(This story was updated on 10/19/2023.)
Shoe brand Altra Running has found success in at least two areas it didn’t originally seek out: The thru-hiking category, and doctors recommending its shoes to patients with foot problems.
In surveys conducted with hikers on the Appalachian Trail, for one, Altra’s Lone Peak shoe has ranked first among favorite shoes for hikers.
“That was an accident,” said Altra co-founder Brian Beckstead. “We did not market to that. It started taking off in 2013, and we started getting very popular for these thru-hikers.”
Thru-hikers like Altra’s “zero drop” design, where the heel and toe area of the shoe are the same height, and the roomy toe box.
Altra has also been getting enough business from doctors that it recently created a new position – Medical Outreach Manager – to help work with the medical community.
“That has been a really fun thing to have doctors recommend us,” Beckstead said. “We hadn’t really focused a ton of attention there.”
The Daily spoke with Beckstead about life since being acquired by VF Corporation, how business is going for the brand, and differentiating itself from the competition.
Current Business Climate
Beckstead said the brand is seeing growth internationally as well as in the hiking and outdoor world, despite the broader challenges the industry has reported this year, including softer demand and inventory overhang.
“Altra has been really disciplined with our growth and expansion,” he added. “I think we’ve managed those challenges well.”
Beckstead acknowledged that the trend of discounting by certain brands has hurt some of their full-price business, but the company is small and nimble enough that it has been able to work around some of those industry headwinds.
Altra shoes are now available in 55 countries, at more than 3,000 retailers, and online.
VF Corp. completed its acquisition of Altra in 2019. Beckstead became president of the brand after the acquisition, then transitioned to working on public relations and some strategic projects as part of the senior leadership team.
The VF acquisition raised Altra to another level in several ways, according to Beckstead, including inventory forecasting, shipping and receiving, and other back-end functions.
Altra has been able to hire a full-time colorist, for example, which results in better designs, he added. Having their headquarters in Denver, Colorado versus the smaller city of Logan, Utah, allows the company to recruit top talent as well.
“Some of those general resources have really allowed Altra to benefit and to grow,” Beckstead said.
What the Doctor Ordered
When The Daily spoke with Wes Allen, president of Sunlight Sports in Cody, Wyoming, he said customers were coming into his store and asking for Altra shoes based on doctors’ recommendations.
Beckstead added that Altra has had “great success” working with the medical community. Seven models of Altra’s shoes were recently approved by the American Podiatric Medical Association.
“The medical community is starting to figure out that there are a lot of benefits from Altra because we’re different,” Beckstead said. “The doctors have been a fun aspect of our growth that we didn’t necessarily target until more recently.”
The newly hired Medical Outreach Manager will be tasked with attending medical conferences, building educational brochures, and working with the internal research team so the company can make medical claims.
“I think it’s going to be really beneficial for us for years and years to come,” Beckstead said.
The Main Competition
Hoka is another brand that’s popular with thru-hikers and doctors and could be seen as direct competition to Altra.
Beckstead said Hoka has done an amazing job with its maximum cushion shoes.
Altra has somewhat followed that trend in making a shoe with a lot of cushion, but Altra’s zero drop and wider toe box set its shoes apart, Beckstead believes.
With each brand having a dozen or more models for sale, it’s natural for the two brands to have some overlap in style, Beckstead said.
Altra consistently ranks toward the top of most-used shoe brands at trail running events and does well at run specialty and outdoor specialty for trail running shoes, according to Beckstead.
Trail running continues to be a hot category in the outdoor market, said Kelly Davis, director of research at the Outdoor Industry Association, at the Outdoor Retailer Summer show in June.
“We love the fact that that growth is happening,” Beckstead said. “That’s really a strength of Altra. And we want to lean into it because we have a great product line.”
Helping people get outside to enjoy the health benefits of being in nature is something Altra is proud of, he added.
That means more than just the trail runners. Hiking publication The Trek surveyed thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail last year and found that Altra’s Lone Peak was the most popular footwear choice overall, worn by 26% of respondents.
To cater to that, Altra is expanding its trail running collection and adding more technical components like GoreTex uppers.
Beyond that, Altra has also seen good penetration with customers who want to signify that they’re outdoorsy by wearing their shoes around town. Altra’s trail-running shoes are actually outselling the rate of participation in the category, according to Beckstead.
“That trail running culture has expanded into hiking and into outdoor mountain fashion lifestyle,” Beckstead said. “There’s a lot of green space there for both Altra and just the trail running industry as a whole.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at email@example.com.