Retailers Hop on Wellness Wave

NEW YORK — In a down economy, the wellness category is giving retailers a healthy boost.

Comfort retailers have been benefiting from the wellness craze for some time, but there is newness in the category from the athletic world, where most players refer to it as “toning” footwear.

“It is the only thing in athletic that is working right now. We’re looking at what potentially could be a billion-dollar retail business,” said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource. “This really is a big, big deal, and it’s interesting that it’s selling in virtually every channel.”

Skechers Shape-Ups is leading the charge, said Christopher Svezia, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group. “Certainly there have been some other brands that have been out there in the space, but they certainly haven’t generated as much buzz.”

The Reebok EasyTone is another growing player in the market, and the company is continuing to build the brand image with three new television advertisements for the shoe. The first ad was released Oct. 28 and all three are now circulating on almost all major networks, including ABC, Fox and The CW.

“The toning category is without question the hottest category in the industry,” said John Lynch, head of U.S. marketing at Reebok. “It will be huge as we go into next year. We have more offerings in more categories.”

To rise to the competition, many toning brands are making improvements on the design side, according to Sam Sato, EVP and chief merchandising officer at Finish Line Inc.

“We’re in one of the most difficult environments we’ve seen in a long time, yet here is a category of footwear about which the consumer has said, ‘We believe in the benefit it provides and we’re willing to purchase it,’” said Sato. “While other segments of the athletic industry are challenging, this category continues to grow.”

Comfort-oriented retailers also are continuing to cash in on the category.

Robert Schwartz, president and CEO of New York’s Eneslow stores, predicts that additional brands will enter the category, and he even foresees wellness shoes for children in the next year.

“The consumer has embraced it. This category will become the mainstream of the future,” he said.

Rick Ravel, who owns Karavel Comfort Center in Austin, Texas, is less convinced about the long-term viability, even as he continues to do well with MBT and Shape-Ups, as well as Sano by Mephisto and Z-Coil.

“Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon because that’s what happens,” he said. “It will fade because there will be something new coming along.”

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