Nike is unveiling its first pair of slip-on sneakers without laces, hoping to enjoy some of the same momentum that rivals like Crocs and Vans have seen during the pandemic, as more consumers gravitate toward comfortable, no-fuss footwear.
The "Go FlyEase" shoe is marketed as not requiring hands to put on and take off. The company said it was inspired in part by Asian cultures, where it's customary to remove shoes before entering a home. The debut also comes at a time when people are more conscious of not touching dirty surfaces, like the bottom of shoes.
"This shoe really responds to our current-day situation living in these Covid times," Sarah Reinertsen, manager of FlyEase Innovation at Nike, said in an interview. "This is actually an innovation that has been cooking up in our innovation kitchen for a little while ... but it just came out right at the right time, when we needed it more than ever."
Go FlyEase is part of Nike's FlyEase line of running, soccer and basketball sneakers that are said to be easier to wear and fit feet better. Nike has been working on FlyEase innovations for about five years — including shoes that zip up the side and a pair with a pull-cord at the back to tighten the shoe around the heel.
"We have been using laces for a long time," Reinertsen said about Nike's decision to go without them. "But ... a lot of times [people] are trying to work around those laces, they're trying to use one foot to anchor the shoe and slip out. Laces are kind of a hassle. We wanted to make shoes easier for everybody."
These look nothing like a pair of rubber Crocs, though, if that's what you had in mind. For a slip-on shoe, Nike's version is quite unique and complex. When it's not being worn, the Go FlyEase sits in an open position. A separate foot-bed platform, detached from the base of the shoe, moves up and down, thanks to a hinge that's constructed into the bottom.
A band wraps around the top of the shoe, and snaps into place once the foot is inside, since there aren't any laces to help with tightening. The biggest issue with slip-on shoes, for many consumers, tends to be getting them to fit tight enough around the foot.
There is also a "kickstand" on the heel to help take the shoe off. Reinertsen said many people already intuitively step on the back of their shoe to remove it.
According to Reinertsen, Nike's newest shoe isn't meant for endurance sports, but more for casual movements like walking. She said Nike plan to build on the Go FlyEase design and create more slip-on sneakers. The additions could help Nike position itself as not only a brand for athletics, but for everyday activities.
The new sneakers will be available to select Nike members in its largest markets at a retail price of $120, starting Feb. 15. Later, the shoes will be sold more broadly.
The phased launch allows Nike's most loyal customers to have initial access, with the hope that more people will join its free membership program, which also offers workout classes and podcasts. In building membership, Nike is able to learn more about its customers and target them with merchandise that better fits their active lifestyles.
At the moment, comfort is a priority for consumers. Many are still working from home and looking for an easy shoe to wear around the house or to run errands. Many people are also spending more time outdoors and prioritizing taking breaks for physical activities, like strolling the neighborhood.
Brands that sell slip-on shoes like Crocs, Athletic Propulsion Labs, Allbirds and VF Corp.'s Vans have been more popular in recent months. Shoppers have increasingly shunned high-heels and oxfords, and put their money toward practical apparel and footwear.
"Everyone is looking for comfort ... something easy," said Matt Powell, a senior sports industry analyst at the New York-based research firm NPD Group. "Clearly athletic footwear is outperforming fashion. ... Sports slides also did extremely well this [past] year."
In 2020, sales of slip-on sneakers in the U.S. declined 2% year over year. While a drop, that was still better than sneaker sales overall, which fell 6%, Powell said.
Crocs, once shunned by the fashion industry, has been an incredible beneficiary of the comfort trend. In the third quarter, Crocs' revenue climbed 16% from a year earlier to a record $362 million. In January, Crocs raised its holiday-quarter outlook and said it expects sales in 2021 to accelerate as much as 25%. Its shares are up more than 78% from a year ago, pushing its market value to $4.73 billion.
While Nike has also been seen as a winner during the pandemic, it's always looking for new areas of growth. During its fiscal second quarter, which ended Nov. 30, Nike's revenue grew 9% year over year to hit $11.24 billion. Its digital sales drove that growth, climbing 84%, as more customers stayed at home and shopped online. The company has said it expects revenue in fiscal 2021 to rise at a low-teens percentage.
Nike shares are up more than 36% over the past 12 months, bringing its market value to $210.6 billion.
NPD Group estimates the athletic footwear and activewear markets will grow sales in the low single-digits this year, which would be above 2020 levels, but still below 2019. Powell expects performance running and hiking to lead sales, with comfort remaining a key theme.
—CNBC's Jess Golden contributed to this reporting.
Correction: An earlier version misspelled Sarah Reinertsen's last name.