Many years ago, Eddie Johnson, owner of the four-unit A Snail’s Pace running store chain, carried sandals in his Orange County, California, shops.
“Adidas used to have a recovery sandal. Remember those?” Johnson asks whimsically.
But Johnson’s foray into sandals was short lived and he ditched the category. Running shoes gave him enough to worry about, he reasoned.
Ever the reflective owner, however, Johnson kept his eye on the category. In more recent years, he noticed the rise of compelling product and accelerating consumer interest. He also saw the potential of add-on sales and the ability to service customers, runners and non-runners alike, in need of footwear solutions.
So, Johnson began restocking sandals at A Snail’s Pace, offering options from Hoka One, OOFOS, Spenco and Superfeet. Last year, A Snail’s Pace sold 750 pairs of sandals, a sliver of overall revenue, Johnson acknowledges, but a still-healthy addition to his bottom line.
“Having the option for consumers to purchase something from us that’s beneficial to them is absolutely worth it, especially given the favorable margins and the flexibility of the companies given the growth of the category,” Johnson says.
Small, But on the Rise
Sandals have become a growing, albeit still small, piece of the run specialty pie in recent years – and not just for operators in warm-weather climates like Johnson. In the last 12 months ending March 2019, sandal sales in U.S. run specialty grew 6.5 percent, according to NPD’s Retail Tracking Service.
While some operators hesitate to stock sandals, feeling the category pulls them away from their focus on running footwear or delivers ultimately problematic seasonal product, others have invested in sandals, turning to brands like OOFOS, Spenco, Superfeet and others for favorable-margin product that can drive incremental sales and help shops service customers beyond their 30-60 minute daily run.
And that’s important, Superfeet director of product and innovation Matt Gooch says, as consumers shift “to a broader sense of holistic wellness” and increasingly place a heightened focus on out-of-activity routines.
“Active recovery [and] self-care has become a booming product category to support an active lifestyle,” Gooch says.
While some sandal brands share a story built around plush cushioning and others tout support or their post-workout recovery credentials, OOFOS head of field marketing Darren Brown says the sandal category is “more purposeful” than ever before.
“And that’s what’s driving the category’s growth,” Brown says. “Sandals are not just something to let the foot breathe, but are helping people fight back against common injuries.”
Knee pain, heel pain, plantar fasciitis and various other ailments befalling the American public can be addressed with a supportive sandal constructed with many of the same concepts present in performance running shoes, Spenco Footwear national sales manager Len Chatwin contends.
“Putting supportive sandals by the bed and avoiding going barefoot may seem simple, but doing it consistently can keep people on the road or trails,” Chatwin says.
As running shops across the U.S. increasingly investigate sandals as an addition to their inventory mix, here’s a look at how shops can gain ground in the growing category.
No. 1: Encourage a Trial
Savvy retailers are inviting customers to experience the product for themselves. Some stores like A Snail’s Pace invite customers to slide on sandals as they walk to the foot scanner or treadmill. Others like Fleet Feet Chicago encourage customers to try on sandals as staff venture to the stockroom to retrieve running shoes.
“Give them the experience first and foremost and then leave the decision up to them,” Brown says.
As a practical measure, Marisa Hird, who runs outreach, marketing and store merchandising at Naperville Running Company in suburban Chicago, suggests inviting a sandal trial early in the sit-and-fit footwear process. This, she says, allows customers to experience the feel and benefits of sandals before they’ve committed to a $120 pair of running shoes and balk at the additional investment.
No. 2: Leverage Options
Running store employees don’t bring out one shoe and say, “Do you like it?” Rather, they bring out an assortment of options and ask questions to gather a deeper understanding of what’s resonating with the customer to propel the sale.
So it can be with sandals as well. Having customers try on different options against one another – something more supportive against something more plush, for instance – and asking them which one they like more and which qualities impress is a path that “generally leads to more sales,” Superfeet VP–U.S. sales Mike Houser says.
No. 3: Listen for Cues
“Many of the customers at run specialty are looking for healthier options when getting fitted for walking or running gear,” Spenco’s Chatwin reminds, which is precisely why staff should be listening intently to customers and prepared to present sandals as a helpful aide.
Fleet Feet Chicago floor manager Johanna Iwanicki identifies opportunities to introduce sandals as a thoughtful solution, such as when a customer is suffering from plantar fasciitis or could benefit from wearing a supportive sandal at home rather than walking around barefoot.
The same goes for Hird at Naperville Running, where she asks ailment-battling customers what they’re wearing when they’re not in their running shoes.
“Just like we’d introduce a roller, insert or brace, the sandals are also in the mix as a recovery tool,” she says.
No. 4: Make Sandals Visible
At the Naperville Running Company, sandals sit front and center, especially during the warmer months.
“Every customer pretty much walks right by them as they’re trying shoes on,” Hird says.
Rather than having a sandal sample on the shoe wall and product in backstock, as it did in the past, Fleet Feet Chicago now displays sandals on its showroom floor.
“Sandals are now more impulsive in regards to the customer shopping habit and can be shopped casually instead of feeling that they need to go through a fit process,” Fleet Feet Chicago director of merchandise Catherine Moloznik says.
No. 5: Manage Inventory Wisely
Understandably, retailers might be hesitant to bring in more than one or two sandal SKUs – or even any sandals at all – given the challenges of inventory control. Carrying a new category, after all, represents an investment of money, time and space.
Johnson has been ultra-intentional about taking feedback on sandals from staff and customers and digging into sales data at A Snail’s Pace, especially as sandal brands release more styles and colors.
“Just like footwear, you need to carefully pick and choose,” he says.