Work It Out
Brands Say the Opportunity in Women’s Work Boot Category Is Real — And the Time Is Now.
More than 70 years after women flocked to the trades during World War II, they’ve established themselves as an essential part of the growing modern work force. But the world of work boots and shoes has been slow to catch up. Despite attempts over the years, the women’s work boot business has been dominated by shrink-it-and-pink-it product that was often dumbed down and ill-fitting, if it was even something a worker could find.
As Garrett McGuire, category manager for Work at CAT Footwear, puts it, the current landscape is a little bleak: “Women are doing hard labor in industrial jobs and they have to buy men’s boots and it sucks.”
But that may be changing. Brands say that with more women pursuing careers in the trades, the market is overdue for smart, well-fitted, job-appropriate footwear that doesn’t consider women’s fit needs as an afterthought. As a global labor shortage drives more and more trades to recruit women, and online communities bring women in the field together and let their voices be heard, brands in the work space say women’s product isn’t just a service they can provide their consumers — it’s a big business opportunity.
“Society overall has made tremendous strides in viewing women in an equal way — it’s a perfect storm coming,” says Ben Ashe, director, product management for Timberland Pro.
“This is absolutely a tipping point for women and work,” agrees McGuire. “Brands have dabbled in it, but dabbling isn’t going to get the job done. For us, it’s a strategic commitment to serving the needs of women in work, and I think that’s what it’s going to take.”
Here, four work brands sound off on the opportunity in the women’s space, getting retailers on board, and what tradeswomen want.
CAT’s Clover 8-inch, $130 soft toe, $135 steel toe.
McGuire doesn’t need a lot of prompting to talk about women in the field.
“I’m particularly passionate about this,” he says. “I find women to be vastly underserved in work and I find it, frankly, unjust.”
McGuire says the numbers tell the story — and not just in the United States.
“We see women making up nine percent of construction jobs in the U.S., and it’s similar in other countries. Job sites are becoming more inclusive and more women graduate with construction management degrees now than men,” he says.
But the status quo already shows room for improvement. “Women buy 25 percent of work boots, but only three percent of the boots sold are women’s styles. [Buying men’s styles] means the fit doesn’t work, the comfort doesn’t work and they can’t find it at retail,” McGuire says.
That blank space in the market is an opportunity, he says. “For us going forward, there will be an over-index of women’s-specific product and attention given to women.”
CAT’s job, he says, is to help raise awareness with consumers about its women’s offerings and to help drive traffic to the shops that stock it. And in that sense, he says, the lifestyle workwear trend is huge.
“What you’re seeing for next season and seasons to come is a real melding of lifestyle aesthetic and work product. If we have really good-looking product that still has all the attributes of work, it becomes less difficult [of a sell],” he says. It’s also a more attractive proposition for retailers who haven’t added a women’s component yet. “It’s a good entry point,” he says. “It opens up new retail opportunities.”
Wolverine’s I-90 Romeo, $125 soft toe, $130 composite toe.
After diving deep with conversations, product reviews and research into what’s lacking in the women’s workboot space, Carrie Hill, design director for Wolverine Footwear, says the brand’s solution to keeping women safe on the job site means giving them exactly what the guys are getting — literally.
“In the 14 years I’ve been with the brand the evolution of women in the workplace has been dramatic,” she says. “But all along, women have wanted to fit in and have product that makes them feel comfortable and provides the safety they need and until now it didn’t provide that. There were too many cute details, too much pink, too much focus on drawing them in aesthetically. But if we want the fit, comfort and functionality that’s equal to the men’s product, there are different ways to approach it.”
While other brands in the space have made women’s-only product the key, Hill says Wolverine took a look at changes that could be made to existing product to accommodate women’s needs.
“They have narrower feet that are smaller overall, so we opened up the forms so the boots have a more tailored fit. By creating a more unisex product, you’re spending less money and resources on leathers and colors. It’s a smarter way to develop product.”
The mindset pays off in other ways, Hill says.
Stores feeling the pinch on shelf space find the one-SKU-fits-both product an attractive option, she says. And women have responded positively to shoes that are equal in every way to the men’s product.
“For the women’s perception of our brand, they see that we’re looking at them like a construction worker, as opposed to a female construction worker,” she says.
For Fall 2019, the brand’s key style will be the I-90 Chelsea boot, an expansion to one of the brand’s most popular boot families that launched this year. The style is fully featured for the job site, with a waterproof leather upper, CarbonMax safety toe and a removable EPX antifatigue footbed.
And the Chelsea styling lets the brand leverage the utilitarian trend, too. “And that’s a real win when we can build cross categories,” she says.
