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In footwear mart, sneakers sprint ahead

A transition in consumer behaviour is driving up sales of casual footwear. Many retailers and sportswear brands are doubling down on the category given the broad consumer interest in the product. (Photo: Mint)Premium
A transition in consumer behaviour is driving up sales of casual footwear. Many retailers and sportswear brands are doubling down on the category given the broad consumer interest in the product. (Photo: Mint)

  • What the surge in demand for trainers tells us about India’s booming casual-wear market
  • The sales of sneakers are going through the roof. Retailers and sportswear brands find that consumers want to spend more on trainers, which are now seen as a fashion accessory.

NEW DELHI : How far can a good pair of sneakers take you? Well, almost everywhere—bars, coffee shops, workplaces, malls and vacations. You can spot a pair of white or chunky trainers at any number of social occasions or Insta stories, styled with a pair of denims or a dress or even a sari. They have even got people talking about the yet-to-take-off Akasa Air—India’s newest low-cost carrier revealed its uniform last month and, as it turns out, its cabin crew have chucked high heels for the comfort of orange-and-black sneakers.

For 26-year-old Siddhant Shah, a New Delhi-based product manager, though, sneakers are not just about comfort— they are “a mark of individuality". Last year, he spent 36,000 on a pair of a chunky Ambush x Nike sneakers—his most pricey pair. Between him and his partner, they own about 40 pairs of sneakers right from a “few pairs" of Nike’s Air Jordan, the iconic shoe that finds its origins in American basketball (and costs between 10,000 and 16,000) to a more colourful pair from the Asics-Sean Wotherspoon collection at 8,500.

Shah represents a transition in consumer behaviour that is driving up sales of casual footwear. Most retailers and sportswear brands Mint spoke to reported a strong growth in sneaker sales over the past year. Many are doubling down on the category given the broad consumer interest in the product.

During online fashion retailer Myntra’s recently concluded flagship sale, sports footwear remained one of the top trending categories. Jubi Samuel, senior director, category management, Myntra, explained that, increasingly, shoppers on its platform are opting for chunky styles and multi-colour shoes for office and workout purposes as well as casual outings. Brands such as Puma, Nike, Adidas, HRX, Skechers, USPA, are among the top-selling sneaker brands on Myntra. Between July 2020 and now, Myntra reported a 120% growth in demand for casual footwear including sneakers; demand was especially strong in the mass premium and premium segments.

“Things are opening up, people are stepping out more frequently, preparing to go back to the office, or participating in social gatherings. But after two years of rebuilding their fitness regime, there is a perceptible shift in the lifestyle of shoppers. And so, the demand for sneakers has further accelerated this year," said Samuel.

Globally, sneakers are seen as a fashion accessory (and not just athlete-wear). That trend has travelled to India, confirms Abhishek Ganguly, managing director at sportswear retailer Puma (India and Southeast Asia). “There is a clear casualization (of shopping choices) and I think this is an irreversible change," he said. Consumers aren’t content with owning a single, all-purpose pair of running shoes, said Ganguly, but are choosing a range of products. “The share of sneakers as a share of footwear owned by consumers is growing," he said. And so, across every style, price point and retail channel, they are selling more, he said. Puma draws 55% of its sales from footwear in India; the category grew the fastest for the retailer in 2021. Even mass-market brands like Bata are jogging up the ‘sneaker’ track.

Chilling is chic

The growing demand for sneakers ties into the broader trend of “casualization" of fashion—the demand for casual, fuss-free comfortable apparel and footwear—that refuses to abate despite the return to offices and a social life.

Simply put, two years of pandemic living have killed all appetite for suffering for the sake of style. The shift to joggers, tank tops and white sneakers—fashion trends loosely termed as streetwear or athleisure, as well as a general trend of dressing down—is now outliving the last two years, drawing consumers to believe that comfort is indeed cool. Retailers have caught on and are fast building and inventory of such styles. Pallavi Barman, business head, at HRX, the fitness brand backed by Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan and Exceed Entertainment, said that post the pandemic, the loungewear look is a way of life for a lot of Gen Z and even millennial consumers—broadly those aged between 18 and 40.

As a result, several formal clothing companies have made the foray into loungewear, casual t-shirts, joggers, etc. In its FY21 annual report, India’s top branded apparel retailer Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL), which sells formal wear under brands such as Peter England, Forever 21 and Van Heusen, pointed to the trend of active wear and athleisure becoming more mainstream. The company has also actively tapped into the casual clothing trend.

In December last year, ABFRL acquired distribution rights for sportswear brand Reebok in India and in Southeast Asia, marking its foray into the fast-growing sports and active-wear segment. In 2016, it launched athleisure under its Van Heusen brand.

In 2021, management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group had predicted that the consumer wardrobe will continue to move towards more casual wear with a greater focus on athleisure.

BCG attributed this to a large youth population, along with a general propensity towards healthier lifestyles and engagement with activities related to fitness. The growth in this category will continue long after the impact of the pandemic recedes and hence it’s a permanent shift, the consulting firm said. Categories like athleisure are expected to grow 20-25% over the next 4-5 years, it added.

“We believe that casual (apparel and footwear) as a segment will grow much faster than overall apparel and significantly faster than formal. Casual is expected to grow about one-and-a-half times that of formal in the coming years," said Namit Puri, managing partner and director, BCG India. By 2025, men’s and women’s casual-wear market in India is expected to touch $15 billion up from $7.7 billion in 2020, say industry estimates.

