Athletic wearers are going for style

A new generation of workers who grew up in athletic footwear and an increasing number of women in blue-collar jobs, report makers of work and safety shoes, are demanding more style in work shoes – a style that seems to be a departure from the traditional tan lace-up.

These firms increasingly are striving to incorporate givens of athletic footwear –fashion, comfort, and lightweight — into work and safety footwear that often must also continue to fulfill regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

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Demand for Steel Toes

In other words, may be stronger than ever, sources suggested.

“You’ve heard a lot about comfort in walking shoes?” said Charlie Horton, national in-stock sales manager of Carolina Shoe Co., Morgantown, N.C. “People want it in steel toes.”

Carolina introduced steel-toe athletic more than a year ago, reporting strength in high- and low-top styles for men and women. “The hottest thing on the market is athletic safety shoes,” Morton said, reporting that black shoes with pale trims are most popular.

Wolverine Brand, a division of Wolverine World Wide Inc., Rockford, Mich., has varied its design of safety shoes with hiking looks as well as athletic styles. These looks, said Ted Gedra, national sales manager, appeals to younger customers.

“These guys grew up in athletic shoes,” Gedra said. “They want something they can go out in after work. It’s been an explosive stock number for us.”

Design, emulating athletics or otherwise, also has become more of a priority as women join the workforce that wears work and safety footwear, and as OSHA expands its roster of those required to wear them, sources said.

Richland Shoe Co., Womelsdorf, Pa., is seeking to address the needs of both these groups. The company, for instance, now has a line of safety-toe shoes for women.

“We want to give them something kind of fashionable, but at the same time something that serves the purpose,” said John Lebow, sales manager.

Steve Kellman, marketing vice president of Weynbrenner Shoe Co. Inc., Merrill, Wisc., reported women’s styles have helped increase the company’s business. “Women in the workplace are growing in numbers, and they aren’t just interested in grading down in men’s shoes,” Kellman said.

Lebow continued, “Along the line of dress and casual safety shoes, we’re doing genuine handsewn loafers, which meet the OSHA requirements. Supervisors are required to wear safety shoes but want dress shoes for the office. You don’t see the cap at all.”

Athletic styling has heightened competition not only for market share; sources reported, but sourcing advantages.
“The market is very competitive,” Lebow said, reporting his company has expanded its offering with athletic styles.
C. Itoh Shoe Co., New York, has stayed out of athletics because of sourcing complexities. “We’re sticking to more staple items, but I have heard they (athletics) are doing well,” said Gary Miller, vice president of Itoh.

Dunham, Brattleboro, Vt., has considered athletics but also prefers to stick with more traditional work and safety footwear going forward. “We’ve taken a quick look at athletic styles,” said Richard Sherwin, vice president.
In the meantime, Sherwin reported, Dunham is busy filling boot orders. “We’re just keeping up with the demand,” he said. “We’ve also added a pattern or two.”

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Trend toward Wearability

Dunham, for instance, is aiming to reduce bulk in its work shoes, an advantage of athletic styles.

C. Itoh’s Miller said the trend in work and safety boots is toward comfort, lightweight, and flexibility.

Demand also is strong, Miller added, for durability and wearability. Imitation materials, therefore, are on the downswing.

“You’ve got to use the durable material in shoes,” he insisted. “They have to stand up. That’s why vinyl materials went down.”

Miller noted oiled nubucks are performing better than oiled full-grains. Waterproof materials, he said, are a must.
“A 100 percent waterproof shoe is a tremendous selling feature,” Miller said.

Carolina’s Horton said demand for various design features varies regionally. “We have well over 100 styles we carry on the floor all the time,” Horton said. “Each section of the country has a different twist of things they are looking for. We try to design these shoes to fit these needs.”

East Coast and Midwest workers who work indoors, for instance, are looking for a boot with a lower (six-inch) shaft, Horton said. On the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, where outdoor work is more abundant, workers need something higher (eight inches).

“They (in the Northwest) are looking more for an outdoor shoe,” Horton explained. “Like the logging industry, where they will want an eight-inch with lug soles and a higher heel so they can grip in. They don’t want to be slipping around with their chain saws.”

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