photo via Jordan Brand
It should be noted that as a sneaker site ARCH probably has more relevant articles regarding women’s sportswear than any sneaker site in the world. The reason for this is because I owned a sneaker shop. It was a digital sneaker shop with a physical location for shipping and receiving, but my daily interaction took me throughout the south visiting stores in small towns as well as malls in bigger cities. For over ten years in sneakers I’ve witnessed an interesting trend that is completely counter to the current emphasis being placed on women by sports brands. Women’s sportswear was trending down. Which leads me to place a tempered outlook on the deep investment in women. I italicized down because items were selling, but with my data and research in building out one of the largest Amazon stores for sneakers in the resell arena I know that there have always been enough products available, but in the resell arena women’s sales were anemic. When I say resell/resale I’m not talking the sell of hyped or limited release sneakers. My store was founded on every aspect of footwear, women’s, kids and men’s as well as retro and hyped shoes. I had a digital wall as diverse as Foot Locker and over the years that digital wall for women shrank at the same rate that Foot Locker eventually shrank Lady Foot Locker.
There are a few issues with placing a heavy emphasis on women’s footwear. This is why the title of this post has quotes around RISE. Jordan Brand and Nike are getting considerable coverage of their decision to focus on women’s sizes and sportswear. Under Armour and adidas are battling smaller brands like Lululemon which waltzed in and took market share away from the larger companies. Victoria’s Secret is basically undercutting the entire industry with that little dog logo that’s popping up everywhere and it appears that everyone has overlooked one considerable aspect in the RISE of women’s wear:
What Happened to Lady Foot Locker?
As I stated above my digital store carried a lot of styles. I can look into my digital inventory (I never deleted items that sold so everything is there for years.) and out of over 5000 items listed there only 195 items are women specific shoes or apparel. (Click the image to enlarge)
195 out of 5000 is 3.9% women’s products. Using a micro to macro analysis and focusing on Memphis, about three years ago there were two contractions. I witnessed one and I was a part of the other. Memphis had two Lady Foot Locker locations, Raleigh Springs Mall – this mall has been torn down, and Oak Court Mall – the Lady Foot Locker was closed and combined with the Foot Locker. There is a small section at the back of the store for women’s shoes. Lady Foot Locker was shut down around 2014 and it made sense. The stores underperformed. Foot Locker understood this and at the same time they began to focus on another brand for women, SIX:02. There are 32 locations across the US for this branch of stores. If women’s footwear and sportswear has always been overlooked as many media outlets are stating, then why did the Lady Foot Locker locations close? I was a part of another contraction within Okun’s Shoe Stores. This small chain was bought out by Jimmy Jazz in 2015. There were 7 stores and Okun’s investment in women’s footwear actually disrupted their growth. The small chain hit 7 stores and in 2013 they closed two locations and then they had to begin liquidating women’s footwear and by 2014 they had stopped selling women’s shoes altogether.
If Lady Foot Locker and Okun’s contracted there obviously was a focus on women’s footwear, but it didn’t work. Which is why every brand increasing their focus on women’s sportswear is a bit of a red herring. Women have always been buying workout gear. It has always been readily abundant at a ton of locations. This “push” is really about marketing. Have the brands begun to utilize footwear lasts designed for women? Probably, but they have always sized accordingly. The last may have been smaller versions of lasts designed around men’s footwear, but I don’t think so and honestly the same lasts produced Billie Jean King, Flo-Jo, and Jackie Joyner from the 70s to the 90s. In other words women were kicking ass and performing extraordinary feats of athleticism. I mean Cheryl Miller scored 100 points and so did Lisa Leslie in high school in shoes “designed” on men’s lasts. I don’t say this to belittle the design of women’s footwear, I say this to stress that footwear design hasn’t been limiting the sale of women’s footwear. The reason Lady Foot Locker and Okun’s both contracted women’s sportswear was for one reason.
Women Have Patience
Women are smarter shoppers. Women’s sportswear and footwear has always sold. It just sold at Marshalls and Kohls. The reason I had such a limited offering in women’s footwear on Amazon was because the average price of shoes sold to women was much smaller than on men’s footwear. Women would wait for items to be discounted. There could be a number of reasons for this, but the biggest reason is that women weren’t wearing fitness as fashion. Fitness was/is functional and an item designed this year performs just as well six months later on sale. Women waited until the prices dropped, or at least I thought this way. That is until I and other sellers witnessed a trend in sneaker sales. (I know these inventory pictures are hard to see so click on them to make them larger.) A lot of the order’s on my Amazon store were from women especially on sneakers considered hot/hyped sneaker releases.
