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Making things waterproof has been big business for Newark, Del.-based W.L. Gore & Associates, which works with apparel, outerwear and even architectural fabrics.
But recently, Gore has made footwear its focus, aggressively expanding from rugged outdoor footwear into new categories. To do it, the company has partnered not only with the brands it supplies (including The North Face, Nike, New Balance, Ecco, Merrell and Salomon) but with the entire manufacturing chain — and it is seeking to bring its partnership model to more retailers, factories and brands.
“Footwear is a long-term business for Gore,” said Matthew Schreiner, global footwear specialist for the company. “We’ve had fairly steady growth focusing on ‘obvious value’ categories, such as backpacking and hunting. [But] we came to realize that there were more [categories], and that we could expand beyond purely rugged.”
Although Gore declined to reveal how much footwear represents of its $2.5 billion-a-year business, Schreiner called the initiative “well-established and growing,” with double-digit growth globally in the segment over the last five years.
Schreiner dates the beginning of Gore’s ballooning interest in footwear to the development six years ago of Gore-Tex XCR, a more breathable membrane that has since evolved into Gore-Tex Extended Comfort. The development of XCR, Schreiner said, coincided with the explosion of outdoor companies getting into multisport and trail-running shoes. “The industy started to expand into lighter, faster footwear, blending athletic technology and design cues with what has been heavy, rugged footwear,” he said. The applicability of XCR to the new styles (footwear for athletics needs extra breathability to deal with sweat) gave the company new avenues to explore.
And the sustained interest in trail running has led Gore to one of its new areas of growth over the past few seasons: running. “We offer a simple formula,” Schreiner said, “adding element protection and climate comfort to a category that [has been] focused almost exclusively on the technology underfoot. We want to add a whole new dimension to that category.”
Partnering with outdoor clients, as well as running specialists including Nike, New Balance and Asics, has helped transition Gore-Tex from trail running to road running, Schreiner said. But while there are similarities between the two categories, he added, there are new challenges, too. It’s important, for one, to make sure the Gore-Tex membrane between the shoe’s interior lining and exterior shell doesn’t change the overall feel of the shoe. “Runners are extremely finnicky about fit,” Schreiner said. “We have to be sure that adapting a shoe for the Gore-Tex lining doesn’t change the fit, especially for franchise shoes.”
Adding weight is another concern for ounce-obsessed runners, so the membrane needs to be highly breathable while not interfering with the shoe’s biomechanics.
But it’s not just about running. Gore also is pursuing opportunities in the casual travel footwear market. “People always associate us with an activity. [So we asked ourselves], how do you bring an activity to casual lifestyle?” Schreiner said. The burgeoning “adventure travel” category, which fuses brown shoe looks with outdoor performance features, was an obvious choice.
While Gore already has contacts in the brown shoe world, with clients including Clarks and Ecco, the market has its own set of challenges. “The casual category has a lot more finishing involved, so we have to make sure our construction approach adapts to that,” he said. “You want a shoe in which you can incorporate the Gore-Tex technology without affecting the look of the shoe and without constraining leather or component construction.”
A key aspect of the footwear expansion is Gore’s strategy of partnering with not just brands but factories and retailers. “We participate through every aspect of the line,” Schreiner said. Gore starts by developing campaigns years before the product launch to gauge consumer perception and create awareness through line plans and in-factory teams, and offers in-store support when the product launches.
Retail, in fact, is a particular focus. “We don’t have the luxury of having a visible technology,” Schreiner said. “So we really have to rely on how that product is merchandised.” Seeding product to employees, buying regional ads, posting in-store displays and hosting in-store events are all tactics designed to convince shoppers that spending $15 to $25 more for a technology they can’t see is worth it. “For retailers, in these tough times, it is an advantage,” Schreiner said. “They have a fixed cost bringing a customer in the door. This is trading up for the retailer.”
Chris Speak, brand manager for outdoor brand Vasque, praised his partnership with Gore, citing in particular the “in-store promotions, advertising, events, employee training and product development.”
According to Jessica Vassall, integrated marketing associate for New Balance, Gore’s assistance in developing a co-branded, consumer marketing campaign (New Balance’s largest to date in the outdoor world) was essential in the March launch of its 1520 multisport shoe. “The added incentive [of the ads and in-store support] is key. For a $130 shoe in this economy, it definitely helps,” she said.
Even as Gore explores its new focuses here in the U.S., it also is working around the world to open new markets. Promoting the burgeoning trail running category in Europe is a priority, Schreiner said — so Gore has been talking with brands and hosting a running course for the third year at the OutDoor trade show in Freidrichshafen, Germany.
Gore is eyeing expansion elsewhere as well, targeting Eastern Europe and Asia, particularly China and Korea, as areas that are ripe for future growth. In the new markets, Schreiner explained, the company will follow the patterns it has established at home. “We’ve opened up some local partners, and it’ll be the same [strategy] there: We’ll work through the value chain, starting with the consumer and working backward.”