In the trenches throughout the pandemic. With exhausting shifts and at constant risk of their own safety. We chose the best word “heroes” to define all the healthcare workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics and operators who in various ways have committed themselves to the fight against CRV with untiring self-denial, struggling with all available means to face the emergency and save the infected. Commended during the first lockdown, today they seem to have stepped out of the media narrative: we want to bring attention back to them in our own way, telling how our sector gives its contribution to their business, providing the footwear they wear every day.
Health/medical footwear is identified by the iconic white colour (but they can also be found in green, blue, black …). Those used by doctors, nurses and health workers must be autoclavable, that is sterilisable with saturated steam at high pressure (which eliminates any microorganism, be it pathogenic or not, in the vegetative or spore phase), and are made of plastic material. For professional footwear in the health sector, outside of medical aids, also materials like leather and Eva are used. Sanitation and the search for comfort are primary aspects for this type of footwear, to ensure the safety and banishment of operators who stand up all day.
Stefano Pellizzari, Stemma's CEO, leader in polyurethane moulding technology, explains the advantages of different plastic materials and the latest evolution in the field of machinery: “There are two broad categories of health footwear: autoclavable, made with heat-resistant materials such as TPU and TPR, which however are heavy, and PU, which has the advantage of being lighter, is easy to produce, is antistatic, has excellent slip resistance and does not deform. Then there are others that are not autoclavable, such as EVA which, compared to other materials, has the advantage of being lighter but, on the other hand, does not have a good elastic memory and therefore deforms under compression. It is non-antistatic and does not protect against slipping, it requires an insole to remedy the problem, which increases the cost of the final product”. “Recently at Stemma we developed an innovative PU clog machinery that uses a spray moulding process that eliminates errors often encountered by traditional technology. – adds Stefano Pellizzari – It is called RPU Spray Tech: a good answer for an increasingly demanding market. Created for the high fashion soles sector, it is currently employed by two pilot companies, leaders in the health footwear sector for the production of clogs. We are in the introduction stage of the market, but with this evolution, we have a more versatile machine, which increases productivity and decreases the cost/efficiency ratio. The real game on this product is played together with the producers of materials (polymers), with whom we are constantly in contact, to develop solutions that increase productivity and quality”.
Among the players in the healthcare/medical sector, Calzuro is the representative of the made in Italy appreciated all over the world, so much that the New York Magazine called it “the best health footwear of 2020”: here in the margin of the article, find our exclusive interview with Roberta Bidoia, owner of Bihos Sas for the brand's footwear. Among the best-known international brands we find Scholl, Birkenstock and Crocs, whose iconic fashion footwear is also applied in the health sector, and Oxypass, while nationally we find the brands Saniflex, Fly Flot, Reposa, to name a few. But also most of the most important Italian manufacturers of safety footwear have opened up to the health footwear market, such as Cofra, Exena, Sir Safety …
They mainly operate on the market through tenders with hospitals, retirement homes and other health facilities, plus direct channels, both B2B and B2C, brick & mortar sales and e-commerce, both direct and on platforms such as Amazon and Ebay (where however, operators buy brands they already know, after checking their comfort). For foreign countries in general, we rely on distributors.
In the year of the pandemic, the sector – like many others, after all – found itself facing the challenge caused by the interruption of the supply chain which, on the one hand, made it more difficult to find raw materials, and on the other, for those who produce abroad (especially in China), guarantee continuity tried by national lockdowns. Despite this, in 2020 the market trend did not experience major declines: at a national level, the producers and retailers of this type of product did, however, not experience serious declines, despite the fact that hospitals in tenders focused more on request for masks and respirators. Thanks to their quality product, some have actually increased sales by also exploiting the higher performances of the online channel, both on the national market as well as abroad.
“Due to the pandemic our turnover was affected by a contained downturn – states Tarcisio MIgliorati, sales manager of Fly Flot – Our footwear, which is aimed at the healthcare sector but with non-autoclavable products, is characterised by extreme comfort, a feature that has made it particularly appealing also for home use. In addition to our best sellers, we have introduced on the market a line with an innovative material that is the result of our constant research: it is adaptive stretch, a material that gives the upper a great elasticity. With leather-like characteristics, it is washable, comfortable and durable. And it is an expression of that made in Italy quality that characterises all our production, today more oriented towards sustainability with the choice of adopting water-based polyurethanes, which have less impact on the environment”.
