Sato Touts Innovation, New Brand Partnerships

Recession or no recession, product is king at Finish Line Inc.

This year, the retailer unveiled several fresh product initiatives in a bid to attract consumers in a down economy.

Among them were the addition of more exclusive styles, a new emphasis on growing categories such as skate and toning, and the debut of dedicated Jordan brand spaces in two stores.

The new efforts are reflected in the fall product mix, on display at the company’s headquarters here.

Walking through the collection of boots, high-tops, vulcanized shoes and running styles on display for fall, EVP and chief merchandising officer Sam Sato gave Footwear News a glimpse into his strategy, which is all about building on the “everyday sport” platform.

“No one wants to buy an ugly shoe, regardless of what your intended purpose is,” said Sato, who joined the retailer two years ago after a long career at Nordstrom. “Everyday sport is still about style first, but then there is this additional [performance] feature that ultimately helps [the buyer] make that choice.”

Topping the retailer’s hot list for fall and winter are high-tops (down from the highs of last season, but still selling well) and vulcanized and skate-influenced looks.

“People don’t consider skate a niche anymore,” Sato said. “It’s part of the DNA of today’s youth culture, and we want to be as relevant to our target market as we can.”

Boots are also a key part of the mix as the weather turns colder, Sato said.

One new segment that is showing promise is the toning category.

“We’re very excited about [the toning] category and hoping it’s a sustainable business going forward,” said Finish Line CEO Glenn Lyon, who called sales in the category “outstanding” on the company’s second-quarter conference call.

“The market seems to be developing a lot of new product. We’re well positioned through holiday and anxious to see what the market does for next year to create some more compelling items and businesses for us to support.”

Beyond tapping into new categories, Sato is also working to forge stronger partnerships with key vendors, including Nike, Jordan, The North Face, Puma, Adidas, Under Armour and Asics.

For example, Finish Line teamed up with Jordan to debut new dedicated spaces in two of its stores: one in the Castleton Square Mall in Indiana and the other in Barton Creek, Texas.

The 700-sq.-ft. areas focus on Jordan brand apparel in exclusive colorways and designs, but also include footwear, with approximately 60 SKUs total.

Lyon said the brief trial run of the concept (both spaces opened in August) had given sales a boost, although he declined to reveal how much.

Looking ahead, the CEO said the company would consider building similar in-store spaces as it refreshes its doors in seasons to come.

“This opportunity is open to all our brand partners,” Lyon said. “It’s an initiative we like.”

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