Asics Seeks New Market Share Avenues

IRVINE, Calif. — Despite the dreary economic forecast, Asics America’s new CEO, Nobuo Oda, says the brand is only going in one direction: up.

Speaking to Footwear News through a translator at the brand’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters earlier this month, Oda said growing the company’s market share in running and apparel, as well as exploring new categories and establishing a U.S. retail presence, will be key to Asics’ growth strategy. The objective is to continue the company’s double-digit growth for the next five years. “It’s a big goal,” Oda acknowledged, smiling.

Oda, a 41-year veteran of Asics, assumed the CEO role at Asics America on April 1. He succeeded Seiho Gohashi, who became senior GM of the company’s Asia-Pacific region.

According to Rich Bourne, president and COO, Asics America is forecast to exceed $500 million in sales for the first time this year. And he said Oda’s presence will be an asset as they work to keep growth going. “To have an advocate [with the board in Japan] who understands us [is great],” he said. “He brings a different voice and a different balance.”

Oda said one of the biggest areas the brand would focus on is its apparel business, which accounts for 5 percent of sales. Calling it an area of “great possibility,” Oda said he is working to get the brand’s roughly 12 percent market share closer to 20 percent. To that end, for spring, Asics will bow an eco-friendly performance apparel line and a lifestyle collection for both men and women.

Oda also said that down the road, expansion into new categories would be key, naming walking and brown shoe styles (already available in Japan) as potential targets. The brand will also make its U.S. foray into soccer in April, launching a line of cleats for men and women on an exclusive basis with Zappos.com. Additional distribution could be rolled out later.

But Bourne said the company’s primary focus would always be running — and in particular, the specialty running channel. In a down economy, he said, “we’re sticking to our strategy and keeping our business with the retailers we have.” The company also will further refine its flagship running models, he said. A new version of the Kinsei shoe that features a lightweight gel could be ready as soon as fall ’09.

Bourne said the specialty channel and running product have been better insulated than most during the recent economic downturn, but he said the current climate — with weakened spending and partners facing bankruptcy — has had an impact. “We’re definitely affected by what the retailers are doing. If it’s tough overall, it gets a little tough for us,” he said. “[Specialty running] is seeing growth, but it’s not double-digit anymore. We’re all affected by the economy.”

But the company isn’t slowing down. Last week, Asics relocated from its headquarters in Irvine to a larger complex 20 minutes away, also within Irvine.

And to celebrate both its annual sponsorship of the New York City Marathon and the 15th anniversary of its Kayano shoe, Asics has plans for a limited-edition marathon-themed Kayano, which will be available to select New York retailers this November. The company is also in the planning stages for a branded store, but a location and opening date have yet to be determined.

Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, said the proposed expansions are a natural fit for Asics. “Apparel is a very logical extension of the brand,” he said, adding that there is “plenty of room” in the category for new players. However, he said, the drive in cleated footwear might not be as easy. “[In cleated], they’re going to have to take that share from someone else. But it doesn’t mean they can’t get some.”

However, Christopher Peake, senior buyer for athletic footwear at Henderson, Nev.-based Zappos, said he thought the soccer cleats were a great extension for the brand. “There will be a lot of crossover,” he said. “A lot of soccer players are runners.” Peake added that his company — which carries Asics’ running, fashion and other sports shoes — had fielded many requests for Asics cleated footwear: “They’re a strong seller for us, so it made sense to partner with them.”


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