Boutique Children’s Brands Drive Sales

When it comes to racking up big sales in a tough economy, some savvy kids’ retailers are finding it pays to think small.

While powerhouse children’s companies with lots of manufacturing and marketing muscle continue to have an edge, independent retailers are increasingly turning to newer, boutique brands to differentiate themselves in today’s competitive market. According to retailers, smaller brands have a fresh approach to design and, more important, distinct brand messaging. Those strengths are turning indie labels such as Pediped, Morgan & Milo and See Kai Run into bonafide shoe brands.

Angela Edgeworth, who founded Pediped in 2004, has been able to quickly establish her brand of soft-soled baby shoes, thanks to support from retailers willing to take a chance on the mom-turned-shoe-entrepreneur. Her line is now sold in more than 3,500 doors worldwide.

“They’ve got the best buzz of any boutique brand I’ve had in 10 years,” said Brad Levy, owner of Shoe Box in Newport Beach, Calif. “Customers come into my store already knowing the Pediped pitch, already familiar with the philosophy of the brand. I don’t consider them a boutique brand anymore; they’re a real shoe brand.”

Levy, like many children’s retailers, has found that Pediped offers quality product, which is driving sales today. He added that the brand’s marketing and online presence in social networks targeted at moms also provide helpful buzz.

“[These boutique brands] are absolutely vital,” said David Fenwick, owner of Sandy’s Shoes in Austin, Texas. “It’s not even a matter of product or price. It’s a matter of who the consumer identifies with. … These brands are talking to the moms via Facebook, Twitter and the mommy blogs. The traditional brands, including Stride Rite, have abdicated that [connection] to these new brands that understand the consumer far better.”

Retailers also said that boutique brands provide better client services and more flexibility with ordering. They are quick to incorporate retailer suggestions and adapt to changes in the market, a process that Kirby Lohff, president and CEO of Olly Kids in Downington, Pa., said can get bogged down in bureaucracy at larger brands.

“[Smaller brands] are far more involved with the entire process than you would typically find in a larger company … like, for instance, Nike, where you have a sales force, a regional director, a national director and a marketing department,” Lohff said. “They’re closer to the marketplace and the design trends.”

Annie Kritsonis, manager and buyer at Seattle-based Sole Food, said that when it comes to reordering styles, she is usually on a “wait list to get callbacks” from larger vendors. “For all my smaller vendors, they’re usually the ones that call me directly and work really hard to follow up and confirm orders,” she said. “Sometimes that just makes them easier to work with than the bigger brands.”

While these brands might have a lot to offer, they also have their own challenges. Boutique brands are often started by mothers who have little or no experience in the footwear industry. For retailers, this often means extra work to iron out kinks in design, materials, components and fit.

“Not having an industry background, I definitely made some mistakes in the early collection,” said Cause Haun, founder of Seattle-based See Kai Run, which launched in 2004 and now has more than 1,200 doors in North America. “My sizing was off, and my color choices left a little to be desired in terms of salability. But the smaller retailers — the independents — were the ones who gave me the most advice and really helped me develop my product.”

Sonia Jones, buyer and manager for Homewood, Ala.-based Sikes Children’s Shoes, said boutique brands provide styles that aren’t already “overloaded in the marketplace,” but, she added, restocking is sometimes an issue for them, and very strict return policies often apply.

“They don’t have a huge selection, and they’re not as established as other vendors. They also don’t offer extended [30-day payment] terms and need up-front payment on credit cards,” said Jones, noting that she does a good business with See Kai Run, One Ruby Lane and Robeez.

For Shoe Box’s Levy, drawbacks such as these have hindered his adoption of new boutique brands, with the exception of Pediped. The high-end children’s business — shoes that retail for more than $30 — do not offer his shop enough of a quality and value proposition to justify orders, he said.

Still, boutique brands are an indispensable part of a successful product assortment and provide a model for what the industry at large should be doing.

“Right now, the boutique brands are speaking to the parents … and when the parents come in, they want the product and [care less] about the price,” said Fenwick. “Every vendor recognizes on some level that they have to get to that point. I don’t see a whole lot of other brands using the same mediums [of communication] or taking the same approach. I think that will change.”

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