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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Work Shoe Makers Woo Women Via Fashion, Style

In an effort to meet the demand of women working in construction, sanitation, and other physical jobs, several professional and safety shoe manufacturers are producing women’s footwear shoes to satisfy the rapidly growing market.

One manufacturer, Jallette Inc., Ivyland, Pa., has gone as far as adding a line of fashionable women’s safety shoes in an array of colors and styles.

Overall, the consensus of the work and safety market by manufacturers is business is improving, sales are increasing, and they are optimistic again about the future growth of the market. Although they reported heavy industry is declining, the high-tech element of the production is increasing.

Last year, a majority of manufacturers polled by FN revealed fashion had become part of the market; not only were blue-collar workers wearing the footwear, but it also was considered a “fad’ outside of the specialty market.
Fashion continues to be a factor in the work shoe market, and some manufacturers who do not want to miss out on the new market are becoming more fashionable by adding touches of style and color to their lines.

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Style and Function

Titan Industrial Footwear, a division of Walker Shoe Co., Asheboro, N.C., is doing just that. The company has added different looks, padded collars and various stylish features to its line of shoes, noted Dan Saylor, president. He added, “We are a lot more stylish than we were five years ago.’

Sheboygan Footwear Inc., Sheboygan, Wis., “may be stylish in the functional styles,’ according to Palmer Beebe, the general manager. Beebe explained the firm is trying to produce what is performing well– lightweight safety shoes.
Weinbrenner Shoe Co., Merrill, Wis., said its focus is not on fashion but the American working men in the mills and on farms.

For the past few years, the market has seen its ups as well as its downs. Now things are finally looking up for producers and the general market, sales have increased, and companies have added new and updated styles, sources said.

“Our sales are up 10-15 percent this year,’ said Rick Sherwin, executive vice president, Dunham Shoes, Brattleboro, Vt. The firm is expanding its waterproof leather program with three to four new styles in insulated and non-insulated materials. “We continue to expand our toe safety program, and we are sticking with primary active made-in-the-U.S.A. products.’

Safety Stabilization

Saylor of Titan Industrial contended the market is holding its own over last year, but “the heavy industry is down due to too many layoffs in the steel industry.’ Now, he said, “there is a stabilization in the safety shoes because people are becoming more conscious of the lighter types of safety shoes. Our company has been doing excellent; we are optimistic and are looking for a very good ’88. Sales are up for ’87 and are showing an increase for ’88.’ The firm has featured several new styles in its catalog, ultra-light and comfort-oriented safety shoes.

“Business is booming, and sales have been holding about level,’ said Bill Ison, vice president of sales, Musebeck Shoe Co., Oconomoc, Wis. “Overall, it has been beyond our expectation for the year,’ and “I have been hearing more and more about companies who have been getting loaded up with business.’ He revealed both of the company’s plants have been running overtime, and the demand is outstripping production.

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Market is “Healthier’

“The market is healthier,’ noted Beebe. “I don’t know whether it’s more people working, but the phones at Sheboygan Footwear are ringing more.’ He said business is very healthy, and interest is focused more on outdoor safety, functional type footwear. Beebe would not disclose sales figures, but said sales are up significantly. He revealed the company has consolidated and is doing some great rubber bottoms. “We are trying to take the things we do well (safety shoes) and concentrate on that.’

Eric Merk, president, and owner of Danner Boot Co., Portland, Ore., saw a 23 percent increase this year on highly technological products. He said Danner’s Gortex work boots are doing very well, and the company has added a 10-inch boot for people in the armed services and a Gortex Oxford for post office workers.

Steve Kellman, vice president of marketing, Weinbrenner Shoe Co., Merrill, Wis., said that firm is optimistic about the market and has seen an increase in its customer base. “Safety is a vital part of our business, and we have developed some lighter weight work boots, using nonmetallic protective toe and new space age material,’ said Kellman.

Color, Lightness

Weinbrenner’s business is quite good, and sales are up, according to Kellman. The company has added polyurethane soles and nonmetallic caps as new features to its line.

“Our sales are up 15 percent this year,’ noted June Abbott, manager of Jallatte Inc., Ivyland, Pa. The firm has introduced ladies’ fashion shoes for women in a new sole technology.

With the increase of women in the workplace, there are not just more females in managerial positions; some now are climbing ladders, digging ditches and building houses. Sources said women used to complain that the safety shoes they were forced to wear were not very becoming or attractive; so to allow them to look more “feminine,’ Jallette Inc. added its version of colorful, lightweight, comfortable, feminine-styled and general-purpose women’s safety shoes.
“Women like to look good, regardless of what their job is,’ explained Abbott, so the firm introduced fashion shoes for women who want “style.’ Jallette is among a growing list of work shoe manufacturers producing safety shoes for women.

“There is a demand for women’s safety shoes,’ said Musebeck’s Ison. “We do some women’s shoes, but we have a major problem with it because of the way we make shoes. We make nine different widths but due to the character of our last, we don’t have the correct safety to meet the last correctly. Since the demand is so high, we have to find strong resource to supply us with the toe.’

Sherwin of Dunham agreed: “There is a definite need in the market. It’s practical, and the demand for both the consumer and retailer is right. The women’s category is just starting to grow with us, but in the boot category.’

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