New Juniors’ Labels Brave Category Challenges

The heat is on in the juniors’ market.

The category, known for its youthful consumers who value of-the-moment trends, is getting traction thanks to new options and, of course, that sweet spot in pricing. Even in a struggling economy, shoes for less than $100 are affordable to most.

As a result, more brands have recently hit the market. Circus, Celebrity Pink and Electric Karma all debuted this year with a willingness to enter a competitive category and face the challenges of launching a brand. And all are upbeat about the place they could fill in the segment.

“I don’t see our type of product with embellishment being done at under $100 [anywhere in the marketplace],” said Dale Waters, who is gearing up to launch L.A.-based line Electric Karma this fall. “[The market] is missing the quality that I think a contemporary customer would want. There is a big void there.”

Chris Svezia, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group, said the margins in juniors’ footwear are desirable. “There is an opportunity coming in at those price points, with [materials] that are made accordingly,” he said.

Indeed, one of the challenges inherent in juniors’ footwear design is finding materials that look good for less. Synthetic leathers have become commonplace.

“Your designer can come up with a material they think is great, but you have to use your sourcing companies to find the material that still makes the item cost-effective,” said David Stamberg, founder of Alpine Footwear Group LLC, which will launch a full shoe collection for juniors’ denim brand Celebrity Pink this fall at Macy’s department stores, selling for $45 to $85. “It comes down to who can deliver the best-looking value.”

Stamberg added that this challenge is compounded by the fact that juniors’ customers are more fashion-savvy now than ever before.

“There is definitely a sophistication to the consumer. [They are] knowledgeable about the trends, and the [market] is moving very quickly,” he said. “Our strategy is [creating] volume [and sales] at entry-level price points. We have to make sure that we’re quick, and the look is important to the consumer.”

Electric Karma’s Waters agreed: “The juniors’ customer is getting more sophisticated. Our girl has the ability to see what [trends] are going on all over the world. She can see immediately what celebrities are wearing on the red carpet.”

To understand the changing consumer, Sam Edelman, who launched his Circus juniors’ line for spring ’13 under his namesake label, owned by Brown Shoe Co., even named his target customer. She’s called Chloe.

“We know [her] better than anybody in the world, and we’re very focused on that business,” said the designer, who co-creates the line with his son, Jesse, account executive for the design team. “People look to us for whimsy, innovation, creativity and newness.”

The footwear veteran’s name recognition — and already-strong business — has helped Circus land accounts with Nordstrom, Zappos.com and Amazon.com. In fact, Edelman said, the idea for the brand extension came from retailers who desired the Edelman name at a slightly lower price point.

“Sam Edelman is really more of an adult business, but there are always opportunities [to grow],” Svezia said. “Sam has done a great job [with his core business], and whether it translates [through Circus], we’ll see.”

Being accepted by consumers and retailers can, however, be difficult for lesser-known newcomers.

For Waters, the obstacles have been creating buzz around a new line and finding retail partners. “The biggest challenge is getting retailers to open up for new labels,” he said. “We’re convincing a retailer that our brand has a new edge. It’s comforting to have familiarity with brands, but there has to be a percentage [of shelf space set aside] for new brands.”

Jay Adoni, founder of The Adoni Group Inc., faces the same issue as he grows his new line Penny Sue & The Shoe Guru, launched for fall ’12 with price points between $20 and $150. “You have to prove yourself, but we like those challenges,” he said.

Social media continues to be a fast and easy way for new brands to build buzz around their launches and connect with young consumers. It’s even the consumer’s preferred method of marketing, noted Savannah Todd, who works at fashion-trend forecasting firm Stylesight.

“Juniors’ consumers are connected. They can discover things online and see what the celebrities are wearing,” she said. “[Brands] and retailers need to be aware of that consumer and that they react quickly to trends and social media forums.”

For example, spring ’12 launch Pink & Pepper, under the Marc Fisher Footwear umbrella, recently created both a Twitter and Facebook contest for Valentine’s Day, when consumers and fans had the opportunity to win a pair of shoes and share quirky holiday cards.

“It’s a cool engagement tactic to get everyone interacting with the brand around the holiday,” said Christina Tung, director of PR and marketing for Marc Fisher. “We’re doing a huge social media push for the year.”

So far, the effort has paid off. Pink & Pepper has already seen promising sales, opened a pop-up shop in New York’s Soho neighborhood and unveiled an e-commerce website — all within its first year.

Moving forward, these new brands hope to capitalize on such a fast-paced growth trajectory.

Said Stylesight’s Todd, “There will always be a demand for the product. There will always be that consumer who is looking for the fast-fashion items that are extra-trendy.”