In early October 2015, David Bond was doing final inspections on the potentially groundbreaking running shoe he’d been developing for close to two years. The Ampla Fly, with a carbon-fiber, lever-like outsole based on kinematic science to help propel a runner forward, was poised to enter the fiercely competitive running shoe market. Debuted at the Running Event trade show in December 2014, the shoe garnered enough buzz (we were one of many media brands to cover the new product) that Bond expected early success.
“We were ready to go to market,” says Bond, who helped develop the Nike Free and worked at Adidas and K-Swiss before co-founding Ampla. “We were weeks away when the plug was pulled. It was a bummer.”
Launching a new running-shoe brand has become increasingly difficult. There’s speculation that the running shoe industry has hit a plateau—a stagnant, hard-to-sell-into plateau. In October, Boulder, Colorado Newton Running fired two-thirds of its staff. According to numbers acquired by Sports Marketing Surveys USA, first-quarter shoe sales, in unit numbers, were down from 2014 to 2015 (but up in the second quarter).
“The running shoe business, especially the run specialty business, has been on a rocket ride, with double-digit growth for the last ten years,” says Mark Sullivan, editor of Running Insight and president of the Running Event. “I think over the last 18 months, it’s definitely slowed down.” Sullivan, however, remains optimistic, explaining, “I believe this is a natural evolution in any growing business, going through a maturation phase and digestion period.”
As the pie shrinks, the little brands are left fighting over a smaller and smaller share of the market, making it especially difficult for new companies to get a spot on running store shelves. Brooks Running dominates the market, followed by Asics, New Balance, Saucony, Mizuno, Nike, and Adidas. “All the rest,” says Sullivan, “including Pearl Izumi, Newton, Hoka, Inov8, and On Running are scrapping for 10 percent of the market.”
That’s not to say upstarts can’t make it. Altra Footwear, Newton Running, and Hoka One One all had successful debuts, thanks in part to their business approaches. They each launched with innovative products that excited both retailers and consumers. In the case of Hoka, it created a whole new market segment—maximalist shoes.
But the larger brands still have the edge over their small competitors when it comes to infrastructure, support, and dollars. “Once you get into the game with a new product or new idea,” says Bond, who has 25 years of experience in the footwear industry, “then the transition from being a one-trick pony to a running brand is the tough part.”
That’s where a big parent company can come in handy. Ampla had only two full-time employees but was owned by surf lifestyle behemoth Quiksilver. For some companies—including Altra, which has been owned by ICON Health and Fitness since before it launched its first shoe in 2011, and Hoka One One, which was bought in 2012 by Deckers USA—the infrastructure of a large parent can support the innovations of the new-to-the-party shoe brands, helping them thrive among bigger, more established competitors.
But that setup can backfire. When Quiksilver filed for bankruptcy in September 2015, it wasn’t willing to continue investing in the Ampla shoe. “When you’re bankrupt, you stop investing in things that aren’t in your core competency,” Bond says.
Right now, it’s a mystery how the Ampla shoes would have sold. But we might get an answer soon. As of this writing, Running Insight reported that two former executives from Quiksilver, Rob Colby and Charles Exon, had bought rights to the shoe. Bond says they’ve contacted him about potentially working on the product again, but he won’t divulge more details.
The good news is that experts don’t expect to see innovation going away, despite the slowed market. “Even in a tough business cycle,” says Sullivan, “you find ideas bubbling to the top.”