Bearpaw Bolsters Product, Eyes Global Growth

NEW YORK — Bearpaw is OK with not being No. 1.

Since its launch more than eight years ago, the Citrus Heights, Calif.-based brand has steadily built its business with an offering of sheepskin boots, despite Ugg Australia’s dominance over the market. Now, executives are looking to spin the brand beyond the classic boot styles and position it as a key player outside the U.S.

“If I had to pick one theme [for 2009], it was repositioning the brand for long-evity,” said Randy McKinley, Bearpaw’s VP of sales and marketing. “We have a real opportunity to be a strong player. [And while] Ugg is great, there’s room for both of us. They’re Coke, and we’re Pepsi.”

Bearpaw has found a solid consumer base in family stores, large chains and mall-based shops, from Famous Footwear and DSW to Bakers and Big 5 Sporting Goods. The NPD Group’s retail tracking service ranked the brand No. 1 in the all-weather boot category from August to November 2009 at shoe chains and in the specialty athletic and sporting goods channels.

Kona Sports in Wildwood, N.J., has been carrying Bearpaw for more than three years, and buyer Brendan Sciarra said it has become the go-to brand for customers shopping for entry-priced sheepskin styles.

“They’ll look at Ugg first, and if price is an issue, they’ll go to Bearpaw,” Sciarra said. “It brings a price point that’s not as expensive, [but] it offers almost the same comfort and style. In this type of economy, it really does a lot for the customer.”

Bearpaw business was up about 65 percent over the last year, said EVP John Larkin, and some of the more significant moves at the company included formulating a strategy to make the brand a lasting player and hiring McKinley to head up sales and marketing.

Now, founder Tom Romeo, Larkin and McKinley are focused on expanding the offering with apparel and warm-weather footwear, which could boost sales as much as 35 percent in 2010.

The new shoe line, which is launching for spring, includes 12 styles of sandals and more open looks that Bearpaw execs hope will retail year-round.

“Before, we were a two-quarter brand because we were sheepskin boots, and to the consumer, that just doesn’t make a lot of sense in the summer,” McKinley said of the sandal collection, which is priced between $45 and $65. “Now, we’re focused on becoming a 12-month brand.”

Bearpaw also is tackling apparel with the fall ’10 launch of women’s outdoor clothing with a British licensee. The collection of puffy vests and jackets could include 20 to 40 styles and is expected to retail between $50 and $100. The goal for the inaugural offering is to increase the brand’s retail base and grow the category to about 15 percent of overall business in 2010, and to 35 percent over time.

“Apparel is not just something that covers your body; it’s also marketing,” Larkin said. “It’s easier to notice what people are wearing up top than on their feet, especially if they are wearing jeans. It’s a more demonstrative declaration of a consumer’s approval of a brand.”

Farther from home, Bearpaw, which does about 12 percent of its total sales overseas, is eyeing new international markets, including Colombia, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Russia and China. Currently, about half the brand’s international business is in Korea, and Larkin said he hopes Bearpaw can replicate that success elsewhere.

“We don’t really have an initiative that says we have to be in [a specific number] of countries and doing this much business by a certain date,” he said. “We’re more focused on what we can do in, say, three years [by] being a brand that appeals more to the masses.”

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