Merrell rides wave of outdoor activity

Wolverine Worldwide footwear brand doubles down on hiking, running and lifestyle shoes and boots.
Merrell’s slippers segment, which includes the Hydro Moc (above), is benefitting from people staying at home during the pandemic. Courtesy of Merrell

With the great outdoors deemed a safe space now more than ever due to the pandemic, the Merrell footwear brand is seizing the opportunity to connect with new customers and increase its sales.

Chris Hufnagel, global brand president of the Wolverine Worldwide outdoor footwear brand Merrell, said this month Merrell is looking to capitalize on a “tailwind” provided by the rise of outdoor activities in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chris Hufnagel

Wolverine Worldwide on Nov. 5 reported financial results for the third quarter ending Sept. 26. Reported revenue for the company was $493.1 million, down 14.1% versus the prior year, although Wolverine chair and CEO Blake Krueger said the company’s work, lifestyle and outdoor brands helped improve its financials over Q2.

“The company’s third quarter results significantly exceeded our expectations, reaffirming the inherent strength of our portfolio and strong brand positioning in winning product categories and distribution channels,” Krueger said.

“Saucony and Chaco delivered double-digit revenue growth in the quarter compared to the prior year, while Merrell and our work brands drove meaningful sequential revenue improvement versus Q2.”

Hufnagel said Merrell has focused on “the simple power of being outside” for four decades, but the brand is now facing an opportunity to make greater inroads with diverse demographics as people start to see the outdoors as a safe way to connect and stay healthy amid a global viral crisis.

In particular, Merrell is focusing on forging “scalable, visible and differentiated” brand partnerships to create more equitable access to outdoor spaces for all, with a focus on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

“We don’t want the outdoors to be an exclusive space, and we want the trail to be welcoming to all again, no matter who you are, where you came from, who you love or how you move — we just want people to get outside, and we don’t want barriers to that,” Hufnagel said.

Merrell is taking both internal and external steps to increase its DEI, from creating a social accountability taskforce to explore the ways the brand can build a more diverse and inclusive team, to building a more diverse supply chain, to partnering with marketing firms and agencies that help it amplify diverse voices in its messaging and marketing, so that people of all backgrounds and ethnicities feel that Merrell products are for them.

“We’ve got a responsibility to help transform outdoor spaces to make them more welcoming as one of the leaders in the outdoor industry,” Hufnagel said. “We take the responsibility seriously. … I’m lucky to work for a team that cares so deeply about that, and I’m really proud of the work that we’ve accomplished. At the same time, our eyes are wide open that we have a lot more work to do, and we’re working hard to do (it).”

As part of its justice and DEI efforts, the brand also is exploring a strategy for providing more varied price points in order to be conscious of financial barriers that new outdoor consumers may have.

Merrell cited several studies showing the outdoors is “having a moment.” A U.S. survey conducted in May 2020 by public relations firm CGPR showed 20% of consumers are spending more time outside since the onset of COVID-19, including those new to the outdoors. A McKinsey study found 90% of those who are new to the outdoors plan to continue their outside activity once the virus subsides. A survey by the global marketing services firm LRW found hiking is up 15%, and running is up 17%. Google’s U.S. Community Mobility Report showed visits to national parks and small, local public parks were up 68% in mid-June.

Hufnagel said these statistics are reflected in the consistent performance of its classic hiking boot franchise, Moab, which the company is expanding in 2021 with “newer, lighter, faster, more athletic styles.”

With the Northern Hemisphere heading into colder weather, Merrell said it is ready with outdoor winter boots that have thermal and waterproof features but also are made with fashion trends in mind. Case in point: the female-focused Bravada Knit Polar boot. Earlier Bravada models were designed as “a sneaker meets a hiking shoe.” The new Bravada boot is meant to perform like an athletic shoe while offering the warmth and waterproofing of a woman’s winter boot, with a designer look.

“As we design footwear, we pay a lot of attention to what’s happening from an apparel standpoint — ‘What silhouettes is she wearing?’ and ‘How do we pair products back to whatever’s in fashion right now?’ And certainly, we’re seeing a very strong athletic/athleisure trend, whatever you want to call it. We look to that for inspiration, and then design shoes that … help solve her fashion problems and help solve her performance issues.”

While Merrell still heavily targets customers who can be described as “experience seekers,” Hufnagel added the brand also is aware of the shift back toward home life. On the lifestyle end of things, Merrell is going deeper into its slip-on shoe category. It is seeing renewed interest in its existing Jungle Moc and Hydro Moc shoes, and it also is launching a new house shoe, the Hut Moc.

“It’s easy on, easy off, super comfortable, super lightweight, good enough to wear around the house, sitting by the fire or to go walk your dog or get the mail or even to go get a cup of coffee. We call it a ‘two-mile shoe’; it’s sturdy enough to go do those things, and at the same time, it’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon,” Hufnagel said.

“In the face of the pandemic, with people working from home, the isolation, the quarantining, the social distancing, with a lot of places being shut down … we think slippers are going to have probably one of the best seasons ever, and we’re really excited that we’ve got great products to capitalize on that.”

Hufnagel said he hopes consumers will take Merrell up on its challenge to “hike your turf” on Nov. 17, which is National Take a Hike Day.

“You don’t need to go on vacation or go on a big trip to the mountains to get outside. You can literally just walk around your neighborhood or go to a local park. You can do it safely in the COVID era. What it does for your physical and mental health — we think it’s very powerful.”

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