In the past three years, See Kai Run has transformed into a major contender in children’s footwear.
The Seattle-based firm, founded in 2004, has evolved from a leather baby shoe resource into a full-fledged kids’ brand, encompassing a range of categories, sizes and price points. And the expanded offering has allowed the company to nearly double its growth since 2011, according to CEO Brandon Pemberton, who joined that year, after original founder Cause Haun sold the company to San Francisco-based Fundamental Capital.
“When I came on board, the company was at a real inflection point: We could become a [baby] lifestyle brand or we could become a children’s footwear brand. We chose to make significant investments in product and center our growth strategy on building the footwear business,” said Pemberton.
To that end, See Kai Run, which is carried by Nordstrom, Piperlime.com and a mix of independents, embarked on an aggressive rollout of new product lines. Among them are Kai, a collection of toddler and preschool shoes, launched in 2011; and Sneakers, a fashion-driven vulcanized program debuted in 2012. Sizes geared to grade school-age kids were added to the Kai and Sneakers offerings this year. And this spring, the brand will introduce Runners, a collection of lightweight summer shoes designed for active play and for use in the water. “We want to become a destination brand that can cover all footwear needs for children,” Pemberton explained.
Although the transition beyond the baby market can be difficult for some infant companies, Nuria Hansen, See Kai Run’s director of product development, said consumers have embraced the new merchandise. “Each time we launch something new, it takes the market a season or two to catch up, but we’re already seeing a lot of success, particularly in the bigger sizes,” she said. “Our customers are very loyal. They don’t want their children to outgrow our brand.”
The Runners line takes See Kai Run into a category with stiff competition from the likes of Keen, Merrell, Tsukihoshi and others. “We created the line for our customers who would rather have these types of shoes from us than from other brands,” Hansen said. “The shoes have all those important performance aspects, but with our unique aesthetic and point of view.”
Priced from $35 to $44, the Runners assortment includes colorful sneakers, sandals and Mary Jane shoes, featuring flexible rubber bottoms and washable, quick-drying mesh and synthetic uppers.
With the Sneakers collection, now in its third season at retail, See Kai Run takes a more casual approach than with its core leather line, allowing the brand to open distribution to more urban and even athletic stores. “We’re getting some pretty broad retail placement,” Pemberton said of the $40-to-$44 collection. “We’re experimenting with fun, kid-centric graphic prints and materials such as canvas and textiles. It’s been another great vehicle for trend and fashion expression.”
See Kai Run’s retail accounts are bullish about the label’s expanded offering. “I’m really pleased with the new options for bigger kids, like the Kai line. The unique styling you expect from the brand comes through, but the materials and designs are [geared to older] kids who are rougher and tougher on their feet,” said Erin Carter, owner of Berkeley, Calif.-based boutique Kid Dynamo. “The lower-priced Sneakers line is fun and easy, and a great way to introduce customers to the brand.”
Added Carisa Fegers, owner of Little Feet Children’s Shoes, with locations in Minnetonka and Maple Grove, