Keen on Kids

The children’s line at Keen has had quite a growth spurt since its launch six years ago.

With the runaway success of takedown versions of its original Newport sandal, the Portland, Ore.-based outdoor brand has moved quickly to expand its kids’ business, building it from a small, seasonal product offering into a year-round collection spanning more than 150 SKUs for infants, toddlers and youth. In addition to a wide variety of sport sandals, with many featuring the brand’s patented protective rubber toe wrap, the line now includes everything from casual school shoes and winter boots to wellies and hiking shoes, along with accessories such as socks, backpacks and lunch bags.

“We continue to be excited about the growth in our kids’ business,” said James Curleigh, CEO of Keen, citing the brand’s ability to appeal to both children and their parents. “Kids like the look and feel of the shoes, and parents [appreciate] the convenience, durability and protection that the shoes offer.”

With the expansion, the kids’ category now accounts for slightly more than 20 percent of Keen’s overall business — a number expected to grow in the seasons ahead, according to Kelly Wallrich, the brand’s VP of product. As the line, which retails from $30 to $65, has evolved, Keen has shifted the emphasis from takedowns of core adult styles to shoes developed specifically for kids. “We’re about 50/50 right now, and as we grow, we’re going to continue to scale back on the number of takedowns and drive a kids’-specific business,” Wallrich said. The design team also works to bring in more child-friendly colors, details and prints, including one featuring Wallrich’s own Boston terrier. “The kids’ line is where we can have a little more fun, be a bit quirkier,” she said.

Continuing to broaden its cold-weather offering also has been a focus for Keen, as it seeks to reinforce the message that the brand is about more than sandals. “Consumers are becoming more aware,” Wallrich said. “They know Keen for their kids’ spring shoes, so when they come back to the store and see our fall product, it’s a natural progression.”

Still, retailers that carry Keen said customers can’t get enough of the shoe that started it all. “We carry a variety of different styles from Keen, but the Newport is ‘it.’ We can’t get away from it,” said Sonya Jones, buyer and manager for Sikes Children’s Shoes in Homewood, Ala., noting that the store does a brisk business with the style nine months out of the year. “It’s the closed toe that is the big selling point: Kids are able to wear the Newport to school, so it’s not just a camp shoe.”

Russell Fine, kids’ footwear buyer for outdoor chain REI, agreed that Keen’s core product remains a huge draw, despite the broad mix of styles now offered for children. “Keen continues to grow for us in kids’ on a very focused assortment that is primarily driven by the brand’s anchor styles, but especially sandals,” he said. “[Customers like] the versatility and great price-value proposition of those key styles.”

The challenge, then, for Keen is to continue to push the collection forward and create new customer favorites, Wallrich said. “Innovation is at the forefront every season. People always ask, ‘What’s the next Newport?’ So it’s a constant challenge to come up with something that’s innovative and different while still keeping it Keen.”

For spring ’11, two adult sandals will be introduced for kids: the Kanyon for boys and the Whisper for girls, both featuring slimmer silhouettes for a fresh update to the Newport. “They’re for the consumer who loves the Newport but is ready for something different,” Wallrich said. “They’re not quite as wide.” Also new for kids are the Waimea H2, which incorporates Keen’s protective toe design on a flip-flop, and the Alamosa, a water-resistant, light hiking shoe. “We’re focusing on taking what’s been working well for Keen and just evolving it,” said Wallrich.

The company also is committed to championing the green movement, and its sustainability efforts trickle down to the kids’ line. Eco-friendly materials and components are used in a variety of styles. And this spring, the brand will roll out a major sustainability initiative across its kids’ and adult lines called the Santiago Collection. To create the series of canvas sneakers, the company tracked down several dozen vintage, hand-operated, direct-vulcanization machines in Poland, Spain and elsewhere, had them refurbished and set up a factory in Santiago de los Caballeros, a community in the Dominican Republic. There, local workers craft the lace-up, slip-on and Mary Jane-style sneakers using natural canvas and locally produced rubber. Because the vulcanization machines attach the bottoms using steam and pressure, no adhesives are required.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Santiago shoes, which are priced from $25 to $30 in kids’, will be donated to Keen’s HybridLife Hope fund. The goal is to raise $1 million for micro-loans to create opportunities in impoverished areas around the world. “Keen has always been about more than just making shoes,” Curleigh said. “We thought, ‘Why not create a shoe that not only looks good but does some good as well?’”

Looking ahead, the Keen team plans to move into even more product categories. The sock and bag offerings have been successful, and Wallrich said the company is exploring additional brand extensions, even apparel. “We definitely envision Keen being a lifestyle brand. We’re an outdoor brand based off footwear, so there is no limit,” she said. “We want to surprise you where we go next.”

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