Bootmaker Baffin Ltd. believes it’s a safe bet Canadians are tired of falling on winter ice. The Hamilton-based company is looking to drastically increase its share of the “slip and fall” footwear category this winter with an updated version of a sole technology it calls ‘Ice Bite.’
“Everybody experiences slips and falls in Canada,” says president Paul Hubner, who bought a subsidiary of British company Chamberlain Phipps in 1997 and renamed it Baffin. “Grip on ice and snow and slush are obviously very important for Canadians as they get into the outdoors… We’re aiming for triple-digit growth [in the slip-and-fall category] over the next two to three years.”
While there’s much secrecy around what exactly goes into the Ice Bite sole, Mr. Hubner says it’s a proprietary rubber and mineral compound that stays flexible and soft in cold weather and is also oil-resistant and more durable than a typical soft rubber, which wears out quickly.
“One of the faults with various slip-resistant technologies is the rubber that’s used breaks down in oil and acid,” he says.
That, combined with an anti-slip tread design, has Mr. Hubner confident consumers – including those in urban environments and those who work outdoors – will quickly take to this product.
The improved Ice Bite is part of a greater push to expand at the company, which is hoping to double its business within five years. Baffin, which employs about 100 people, was sold to Canada Goose in 2018 but still operates as a separate company. Baffin specializes in cold-climate boots and its products have trekked to the poles numerous times.
Toronto footwear designer George Sully says non-slip-sole technology is best compared to a winter tire: “it’s all about traction … from a mix of their chemical rubbers and the shape of the sole.”
Mr. Sully says sole patterns will also differ depending on the intended use of the boot.
“For hiking, for example, you typically see chunky, sharp-edged traction… City [non-slip] soles will be the same but tighter-woven,” he says.
And it’s rare for companies to do moulding in Canada anymore, as Baffin does, Mr. Sully says, noting most footwear marked “made in Canada” includes significant work done overseas.
Baffin says it moulds and finishes its “Canadian-made” products in Hamilton’s east-end, while cutting and sewing for those boots occurs offshore, including factories in Italy, Turkey, China, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Marketing manager Jessica Liut says the amount of its product made in Canada versus offshore changes each season based on factors such as style, collection and materials.
“This makes it very difficult to quantify, but we maintain as much of our production as possible from our Hamilton [headquarters],” she says.
Mr. Sully, whose work is among the collection at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, says larger brands typically do significant lab testing before making claims about their products, pointing to Baffin’s assertion that Ice Bite soles are three times more slip-resistant than conventional rubber.
“The bigger the brand, the more R&D [research and development] goes into it, and the more liability goes into it,” he says. “If I slip and fall on an Ice Bite, maybe I’m the guy to test [those claims] in court.”
Ms. Liut says third-party labs test Baffin’s products. One test involves “safely [strapping someone] into a harness as the elevation is changed on a frozen surface.” Another test uses machines to apply pressure and movement to a boot or shoe, measuring the distance it travels.
“Sometimes, both the outsole and the surface are frozen. Other times the outsole is kept at room temperature and tested on a frozen surface,” she says.
For Ice Bite to get traction among ordinary consumers – as opposed to those trekking to the North – Mr. Sully thinks Baffin should go hard on marketing, particularly through social media such as Instagram.
“It doesn’t matter what goes into your boot these days; if it doesn’t have pictures to go with it, the story will never get told,” he says. “They might have the best technology in the world, but if you go to their Instagram page and it’s all mom-and-pop, forties-to-fifties-oriented, forget it. You’ve already lost the consumer you’re trying to get. You need some guy jumping over a mountain. That will sell it.
“I like the name Ice Bite,” he adds. “That’s a good start.”
After seeing the success of Canada Goose coats – a product initially made for very cold climates – among urban consumers, retail expert Suzanne Sears says Baffin is well situated to follow a similar trajectory.
“If you can make [Ice Bite boots] relatively attractive and sell the back-to-nature concept around them, I think you’ve probably got a winner,” says Ms. Sears, who started a few retail staffing firms following a significant period in the retail footwear industry.
She says the company is smart to push for growth in the slip-and-fall category, as climate change means the market for extreme-cold-weather boots is likely to shrink. Meanwhile, anti-slip footwear will likely become more popular as the population ages, she added.
When it comes to work boots, Ms. Sears says the industry is small – about $250-million to $500-million annually in Canada, according to industry research firm Ibis World, even though workers typically replace their boots every year.
“Canada has been a leader in work-boot technology but there’s still a fixed number of customers,” Ms. Sears says.
The difficulty in copying a research-intensive compound such as Ice Bite should help Baffin achieve its growth goals, she adds. “Those opportunities won’t be easily eroded by competitors.”