In the ultra-competitive sports industry, few categories are underdeveloped. But experts say fitness walking is one of them.
“It’s an untapped market,” said Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser at The NPD Group, which saw walking shoe sales jump 34% in 2021 compared to 2020, in addition to from a gain of 10% the previous year. “If someone came out and said, ‘This is the best walking shoe ever made and here’s why,’ I think we might have another shoe in the consumer’s closet.”
Like many outdoor fitness activities, participation in walking has skyrocketed during the pandemic, as Americans have taken to sidewalks and trails to get away from home and stay active while gyms are closed. .
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, approximately 115.8 million Americans (ages 6 and older) have walked at least once in 2021. “By comparison, running and jogging are around 50 million,” said said SFIA President and CEO Tom Cove. “And the biggest team sport is basketball, with 27.1 million.”
Now, as everyday life returns to a more normal routine, the question is: will walkers continue to lace up?
Cove predicts that participation growth will start to decline, but not by much, for several contributing reasons. Above all, he explained, walking is still easily accessible, affordable and can be done with friends or individually. “Also, one of the issues that people are sleeping on is the digital connection,” Cove added. “The ability to listen to a podcast while you walk is huge for people, and the ability to track your steps for health or for competition. These trends in society are very supportive of walking.
This matches the findings of a recent study by Rockport and First Insight, which surveyed more than 1,700 adults about their walking habits as offices reopen. “We were really pleased to see that 60% of professionals still plan to take one to three walking breaks per week,” said Lisa Laich, chief marketing officer at The Rockport Group. “That number was higher than I expected.”
She noted another surprising finding that 74% expressed no concern about stepping away from their desk for a walk. “I think it speaks to the changes we’re going to see in the work week,” Laich said. “The pandemic has allowed us all to embrace some degree of flexibility, and we’re really seeing that more pronounced among the Gen Z and millennial age groups.”
With such prospects for walking, why aren’t there more shoe brands focusing on this activity?
Powell points to competing products. “A lot of people who walk for fitness wear running shoes because they’re much more readily available and they look a bit more stylish,” he said. As a result, some of the major sports players are largely ignoring the category, citing a lack of demand.
However, those who have established a strong position in the market find success. NPD found that the #1 walking shoe brand in the United States is Skechers, followed by Ryka, New Balance, Easy Spirit and Propet.
Skechers has invested heavily in the category. This year, she launched a new fitness walking collection with campaigns featuring Brooke Burke and NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter. That helped push the company’s first-quarter revenue up 27% to a quarterly record $1.82 billion.
For Rockport, the brand responded to the recent boom by first re-releasing its iconic ProWalker 9000 shoe for men last year, then last month by launching the ProWalker Next sneaker for women. “It’s a great example of listening to the consumer, seeing where the consumer is in their mindset, and using Rockport’s expertise to develop a next-generation walking shoe,” said Laich. .
In terms of demographics, the march continues to lean heavily toward women — participation was 56% women compared to 44% men in 2020, according to SFIA — and for Powell, that represents an opportunity. “Brands are all saying, ‘we’re going to take on women’s business.’ Well, she buys walking shoes, so if you’re really thinking about doing women’s business, you should probably think about walking,” he said.
But the perception that walking is only for the elderly no longer holds. For 2020, SFIA found that adult participation was fairly evenly distributed. For example, 25-34 year olds accounted for 14.9% of total walkers, while the 65+ cohort accounted for 16.9%.
Cove noted that those percentages could change if young athletes choose to return to gyms for more varied fitness experiences. “But overall the numbers here are still huge,” he said.