor retail show brings about 22,000 people for a business-to-business expo that allows store owners to meet with manufacturers and preview products that will reach the retail market soon.

"These footwear companies recognize this is a great show to go because they are going to get in front of a varied group of retailers," Clark Day said.

Hoka One One, the latter part pronounced "oh-nay, oh-nay," entices people to its booth with four brightly colored running shoes that hover and spin over a wide table. Since its foundation in 2009, the California-based company has carved out a niche in the market by making light shoes designed for trail runners with thick soles meant to give maximum cushion. The company's name means "Fly over the earth" in the Polynesian language of Maori.

The shoes, which range from $110 to $230 for a hiking book, are not sold online. The company chooses to sell them only at specialized stores so customers get properly fitted for the shoe, said Isaac Alvear, vice president of sales.

Like many shoe companies, they're trying to branch out to tap into a wider audience by with a new model, called the Hupana, which has a look suited for both running and casual activities.

The majority of Chaco's sales still come from its signature "Z-sandals," with crossing, adjustable straps, but the company is trying to tap into a wider market with stylish closed-toe shoes and boots that can be worn out of the water for a night out or to work. The company is introducing a women's lace-up boot that sells for $160 and a similar men's model for $170.

"We decided to get into the lifestyle market because it's a much bigger industry," said Colin Butts, Chaco spokesman. "The outdoor industry is great and where we got our start, but lifestyle products make up billions of billions of more dollars."

At Merrell's exhibit, they welcome people with the theme, "Welcome to nature's gym." The company is known for its hiking shoes that have been a staple on trails for decades. The signature Moab sells for $100 to $140. The company this year is introducing a new shoe called the Bare Access Flex, which sells for $90, that is a nod to the growing active wear or "athleisure" trend in which customers want multiuse gear that can be used for many different activities.

"We know it needs to be a very versatile shoe, it needs to be lightweight, it's got to have some great comfort, some different technologies," company spokesman Marshall Davis said.

Merrell is among the brands that feature a new hard sole by Vibram called "Artic Grip" that is designed to help people gain traction on ice. At Vibram's busy booth, people took turns trying the soles out on a huge ice block to see for themselves how it works.

"If we can give you a little extra protection against slip, we want to do that," Vibram spokesman Jonathan Verda said.