(This story was updated on 7/6/2023.)
After 100 years of making hiking footwear for the outdoor industry, Lowa Boots is expanding its product offerings, targeting new consumers, and looking for different opportunities.
“It’s a different world,” said Peter Sachs, general manager of Lowa Boots. “You constantly have to be poking to see what the opportunities are.”
The company approved a five-year business plan at the end of last year and is now in the first year of its execution.
The Daily spoke with Sachs about the company’s future plans, the current business climate, and how Lowa is managing industry-wide challenges.
One part of Lowa’s strategy is to grow its all-terrain category, which Sachs said most people would call hiking boots.
“We think there’s a lot more penetration available for us,” he added. “There are the same number of consumers who are hiking on backpack trips as there were 25 years ago.”
The company is also making a push into the trail-running category. Lowa hasn’t made a trail-running shoe before. These shoes will be their first not made in Europe, and are instead manufactured in Vietnam.
“There’s a strong business plan with trail running,” Sachs said. “We’re giving it a lot of resources. We think it’s a great way to give a Lowa customer an opportunity to buy another pair of Lowas and give a non-Lowa customer a way to get into the brand. It also attracts a younger customer.”
Lowa was founded in 1923 by a Bavarian cobbler named Lorenz Wagner. The name comes from the first two letters of his first and last names. In 1930, the company opened its first factory making Alpine boots for the mountain infantry as well as lace-up ski boots.
In the United States, the brand has always been managed by independent distributors. Prior to Sachs taking over the North America distribution in 1996, Lowa was distributed by Climb High, which specialized in climbing gear and sold the boots “as an accessory to crampons,” he said. Before that, other companies, including The North Face, distributed Lowa in the 1970s.
In the mid-1990s, German management decided to focus on the U.S. market. It also wanted to expand beyond traditional leather boots and into lighter-weight shoes that were more than sneakers. To do that, Lowa started designing shoes that were more performance-oriented and used polyurethane, similar to the way some walking and safety shoes were engineered at the time.
Lowa’s footwear is built in four factories. The main factory, in Jetzendorf, Germany, primarily builds Lowa’s traditional trekking boots. The company has a smaller factory in Italy that focuses on mountaineering boots that require hands-on, careful craftmanship. Also in Italy, Lowa operates a development factory for the products that are injected with polyurethane. Those products are then constructed in Slovakia, where the upper is bonded to the outsole using injected polyurethane.
That polyurethane design was the construction that brought the first Lowa Renegade to the market, the company’s flagship product.
“If Merrell has the Moab, and KEEN the Targhee, we have the Renegade,” Sachs said. “It’s our No. 1 selling product.”
In the U.S. and internationally, the company has sold up to 13 million pairs of Renegades, according to Sachs.
That shoe opened the door for the company to expand beyond being a niche backpacking and mountaineering company with heavy boots, to one that sells a wider range of footwear, including mid-weight hiking boots, trail shoes, and walking shoes.
Today, Lowa is a market leader in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, producing close to three million pairs of shoes a year.
Lowa is still a privately held company, 80% owned by the Tecnica Group, and 20% by Werner Riethmann, the managing director of Lowa.
One way the company decides what direction to take is by listening to customer feedback.
“Customers will say, ‘Hey, if you made a version that’s insulated, we could have winter boots, or if you made a smaller version we could have kids’ shoes,’” Sachs said.
That’s led Lowa to branch into other categories, including duty boots for police and soldiers.
In the past, Sachs would sit down with a retailer or a group of retailers, or even meet with them at a bar, and people would say, “’I’m looking for a product that does whatever.’ But now you get so much feedback online, 50-100 emails a day, asking about products and suggesting what we should do,” he said.
While Sachs sees business today as overall in a good place, he admitted that “it’s tough out there. There’s too much inventory.”
He listed the same challenges that the industry has been citing for months, including soft demand, retail inventory overhang, and off-cycle deliveries because of the supply chain disruptions.
This spring, Sachs toured the American West, and “all I heard from Western dealers was ‘we have too much snow and the trails are closed to go hiking.’ There are a lot of really legitimate reasons why business is challenged right now.”
That said, Lowa’s revenue is up more than 30% compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Sachs.
Navigating the Headwinds
Lowa produces almost all of its products in-house, so that makes managing inventory simpler, according to Sachs.
“We can go back to the factory and order a few more when we need it and cut back a little when we don’t,” he said.
Sachs confessed that his warehouse is “very full right now,” but the company isn’t under pressure to discount its way out of the situation.
He rattled off the Renegade, Tibet, and Zephyr as staples in an outdoor retailer’s assortment. “Whether they buy them today or they buy them tomorrow doesn’t matter, they’re going to keep buying those shoes,” Sachs said. “When the snow melts off the trail, we’re pretty confident in our business.”
One of the major factors cited for the outdoor industry’s recent challenges has been that after the pandemic restrictions eased, people stopped spending as much time outdoors and went back to other activities like eating out or traveling.
Sachs doesn’t see that as a zero-sum game, pointing out that when people book a trip to, say, Europe, they’re going to buy a pair of walking shoes, or a new day pack to carry.
“It’s good for the businesses in our industry,” he said. “We don’t all exist on people backpacking, hiking, and climbing. We do exist on things like travel.”
Last November he went to Africa and said it was packed with Americans traveling and wearing outdoor gear and clothing, “like an REI poster child.”
Overall, Sachs is bullish about the future of Lowa.
“It’s not the past 100 years that really matter,” he said. “At this point, it’s what are we doing to try to achieve the next 100 years.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at email@example.com.