Wellness Profile: Alegria by PG Lite

After hitting the market two years ago, funky rocker-bottom brand Alegria by PG Lite has already left its footprint in 10 countries and 500 stores nationwide. But rather than cash in on the current wellness craze, the label has preferred to tell a simple comfort and fashion story.

“We don’t want to get into what everyone [else in wellness] is doing,” said Luke Chen, COO of Pompano Beach, Calif.-based parent company Peppergate Footwear. “We don’t want to throw out technical jargon. Comfort is still the backbone of the shoes.” Chen noted that in 2009, business doubled for the brand.

Elliot Eaizer, president of Orva Shoes in New York, agreed that comfort — along with the shoes’ novelty uppers in patchwork, floral and paisley patterns — has driven many sales for the brand. Alegria customers, he said, are looking for more affordable and trend-driven product than MBT offers. (The Alegria line starts at $90 for the Venice sandals and tops out at $165 for the Sedona shearling boot — well below MBT’s $250 price point.) “It’s two different consumers,” according to Eaizer.

While Alegria may play up the fashion attributes rather than wellness benefits, Peppergate is no stranger to the therapeutic market. After launching in 1991 with men’s comfort shoes, the company expanded into the medical arena in 2000, producing private-label product. In 2003, it abandoned that business and created its own therapeutic footwear under the PG Lite name.

Using its expertise in medical footwear, Peppergate worked on Alegria’s outsole for nearly three years. And despite the fact that the shoes are engineered to roll naturally to help reduce metatarsal pressure and encourage proper posture, management decided not to make any medical claims regarding the health benefits they deliver. Instead, the brand’s proprietary footbed has been the focus.

“The footbed is more important than the outsole,” said Chen, noting that the patent-pending, anatomically designed footbed incorporates memory foam for long-lasting comfort.

While the brand is known for its closed and open-back clog silhouettes and Mary Jane styles, boots and sandals have also been added to the line, which boasts more than 100 SKUs on its signature high- and newer low-profile bottoms. To continue to offer unique materials and uppers, design director Megan Gold hand drew the artwork for this spring’s Peace & Love style. And this fall, a ballet style will be added.

“[The company] made a commitment and investment in styles, patterns and colors,” said chief executive marketing officer Sheri Poe.

Hoping to take the brand even further, the company coined the tag line “What does happy look like?” and launched the Website Happylookslike.com. And in the first quarter of 2010, a new site will gather fans and followers from Facebook and Twitter, creating a common place for consumers to interact directly online, Chen explained. “We want to create a strong connection with our customers, and one way to do that is to launch a campaign where they have direct input on new styles,” he said.

At Debo’s, a seven-unit chain in Charlotte, N.C., Alegria is the store’s top Euro-sized comfort line.

“It’s all about the variety of color and fashion with comfort,” said buyer Derek Critcher. “Patents and printed patterns are selling well. We are finding that customers who normally buy black and brown are stepping out and being receptive to fashion colors. Customers are purchasing four to six pairs at a time.”

And though comfort-oriented footwear typically appeals to more mature consumers, the brand also has received a favorable response from a broader audience. “We thought she would be 35 and [older],” said Chen. “But as we grew the line and added different patterns, we were noticing [not only] moms and grandmas were buying it but daughters too.”

Nurses also are among Alegria’s biggest supporters these days. “We hit a niche,” Chen said about the uniform market, which accounts for 30 percent of sales. “[Nurses are] on their feet for 12-hour shifts. They need comfortable shoes. They’re our toughest critics.”

The line’s immediate popularity at Scrubwagon, a medical apparel shop in Winston-Salem, N.C., prompted owner Eric Johnson in October 2008 to launch Alegriashoeshop.com, a Website devoted to the brand.

Thanks to the site’s success, in July 2009, Johnson bowed Alegria’s first and only brick-and-mortar store, located adjacent to Scrubwagon. Johnson has an agreement to sell the brand in his independently owned store. “Sales in the store are through the roof,” said Johnson, adding that total business for the Website and store doubled three times between June and November. And though sales for December were not as robust, business was still up, according to Johnson.

Alegria now accounts for two-thirds of Peppergate’s sales, but management is nonetheless planning to pull in the reins this year. “We don’t want to grow too fast,” said Chen, estimating a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in 2010. “We do have a lot of things in mind, but we’re still a small company.”

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