Even within footwear, the casual segment has seen as accelerated growth. Puri reckons that while the overall footwear segment was growing at about 11% pre-pandemic, casual footwear was growing north of 15%. Post-pandemic that number has just “exploded", a trend Puri expects will continue. “If you look at the occasions on which casual footwear is worn, those far outnumber formal events," he said.

That doesn’t mean goodbye to six-inch heels. Puri said the demand for formal footwear won’t exactly dwindle—it will just grow slower than casual footwear.

From luxe to mass-market

Globally, too, sneaker culture has shed its plebeian cred, with some of the world’s biggest celebrities and luxury goods brands making them a core part of their look and collections. A 2018 report by Reuters pointed to a growing interest by luxury good sellers such as Gucci, Prada and Balenciaga in launching pricey sneakers.

This has led to some high-profile collaborations between luxury labels and sportswear brands.

Last month, Adidas and Gucci “dropped" pieces from their collaboration —a take on “sartorial streetwear" with a “spectrum of sport-inspired pieces" such as jackets, bags and sneakers.

On 7 June, Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh posted looks featuring bags, sneakers and jackets from the latest collection on his Instagram handle, drawing thousands of likes and comments.

Closer home, celebrities such as Virat Kohli, Diljit Dosanjh, and Ananya Pandey routinely sport chunky sneakers and loose fits. These social media trends have clearly trickled down.

Comfort is becoming far more prominent in addition to style and when celebrities do it, that just fuels the whole trend, said Devarajan Iyer, vice president, marketing, at retail chain Lifestyle International.

Iyer explains that while the casual footwear category was growing even before covid, the quantum of growth has jumped significantly post the pandemic while demand for formal shoes petered out.

India’s overall footwear market fell significantly in the aftermath of the pandemic—from an estimated 79,900 crore in 2019 to 53,300 crore in 2020, according to estimates by Euromonitor. Meanwhile, demand for sports footwear fell 28% in the same period; before growing 10% between 2020 and 2021.

“During the pandemic, consumers shopped for a lot of athleisure and casual wear for home workouts, etc. Then they realized it was very, very comfortable. They are now stepping outside to bars and coffee shops sporting such looks. Consumers are lapping it up; companies like us are creating more options," said Iyer. Lifestyle is doubling down on its collection of sneakers.

Amazon said millennials and Gen Zs, who make up the majority of the customer base for these categories, are largely influenced by latest trends, social media preferences and are widely exposed to fashion content across platforms on a daily basis. “Both athleisure wear and comfort footwear like sneakers have found a special place in consumer’s wardrobes," said Saurabh Srivastava, director and head, Amazon Fashion India.

The retailer sells sneakers and casual footwear starting at 199 and running up to 20,000. “We have several popular brands like Adidas, Puma and Campus, as well as high-end brands like Hoka, Brooks and Saucony for fitness enthusiasts," he said.

Mass-market brands are capitalizing on the trend too.

Bata, the country’s largest footwear retailer, has found success in focussing on what the company’s chief executive officer calls “casualization" of the footwear market. “The longer-term trend that we see is something that I call casualization and sneakerization. And that’s been a big thrust area for us," said Gunjan Shah, MD and CEO, Bata India in an earlier interview with Mint.

For Bata, this means adding a wider collection of such styles. “We’ve revamped a lot of our casual portfolio. We also launched something called sneaker studio, we have launched some merchandise along with it; we have almost 300 sneaker styles across nine brands, catering to various usage, from lifestyle, casual, outdoor to walking, running, etc, and across price points," he added.

Casual footwear is now almost 50% of Bata’s sales; one of the largest segments within that is sneakers, about 20% of the casual footwear segment.

Find your sole-mate

Top retailers aside, a sub-culture has been growing in parallel among sneakerheads in the country. In the thick of this trend are 20-something entrepreneurs fuelling the demand for exclusive and prized sneakers. These include multi-brand retail stores such as Mainstreet Marketplace and Superkicks. The former is a resale store that sells exclusive kicks from Yeezy, Jordans, Adidas and Nike, apart from high-end clothing.

Sangeet Paryani, founder of Superkicks, a multi-brand store that sells sneakers and apparel, said the chain has reported a steady demand for trainers since 2018, when its first store opened. “However, there was a sudden shift that was observed from 2020 onwards, primarily from the time when the lockdown hit us," said Paryani.

The demand for sneakers like Air Jordan’s, Nike Air Force, Adidas Originals, which retail anywhere between 7,000 and upwards of 20,000, is spiralling.

He attributed this shift to growing awareness among its target audience via social media. “This is where people discovered what was happening in the footwear space on a global scale. They had enough free time being confined to their homes to explore various styles and silhouettes, thus leading to an increase in demand," he said.

Most retailers Mint spoke to said the trend is here to stay. Puma’s Ganguly is betting on greater penetration of the category, driven by growth in online commerce. HRX’s Barman said the brand is hoping to draw half its sales from footwear over the next few years, up from the current 40%.

Shah—who also occasionally re-sells sneakers he purchases from brands—reckons the trend is unlikely to die down anytime soon. The sneaker community has only thrived post-covid with more and more enthusiasts emerging from smaller cities, he said.

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