Retailers Bank on Strong B-T-S

NEW YORK — This year’s back-to-school season will get a big boost from strong athletic sales.

“I definitely think it will be better than last year,” said Famous Footwear VP and DMM for athletics Jason Short. “Back-to-school is shaping up to be almost a perfect storm for athletics. We have more color in the market than we’ve ever had, more innovation and this is an Olympic year. The brand community is doing a great job of packing more into a shoe, whether it’s $120 or $60. We’re feeling very optimistic.”

Kids’ retailers around the country agreed that athletic styles are boosting business this season.

Eddie Quintana, owner of children’s shoe store Sesame Step in Miami, noted his back-to-school sales have already seen double-digit increases, thanks to the popularity of athletic brands such as Nike.

“The Nike Free and the LunarGlides are on fire. The styles and colorways are so exciting that it’s propelling the sneaker business to another level,” he said.

Nike products also are selling well for Monica DeVreese, owner of Kids Corner in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“The Nike LunarGlide 4 and Nike Free Run 3 will continue to be big sellers for the boys,” she said. “The new Brooks Pure Flow for boys and girls is already off to a great start as well. The kids are going crazy for the bright colors. I am also really excited about the fall line from Tsukihoshi.They have done a great job of making their girls’ styles much more fun and fashionable.”

Analysts said momentum remains in athletic because there is still a lot of newness in product.

“A lot of lightweight running styles are less than $100, so they’re seen as a value purchase by parents. Even with any concern around the health of the U.S. economy or consumer spending, footwear is still a defensive category for back-to-school because kids grow out of their shoes,” said Kate McShane, analyst at Citi Investment Research.

Susquehanna Financial analyst Christopher Svezia noted, “Anything athletic-oriented will be a standout, but Toms Shoes and Sperry Top-Sider are still key items in the casual category. And don’t forget Steve Madden and Converse.”

In fact, Udi Avshalom, owner of three New York-based Training Camp stores, which are in the process of being rebranded as TC Supply Shop, is already seeing an 11 percent comparable-store sales increase on casual footwear this back-to-school season.

“I know that when the economy slows down, the kids want what I call ‘mileage footwear’ — something new and looks new for longer — so we brought in black and browns,” said Avshalom, who anticipates strong demand for brands such as Sperry and Clarks.

When it comes to promotional activity, however, reactions were mixed. While Svezia said lean inventories and smart product allocation should not lead to an intense promotional environment, some retailers still expect to lower prices to draw traffic.

At the five-store Val Surf chain, based in Southern California, co-owner Mark Richards predicted the store’s annual back-to-school sale, to be held this weekend, “will be pretty strong, [although] what happens after the sale is questionable.”

Avshalom also had reservations about discounting. “Everyone had a very strong first quarter at retail. Now we’re hearing about a huge slowdown,” he said. “I’m sure retailers will react by slashing prices.”

But not everyone will hang out the sale signs.

“We’re certainly not planning to be more promotional [at Famous Footwear],” said Short. “There are a lot of good [product] stories out there. By and large, there has been a lot of momentum going into fall.”

Meredith Wagner, co-owner of Wagner’s Shoes for Kids in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is upbeat after observing many customers buying multiple pairs. “People are willing to spend if it’s a good quality shoe,” she said.

Regardless, retailers are not leaving anything to chance, and many will up the ante with creative ways to drive traffic and sales.

“The biggest thing is our frequent buyer program. For every six pairs you buy, you get a discount up to half off. Customers, especially those with more than one child, really like this because they reach that sixth pair pretty quickly,” said Wagner.

DeVreese said she prefers to engage the community, sponsoring local events such as the Santa Barbara Kids Triathlon and hosting a children’s running club, which allows families to see new products in-store every week.

And a mixture of both community outreach and discounts work well for Quintana. “The schools distribute a coupon for us and customers are brought to the store through an effort with the school, where we sponsor a lot of their programs and fundraising. Coupons are for $5 or $8 off.”

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