The U.S. footwear industry has been affected by COVID-19. Spending seemed to change overnight as consumers simply did not buy what they did not need, highlighting the extent to which our lifestyles drive our footwear purchases. The pandemic has simultaneously bred new trends and amplified some existing ones. Seasonal fashion took a big hit, while more practical styles including slippers and running shoes have performed better. Consumers have cozied up even more to comfort and to brands that resonate with their needs and values.
NPD footwear experts Matt Powell and Beth Goldstein have identified five trends shaping the industry today.
1 Health and wellness
A renewed consumer interest in health and wellness, and keeping social distance, bode well for areas such as performance running and outdoor footwear, Powell notes. “Stay-at-home orders have encouraged consumers to spend their time in different ways and to pursue social distance-friendly activities such as running and biking. With gyms and fitness centers closed, the lockdown has also forced consumers to rethink their exercise routines and invest in equipment for their home, and in the footwear and apparel to enable the workouts,” he explains.
Sales of performance running shoes have been trending positively for the last few weeks, he adds. “We should see running continue to benefit throughout the COVID-19 recession, as this business has typically performed well during recession. I also believe that the virus itself has motivated many consumers to adopt healthier practices and place a greater emphasis on their physical health and wellbeing.”
Goldstein believes consumers’ desire for comfort will impact fashion footwear. “This has already been grandfathered in as a key priority for consumers when it comes to their footwear, but after three months of hunkering down in cozy attire and slippers, we aren’t going to want to stuff our feet into uncomfortable shoes,” she says. “Sneakers, lower heels (or none at all), and the fusion of fashion and athletic elements will remain important.”
Tied to comfort, the pandemic will likely reinforce the shift we have seen away from dress footwear, she predicts. Sales were down by 12% in 2019, according to NPD’s Retail Tracking data, and that decline sharpened since the pandemic began in the U.S., with sales down more than 70% from March through May 2020 compared to last year.
Entering the pandemic, about 30% of footwear sales were generated online, but the shutdown of physical stores revved up online sales, according to NPD. While the growth hasn’t compensated for in-store losses, almost two-thirds of footwear sales were generated online in April. Though this ratio was reduced in May as stores reopened, many consumers won’t be rushing back to stores and won’t unlearn newly adopted online shopping behavior, Powell argues.
“We can anticipate another acceleration of online purchasing to occur,” he says. “Some retail stores will not rise from the rubble, and this will drive more business to the Internet. We can expect retailers and brands with seamless e-commerce platforms to thrive, and the opposite outcome for those that don’t have appealing, user-friendly websites.”
4 Diminished seasonality
“Footwear will always have seasonal categories, but the store closures timed just as spring product was hitting the floors emphasized the consumer’s ‘buy now, wear now’ mentality. With nowhere to go, and uncertainty around when we’d go out again (and where), the seasonal footwear demand just wasn’t there,” Goldstein explains.
She expects brands and retailers to learn from that experience, focusing on seasonless, transitional options. That way, she says, “if we again find ourselves in a situation where we essentially miss a season, it won’t have such a negative sales impact or require such heavy promotional activity to move through the inventory.”
5 Brand value and societal impact
Trusted brands, as well as those who have provided aid in some way during the coronavirus crisis, will benefit moving forward, Powell predicts. According to CivicScience, brand loyalty has gone up during the pandemic. “Aggressive discounting to move inventory and additional, non-comp footwear releases are driving much of the positive results right now in the athletic space,” Powell says. “While this is unsustainable, brands will have difficulty getting customers to spend full price. Consumers may, however, be more inclined to spend more on brands with which they have a closer connection, where loyalty and shared values outweigh the monetary cost.”
Goldstein concurs, adding that social responsibility and eco-consciousness are hot footwear topics, especially among younger consumers. “We’ve moved beyond simply having eco-friendly product to creating sustainable models with lasting societal impact,” she says. “I’m often asked if sustainability will still be a concern moving forward or if the pandemic pushed that down the priority list. I think the pandemic has driven many consumers to become even more aware of how their actions impact others — and society as a whole, so I believe sustainability and cause-based programs will remain important and brands and retailers should try not to pause their efforts here.”