I’ve argued over and over that the idea of sneakerheads has to shift. I’ve written at analysts who are quoted in every footwear publication about the sneakerhead community NOT being an echo chamber and that what happens in the sneakerhead world carries over into the commercial aspects of footwear. I stopped trying to write to explain this as it was a waste of time. I’ve begun now to compile articles explaining how and why sneakerheads are not all teenage boys trading kicks on Saturday morning. The community is far wider than just the sneaker blogs and extends to women and the Hip-Hop generation which is now 30s to 50s (Hip-Hop changed the sneaker industry). I know guys in their 50s with more kicks than kids and I know women in their 20s with more kicks than guys. Sneaker culture is so influential that it rivals athletic endorsements in influencing purchases. In other words, the initial reason for the gigantic growth in sneaker sales was because of sports and hero admiration. People wanted to “Be Like Mike”. Athletic shoes became casual shoes and people moved from wearing Sebagos to Air Force 1s. The commercial sale of athletic shoes increased because wearing a particular brand aligned you with the idea of sport and fitness. At the same time the decline in Florsheims and “dress” shoes declined as sneakers as casual became common. This is the same reason performance footwear appears to be declining which is another story.
The above picture of my inventory totals shows that 28% of my inventory was GS. Kids aren’t ordering shoes on Amazon. Their parents are of course, but what I found is that I was getting hundreds of customer service e-mails from women checking to make sure a kids size 7Y would fit a women’s size 8. This shift in ordering came with groups on Facebook and Instagram named “Chicks with Kicks” and “Lady Sneakerheads”. I mean Chicks with Kicks actually decided to enter into the reselling game. The sneakerhead community in the last 4 years is directly responsible for the rise in interest by brands, but that isn’t the only thing that created the shift. (I’m sure Foot Locker is kicking itself. Sometimes it’s all about timing.)
Casual Friday, Fitness as Casual
College enrollment numbers always swing towards women. There are more women getting educated than guys. This switch in college enrollment has created a more empowered woman. Those women are now unafraid to wear their fitness apparel out in public from the Yoga mat to the store. Casual Friday is now a place where women look just as at home in a pair of Stan Smiths and a blazer with denim as they did wearing power suits. The white sneaker isn’t just a guys closet staple anymore.
Rihanna and Puma
The final resounding shot fired from the women’s sportswear community happened with Rihanna’s success with her Fenty line under Puma.
The shift back towards the importance of women, even with all of this background information, still remains in my opinion a marketing opportunity. Brands have been invested in women’s sportswear. Is it at a bigger level? Not really. Are there more products? There were always products or there wouldn’t have been a Lady Foot Locker. Is the product better? SIGNIFICANTLY! However, this ‘RISE’ is about a shift in marketing that honestly if brands had taken the effort to reach out to women years ago via images and story telling these new “ideas” would be much ado about nothing. Let me place this in color: Black Panther is breaking box office numbers not because it’s the greatest movie ever, it’s simply the first movie to empower Blacks and inspire everyone because it’s just dope and appeals to a market that has been marginalized. 20 years ago the WNBA launched and I knew who Sheryl Swoopes was. I knew who Lisa Leslie was. I knew who Rebecca Lobo was and then over the years the marketing and storytelling subsided. Flo Jo could have been huge, but died far too young and no one has created a tribute sneaker for her. Hell she could have been the Pre for women’s running, but it didn’t happen. Serena won 23 Grand Slam titles and she still doesn’t have a signature model or any campaigns dedicated to her workouts or delivering her story in sports in a grand way. The ladies Olympic Hockey team just won a gold medal in one of the most exciting games ever and you know who celebrated them? Leslie Jones on Saturday Night Live.
I just realized I’ve changed gears in this post. The excitement needs to be tempered for women’s wear because until the same investment in long term narratives for women is generated then this will be a short lived phase. If women stop buying hyped up footwear in limited numbers things would return to the status quo. This doesn’t need to be a ‘RISE’, it needs to be consistent. In other words I need to see more when I walk in a store than some chubby boy trying to get a woman to try on a shoe at a sneaker store. I need to see touch screen monitors with videos that can be called up on YouTube showing the benefits of the shoe with a workout. I need to see more before I get excited about this ‘RISE’ or like a man who underperforms the rise will go limp.