Golf might be going au naturel!
According to one golf insider, there is a major shift happening in a key equipment category. "Everybody is coming after the hybrid business now," David Helter, sales director for Ecco, said. "We were alone in this business for 2010 and much of 2011. The whole industry sat by and thought we were nuts and that this was going to be a flash in the pan.” According to Helter, 5 million shoes are sold each year and he believes the hybrid category will represent half of the market one day. “We think 50 percent of golfers going forward will start wearing hybrid product," he predicted.
Consumers may be ahead of the curve on this one as the PGA TOUR has been slow to adopt to the product. Ironically, though it was the TOUR, specifically Fred Couples and his validation that kick started the early cross over. Couples wore the Ecco Street model at the Masters last year, which launched the hybrid category of golf shoe into the spotlight. “Every pair we had coming into the country was for a future order. We sold out all of 2010 and the first six months of 2011,” Helter said. “The back end of 2011 we have a little bit of inventory,” he added, which speaks to the demand still present by consumers for the product. “We haven’t hit the top of the market and we still see a lot of growth in hybrids into 2012,” he added. There are plenty of good reasons for that as Helter said Ecco’s golf business is growing by triple digits, yes triple digits, since 2010. “We were first to market and clearly Fred Couples helped. I noticed Vijay Singh, who is not an Ecco staff member, was wearing the product at the Barclays last week,” he said as further validation of the product performance.
The street shoe, which is what Couples has been using, is one version that Ecco has available. The company announced at last week’s PGA Expo in Las Vegas, the addition of the BIOM Hybrid (pictured), which will arrive in limited quantities this December and expected to have widespread availability starting in January 2012. The BIOM model takes a minimalist approach. “Its truly a less is more concept,” said Helter. “We scanned 2,500 feet to determine the anatomical last to use in the BIOM. The shoe features a low profile, to keep players in contact with the ground, along with flexibility to follow the movement of the foot,” he explained.
“In 2010, when we launched the first Hybrid our bookings were low and then exploded when Couples was seen wearing it at the Masters. Our bookings for the BIOM have already surpassed our internal expectations,” he said indicating last year’s experience wit the street shoe influenced its outlook for the next generation model. The BIOM is also a play on something that is happening in the running world.
The theory is that running barefoot enables the body to move naturally and optimally, while traditional shoes inhibit that. The barefoot shoe movement caught on more widely in 2009 after Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run" explored the history and benefits of it. Last year, it gained further traction (pun intended) when Harvard biologist and runner Daniel Lieberman published a paper in the journal Nature that concluded that running barefoot produced far less impact stress compared to those who wore traditional running shoes. “We think there is validity to golf as it has to running,” Helter said.
Adidas recently announced that it’s going barefoot in its traditional business. The company introduced the Adipure, which offers it a play in what is considered to one of the fast-growing categories in the $22 billion U.S. athletic shoe industry. "People who believe barefoot is the way to go...are very emphatic about it," said Matt Powell, an analyst with industry research organization SportsOneSource Group. "They want to spread the message. It sounds religious but some of them are evangelical about it."
As Ecco was first to market with its Street Hybrid shoe, it enjoyed a competitive advantage. “No one got involved in the hybrid category until 2011,” said Helter. “We think with BIOM we might have 2012 to ourselves. Our bet is that other brands will be slow to market in the natural motion category,” he added.
Nike Inc., already has a large presence in the natural motion category in running and appears to be preparing to extend that to golf. Recently Tiger Woods wore a pair of prototype golf shoes made by Nike Golf when he played at the Bridgestone WGC event.
“It's the first time I haven't worn metal spikes, and the shoes were so much more comfortable on my feet. They allow me freedom of movement, enable me to release the power in my swing and are definitely here to stay,” he said. “This is a big step -- no pun intended -- in the right direction. These shoes can help a lot of people like me. They're so comfortable, I practically live in them.” There isn’t a timeline, yet, when Nike Golf might go to market with the line of shoes, which Helter believes brings credibility to the emerging category. “What we’re doing with BIOM is just like looking at Hybrid a few years ago.”
Ecco appears to have momentum on its side in two fronts. First the Street Hybrid shoe is gaining market share for the company in terms of units/volume but also in dollars as it’s priced at $140. The BIOM offers a possible extension first in price as it will go for $225 but also that it may also offer a step up (pun intended) to those who have already adopted the Street shoe into their repertoire. Much like a recording artist that produces a hit song, the follow up certainly enjoys a halo effect based on its predecessor. BIOM might be just that for Ecco.
In terms of Tour players wearing BIOM Hybrid, ECCO plans to share the product with its staff roster in the coming months. Graeme McDowell is said to have tested a prototype during the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and loved the shoe.