Wulff Off to Running Start at Asics

LOS ANGELES — Under the leadership of newly appointed President and CEO Kevin Wulff, Asics America is seeking to grow with an increased emphasis on the lightweight running category, a new distribution facility and a fresh focus on the retail experience.

In an exclusive interview with Footwear News, Wulff said one of his priorities is to expand the brand beyond core performance running into other running categories, such as lightweight and lifestyle. “We’re dominant in performance running, but we want to be the leading brand in all segments of running … and to hit more price points [in the market],” he said.

Wulff, who joined Asics America in August as COO, was named president in February and last month added the CEO title. In addition to executive roles at Nike Inc. and Nike Canada, Wulff also has served as president and CEO of Pony International; and president and CEO of American Sporting Goods Inc.

While Asics has long worked with lightweight technologies, Wulff said new innovations are designed to capture both casual runners and the lifestyle component of the market. Earlier this month, the brand introduced the 33 by Asics collection of lightweight running shoes, retailing for $80 to $85 exclusively at Champs, Finish Line, Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker and Sports Authority.

“[The line is for] a little younger consumer, [with] uppers that are fun with a lot of color,” said Wulff. “It’s a collection that will complement [our performance product] and is growing quite rapidly with the lightweight running movement.”

Sports Authority EVP and chief merchant Gwen Manto said the collection drops at a time when trends for running shoes and color are hitting a fever pitch. “We couldn’t be more bullish on Asics,” she said. “It’s such an important brand for our customer. It hits on both trends that are working for us: lightweight and color. This is really what I would call additional business for them.”

For his part, SportsOneSource analyst Matt Powell said the timing was right for Asics to expand beyond performance running and capitalize on the strength of the running trend.

“It’s exactly the right move,” he said. “Performance running has its limits in terms of how large the market is. The non-technical side of the business is way bigger than the size of the market that actually runs.”

Sam Sato, president and chief merchandising officer at Finish Line, also said he liked what he saw in the new collection. “Continued product innovation by our key vendor partners is critical to us, and we are encouraged by what we are seeing from Asics,” he said. “To remain relevant to our target consumer, Asics rightly recognized the opportunity for a strong lightweight strategy, and they’ve met that opportunity.”

Marketing for the new collection focuses more on product than in past campaigns. Previously, the company tended to steer its ads toward creating an emotional connection with the Asics brand as a whole.

Wulff said another key initiative at the firm is improving its service with retailers. In June, the company will debut a 500,000-sq.-ft. distribution facility in Byhalia, Miss., that should be fully operational by August. “It’s a significant investment to be able to deliver on time, reduce our costs and provide better service,” Wulff said.

Improving the in-store experience is also a priority. Asics is developing new shop-in-shop concepts, as well as fresh in-store merchandising and display fixturing.

Wulff also is working to build up the management ranks at the company. Last month, former VP of marketing Gary Slayton was named VP of emerging business. Slayton is replaced by former Anchor Blue exec Erik Forsell. Meanwhile, VP of sales Jim Hoff resigned on April 1 and a search for a replacement is under way. “We have one of the most talented and experienced teams in the industry, and we’re also bringing in fresh talent and ideas. We feel we’re making good progress, and the team is pretty excited about it,” Wulff said.

“We have for the first time relatively comprehensive three- and five-year plans,” he added. “We’re trying to identify where our opportunities are and where we can continue to grow. People know us as a product company, and we’re looking to re-energize that and push some boundaries.”

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