Protection and comfort are Cofra's atouts for the sector (also in this case of non-autoclavable footwear): “We can highlight two of our lines "Aderplus White" and "Sabot" which are characterised by lightness and slip resistance (thanks to a very light single density polyurethane sole), and mainly required by operators in the hospital sector. – states Domenico Esposito, sales manager of the company – For Aderplus White, the most popular models, Talos White O2 SRC FO (white moccasin without toe cap), Cadmo White S2 SRC (white moccasin with toe cap) and Enea White (white lace-up shoe with toecap), have an upper in Newtech, a mini-fibre made of polyester and finished in polyurethane, breathable and water-repellent, with good resistance to chemical agents in case of brief and accidental contacts, properties that make them preferable to products made of leather. The Markus SB E A FO SRC and Richard OB E A FO SRC models, respectively with and without toe caps, of the Sabot line, on the other hand, are equipped with a very breathable leather upper with perforations in the front area. The line is completed with a series of variants that include a non-perforated tip and/or the use of more resistant minifibres when in contact with aggressive substances”.
Research on new materials, especially in terms of comfort and sustainability, will be the key to the future of the sector, firmly believes Gino Sirci. He is president of Sir Safety which produces for the healthcare sector (and Horeca) both clog in Eva and, above all, footwear professional shoes with toecaps and anti-slip devices, with a turnover of about 1.5 million euro: “The polymers with which medical footwear are produced are much more exhausting than those that were produced 10-15 years ago, lately with Eva there are great possibilities. We are convinced that in the near future new materials will be introduced, although I think Eva will stay market leader. Sustainability is not a marginal issue for this type of shoes: since they do not have great mechanical performance, they do not wear out and are therefore suitable for recycling solutions. It is an important issue. I strongly believe in this world and that in future the safety shoe will also be fashionable, it will go the same way as jeans which, from a work garment, have become a fashion garment”.
Birkenstock, comfort goal
The shoes of the Professional Birkenstock line are born from the tradition of the German brand and its vocation for comfort. Attentive to national and European legislation on safety at work, they are also characterised by a valuable aesthetics. The line has been renewed in recent years, and is distributed exclusively in Italy by NaturalLook Srl to large companies and professional retailers. The sale takes place through traditional channels (classic and sports shoe shops), professional channels (retailers/wholesalers of professional clothing and accident prevention), direct sales to medium-large companies; e-commerce is growing. The incidence on turnover is 85% from traditional channels (retailers), the remaining 15% for sales to e-commerce companies.
The best sellers are: Super Birki (easy to slip on, slip resistant, oil and grease resistant, waterproof, interchangeable cork footbed and washable at 30°, EN ISO 20347:2012 certified), the Kay model (non-slip sole, resistant to oils and fats, shock absorbing EVA midsole, adjustable heel strap) and the Boston SL (shock absorbing EVA midsole), an icon of Birkenstock adapted to the needs of work footwear. Safety (QS models) and work (QO models) footwear are also very popular.
Birkenstock is working to create sustainable footwear, but at the moment there are no models that can be defined as totally eco-sustainable.
Calzuro: a story of quality and passion for health footwear
The New York Magazine called it “the best health footwear of 2020”: Calzuro was created by a Venetian family company that focused exlusively on product quality and Italian character. We talk about it with Roberta Bidioia, owner of Bihos Sas for Calzuro's sanitary clogs.
The credit for the statement of the New York Magazine goes to the founder Gianfranco Bidoia who in 1983, thanks to his father's experience in the field of hospital supplies, launched a product into the market that was missing in the health sector, a clog in plastic material that could be sterilised in an autoclave, anstistatic and extremely comfortable for those who have to stand many hours on their feet.
Mrs Bidoia, how was the Calzuro clog created?
