With performance athletic shoes now making up more than 30 percent of children’s footwear sales, according to The NPD Group, a growing number of bou- tique brands, including Umi, Pediped and Jumping Jacks, are adding athletic offerings to their mix, giving market leaders such as Nike and New Balance a run for their money.
“Athletic is such a major part of the kids’ business, especially now that you’re seeing a real slowdown in other parts of the business, such as the dress category,” said Danny Wasserman, owner of New York-based boutique Tip Top Kids. “I think these brands recognize it’s a significant piece they’ve been missing and now they’re going after it.” He added that while smaller players face fierce competition in the category, they offer a unique point of difference with their kid-friendly fits and features, including width options and machine-washability.
Milwaukee-based Umi debuted its Umi Sport line of lightweight sneakers this past spring. Mark Kohlenberg, the brand’s founder and president, said the line was created in response to not only consumer requests but the swelling size of the kids’ athletic segment. “We just couldn’t ignore the numbers,” he said, “especially with the market becoming more and more casual each season.” Still, he added, “Nobody needs another brand of athletic footwear. The market is very saturated. We knew we had to bring something different to the table and not just slap our name on some generic product.” Umi’s sneakers, priced from $50 to $55, incorporate machine-washable materials and removable, antibacterial insoles.
Pediped, which will launch its first line of athletic shoes in stores this fall, is banking on kid-specific constructions to set it apart. “Many of the adult brands in this space simply shrink their styles to children’s sizes, which results in shoes that are less comfortable and even [detrimental] to kids’ growing feet,” said Angela Edgeworth, founder and president of Henderson, Nev.-based Pediped. “A child’s foot is different than an adult’s foot, and [as a brand spe- cializing in children’s shoes], we take this into account during the design process.”
Pediped’s $56-to- $59 athletic shoes feature ultra-lightweight constructions and flexible bottoms, as well as the brand’s Flex Fit technology, which incorporates an extra insole that can be removed as the child grows.
Hot Springs, Ark.-based Jumping Jacks stepped into the athletic category in 2010 with Jumping Jacks Sport, a small line of colorful, machine-washable styles, retailing from $52 to $60. “We really felt there was a sizable niche [in the athletic category] for more kid-friendly styles,” said GM Allen Butterfield. For Jumping Jacks, its position as one of a shrinking number of brands offering widths for kids has been a big advantage. “There is a real lack of width options in the market,” he said, “but widths are important for [achieving a more precise] fit.” In addition, Jumping Jacks offers an in-stock program for its Sport line.
Though not new to the market, Japanese sneaker brand Tsukihoshi, which launched in the U.S. in 2006, continues to see its business surge as demand for more casual, multipurpose footwear grows. “That dressier leather shoe [category] has lost momentum,” said Matt Butlett, Tsukihoshi’s U.S. sales manager. “You’re seeing sales switch over to sneakers and other casual product.” In addition to key features including washability, ultra-lightweight constructions and green-tea antibacterial insoles, Tsukihoshi offers a variety of styles and colorways. “We can offer a much greater selection than most of the adult athletic brands that do takedowns,” Butlett said. “It definitely sets us apart.”
Still, while kids’ brands such as Tsukihoshi are bringing a fresh point of view to the category, the big names — with their major market share and marketing muscle — can’t be denied. “The business is really split: We have customers who come in looking for those good-quality specialty kids’ brands, but we also have customers who are very brand-conscious and only want Nike, Adidas, Puma — the globally recognized names,” said Matthew Brooks, regional manager of Brooks Shoes for Kids, which operates eight stores in California. “And when kids reach a certain age, you start to lose more customers to the bigger brands.”
Umi’s Kohlenberg said success often comes down to whether the parents still have control over the purchasing decision. “With any specialty brand trying to sell within this category, you’re really relying on the mother to play a role,” he said. “Eventually the child takes over, but if the mother still has a degree of control over the purchase, then a brand like Umi has a chance to be in the final selection.”