For now, Hill says, the brand sees a path forward in its selective approach to opening new lasts.
“We’re not going to build women’s-specific just yet,” she says. “We want to be strategic. We’re doing well with the unisex and it answers a lot of needs, so we’ll find our wins there.
Timberland Pro’s Hightower 6-inch.
Why focus on women’s? For Ashe, it’s just a matter of looking at the numbers.
“Women’s has been on the top of my list since I joined the brand four years ago,” Ashe says. “One of the things I noticed right away from our assortment – as well as from our competitors – was the lack of women’s-specific product. Brands would shrink down their boots into women’s sizing and retailers would have a small space on the wall. That’s underserving a large population that we saw through our data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
To get their arms around what needed to be different, Ashe and his team (the firm hired a female designer to serve the category) went on the road. “We set on a pretty ambitious travel from coast to coast to talk to our consumers and found out there were four key characteristics no matter where she lived: comfort, fit, aesthetics and price. And maybe sometimes they were in a different order, but those were the four. So we set out to re-establish what a women’s work boot would be.”
“By creating a more unisex product, you’re spending less money and resources on leathers and colors. It’s a smarter way to develop product.”
The first result was the women’s Hightower series, which debuted with a 6-inch boot in 2017. Built to the same technical and protective specs as the existing men’s product, the team consulted SATRA studies on women’s feet to create a last with a narrower heel that locks the foot in place and a pattern that can be laced to accommodate a higher arch or wider foot as comfortably as a narrower one. For Fall ’19, the brand is launching versions with both 200g and 400g of insulation.
As with previous iterations, the leathers and detailing are consistent with the men’s line, a detail Ashe says was important to the women they surveyed. “In a rough and tough environment, they don’t want to stand out. They want to show they are confident in their work and skill.”
And Ashe says consumers have responded.
Across the market, women’s is somewhere between eight to 10 percent of industrial footwear sales, he says, and is about 10 percent of the brand’s work business. But the retailers the brand has partnered with on the shoes, he says, have seen their bottom lines increase and the women’s share rise to 10 to 12 percent.
“We’re coming up on a year of the shoes being in the market and we are beyond happy with the reception that consumers have given them, and with the retailers’ backup orders and sales data,” Ashe says.
And that’s reassuring, he says, because convincing retailers that stocking more women’s styles is the right business move will be critical in the success of the category, but hasn’t always been a no-brainer.
“We had the figures and facts to show there was a movement in place, and that with the skills gaps and trade gap, a lot of the trades were recruiting heavily and targeting women. We told them, you may not feel you have this customer — but we do.”
Keen’s $180 Seattle 6-inch.
For Robin Skillings, director of global marketing for Keen Utility, filling out the women’s category isn’t just a market decision, it’s a safety issue.
Talking to women in the field, she says, it’s clear that much of the gear most women use, including footwear, isn’t designed for them — and that poor fit can put them in danger of injury.
“But [on a work site], you want to make sure every single individual is wearing the proper personal protective equipment and footwear and the best products for them to keep them working and so that they can go home and feel okay.”
Keen has been cultivating end-consumer insight as it expands the line. The brand’s product developer, herself a woman, and the team have leveraged relationships with nonprofit groups such as Oregon Tradeswomen and Sacramento, CA-based Tradeswoman Inc. that are dedicated to helping advance women in the trades, as well as with focus groups of working women.
“It’s our duty to use our platform in a very positive way to tell a tradeswoman story along with a tradesman story,” she says.
For Fall ’19, the line includes the women-only Seattle family of products, including a $170 8-inch Lace-up, a $180 6-inch Lace-up and the $140 Chelsea-style Romeo ($135 in soft toe). All the USA-made styles have a heat-, oil- and slip-resistant rubber outsole rated to 572 degrees, and an angled heel designed to keep the wearer stable during ladder work.
Future seasons should breed further innovations.
Skilling convened a panel of women in the trades at Keen’s global sales meeting last November. The goal, she says, was to give some of the brand’s retail customers the same insight into the challenges these women face on the job, what they’re looking for and how often they aren’t finding it when they’re shopping their stores.
And on the product front, a continuing aim, she says, is expanding the line to fit a broader range of working women. “We’ve nailed light and medium duty and we’re bridging into heavy duty,” she says. Women who are heavy metal fabricators or big machinery operators, she says, need full-foot protection that shields the metatarsals and resists puncture to keep them safe on the job. “We’re making sure we have a true light-to-heavy range so we can be a true safety partner for women and men.”
View the full print issue here.