ADD NEW BALANCE TO THE list of shoe marketers looking to branch out beyond performance shoes: The Boston-based company will launch NB Inside, a women's line of fashion sneakers next fall.
New Balance says its new line is key to its plans to reach $3 billion in sales by 2012. Executives say that over time they hope the new collection, with shoes priced around $125, will account for 25% of company sales.
The new strategy makes plenty of sense. New Balance, which also owns PF Flyers and Dunhams, is a brand best-known for its performance shoes, especially running, walking, and cross-training--all fairly stagnant categories of late. But the fashion category, or women's low-performance category, is tearing it up: NPD Group says that in the 12-month period ending in October, sales of women's low-performance athletic footwear increased 31.4% over the same 12-month period the prior year.
"This is the hottest segment in athletic footwear," says Matt Powell, senior research analyst for The SportsOneSource Group. "Right now, it's the second-largest selling category, behind running shoes." Skechers, with about 30% market share, continues to be the leader, he says, with Puma and Nike also top sellers.
Sales in the category are so strong, in fact, "that we've really broken the paradigm in athletic shoe marketing," he says. "For the last 30 years, it's always been about a sports-specific shoe. Maybe one year it was running shoes, and another year it was basketball. But this year, for the first time, it's not about a specific category."
As a result, Powell adds, shoe marketers are scrambling to find the best ways to sell shoes, now that high-priced athletic endorsers make less sense. Some companies certainly use celebrities, he says, "but for most, it's been much more about being in the right kind of retail outlet, as opposed to athletic specialty stores."
Consumer experts say the shift represents a sea change in the way women shop for shoes. "Women have this constant internal conflict about comfort versus style," says Meghan Cleary, a New York-based shoe expert and host of HSN's "Shoe Therapy." "And it's a very funny time in shoes. Even as heels go higher and higher, women are demanding more comfort from their shoes." Another example, she says, has been the popularity of wedge and platform styles recently, "which add height with more comfort."
For years, she points out, regular shoe manufacturers--Naturalizer and Aerosole, for instance--have been injecting sneaker-like comfort into regular shoes. (And then there's Crocs, she says, a comfort phenomenon all on its own.) "So it makes sense that sneaker companies like New Balance, which have already invested millions into comfort technology, would try it too."
New Balance says NB Inside will sport "environmentally preferred materials" inside, "using the natural cushioning, breathable and lightweight properties of cork to provide maximum support." And the shoes will use NB's Abzorb and Abzorb SBS, two of its shock-absorbing technologies, for the "stability, comfort and feel of an athletic shoe."
To the bunion-ridden fashion crowd, it's about time. Adds Cleary: "They're just recognizing that women want this fusion of comfort and style