Why some small shoe brands are recession proof

Small brands such as US-based Hoka and Switzerland's On Running are expanding line-ups just as competitors Nike and Adidas are reducing where they send inventory

The stocks of small athletic shoe brands are poised to keep gaining, beating their globally recognised peers. AFP
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The stocks of small athletic shoe brands are poised to keep gaining, beating their globally recognised peers, even as the US faces weaker consumer spending and a potential recession, Wall Street analysts say.

Shares of Hoka owner Deckers Outdoor Corporation have skyrocketed 78 per cent in the past year through Thursday’s close, while Swiss-based On Holding, the parent of On Running, gained 29 per cent.

In the same period, Nike slumped 13 per cent and Adidas fell 17 per cent, weighed down by inventory issues, China’s reopening delays and for Adidas, an expensive falling out with major partner Ye, the rapper previously known as Kanye West.

Analysts see this outperformance continuing as solid products and a steady trend in athletic apparel give Hoka and On Running room to expand.

“Within the word of athletic apparel, footwear and accessories is probably one of the best trends out there,” and Hoka and On Running “are two of the brands that are best capitalising on that trend”, UBS Securities analyst Jay Sole said.

Hoka and On Running each have well liked, innovative products that are difficult for competitors to match, Wedbush analyst Tom Nikic said.

The key for both is their insole technology. Hoka’s are highly cushioned and designed to improve momentum, while On Running’s CloudTec is meant to feel light and responsive and adapt to the runner’s foot over time.

“It’s not just that people want a shoe that looks like an On shoe, they want it to feel like an On shoe and that’s hard to replicate,” he said.

On Running reported record sales up 78 per cent year on year in its first quarter earnings in May, and Hoka was the main driver of Decker’s record $3.6 billion revenue for full-year fiscal 2023.

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This differs from peers such as Vans, whose parent company VFC Corp shed 66 per cent in the past year. The company’s skate shoes were popular in 2018, but a lack of product innovation has affected the brand since then, Mr Nikic said.

Hoka and On Running are beneficiaries of casualisation, a pandemic trend that’s stuck around, Piper Sandler analyst Abbie Zvejnieks said. A prime example is wearing athletic shoes to the office – Hokas especially have become more prominent fashion statements.

“They might be elevated sneakers, but they’re still sneakers, because you want to be comfortable,” she said.

To be sure, Adidas recovered some of its 2022 slump and is up 18 per cent so far this year. Still, the stock is under pressure as most analysts have neutral ratings on the brand. And at about €163 ($175) per share, it’s well below its all-time high of €336, achieved in 2021.

Size is a big part of Wall Street’s bullish view. Both Hoka and On Running are expanding shoe line-ups, branching out into apparel and increasing distribution in outlets just as competitors such as Nike and Adidas are slimming down where they send inventory.

About 77 per cent of analysts covering On Holding have a buy-equivalent rating, and the average price target forecasts an estimated 26 per cent gain, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Hoka parent Deckers has a more than 80 per cent buy rating from analysts who see an average upside of 11 per cent for the stock.

“They’re still small enough that they can really deliver a lot of growth just by taking market share,” Mr Sole said, adding that this also shields the companies from macroeconomic trends that affect peers.

A model for what Hoka and On Running brands could become is Lululemon Athletica, which expanded from offering women’s yoga leggings to a wide range of athletic apparel including other sports, men’s offerings and even shoes, Mr Nikic said.

A Lululemon Athletica outlet in downtown Vancouver. Lululemon Athletica expanded from offering women’s yoga leggings to a wide range of athletic apparel. Reuters

Lululemon is also buy-rated by most analysts covering it and expected to report sales growth in its first-quarter earnings release, due June 1 after market close.

On the flip side, Nike may struggle to grow, according to Williams Trading analyst Sam Poser, who in May gave the company a rare sell rating and street-low price target of $95.

Mr Poser cited a choppy turnaround in China, a lack of preparation for the return to in-person shopping and increased promotions that could further erode margins for the retailer, especially if new 2024 inventory doesn’t deliver.

“Nike’s game today is not as good as it was five years ago,” he wrote in a note.

Updated: June 03, 2023, 3:00 AM