“My father knew a mould maker from our Montebelluna district who worked for ski boots, and with him he developed a mould for plastic materials for health footwear. He started from there. Then he found a local company that helped him develop a thermoplastic polymer with excellent features: high resistance to temperatures, stabilised in an autoclave at 134°, ideal for the operating room. It guarantees rapid steam sterilisation, sanitation that makes it available for use in a short time. Since then we have been working in compliance with the regulations relating to sanitary PPE, with certified materials. Our products guarantee elasticity, high wear resistance and softness. They are antistatic, thanks to a substance that allows the discharge of electrostatic energy, a feature that is not obvious in this type of footwear. We also produce in eva, which is a lighter material, but it does not withstand high temperatures”.
What are your sales channels and markets?
“From a commercial point of view, we work on tenders with hospital suppliers, direct sales through private distributors, foreign distributors, agents and representatives for health shops, pharmacies, orthopedists. We also have a Horeca division (hotels, restaurants and catering), we serve beauty and wellness, cleaning companies, kindergartens, etc. professionals looking for comfortable, washable and non-slip, anatomic and postural footwear (with foot massage). The online channel is very important, in 2008 we opened B2C calzuro.it for Italy and Europe: we were among the forerunners in our sector. Moreover we also distribute through platforms such as Amazon and Ebay, through the e-commerce of our customers and distributors. We also have a B2B site for our customers.
We try to adopt a correct commercial policy, with even higher prices compared to those offered by our customers, in order not to compete and make consumers perceive that ours is a quality product. As for the markets, 60% of our production is directed abroad (Europe and the USA, but not only), direct and indirect online carves out a 10% share of the turnover, there are markets like the USA that basically sell almost everything online”.
How important is sustainability for Calzuro?
“Calzuro classic, our flagship product, is recyclable and does not pollute if disposed of correctly: in fact, defective clogs are regrinded and put back into production for the black coloured lines”.
How did you face the pandemic?
“We overworked in 2020: we made agreements with our suppliers with whom we work closely – contractors in the Montebelluna district and one in the Marche region – and we made them work without interruption despite the health emergency. In this way we were able to urgently supply the hospitals that worked on the front line: at the Codogno hospital, during the first phase of the lockdown we gave clogs to health care workers, to offer them moral and physical support. The challenge of the pandemic has arisen on the material side: the supply chain disruption has decreased availability, China has stocked up on raw materials, and consequently also costs have increased. Luckily we were able to guarantee our stocks and always with high quality and certified raw materials”.
What are the features of Calzuro footwear?
“The product is developed in agreement with orthopedists and podiatrists, subjected to chemical and physical-mechanical analyses, and certified to offer the customer assurance in terms of safety, quality, protection and even aesthetics thanks to carefully designed lines and a wide range of colours, customisable upon customer request. It guarantees posture, is autoclavable and so comfortable that it can be worn with a sock, but you can also add insoles, it is non-slip and antistatic. Made with non-toxic materials that comply with the Reach regulation, certified, it is made to last, even up to 5 years. The quality and aesthetics of the Calzuro product translate into a range that includes: classic clog in autoclave, light in Eva for wards, clog in wood/leather, flip-flops, autoclavable slippers, walking and safety slippers with antistatic Eva composite toecap for the cleaning and warehouse sector with rear strap (this is what also our warehouse workers use): we tested it directly and it guarantees maximum anti-crushing and is impact-resistant”.
What is your vision for the future of the industry?
“I hope that after the emergency people have understood and become aware of the importance of buying Italian, to give work to Italian companies and people. We have withstood the brunt of the pandemic and we hope that virtuous companies like ours, which focus on Made in Italy, can establish themselves on the market, that the awareness is generated that, by spending a little more, you get a quality product (not by chance, after trying other cheaper products, often customers come back to us), with an interlocutor who guarantees his product. This is part of our DNA: customer focus, which is why we have a whatsapp communication channel that meets the needs of consumers, and an open B2C channel for our customers and partners. These days it is custom to create a human relationship with the customer, both in the physical store and online: we have always done this. A true love and passion for our work are the secrets behind all this”.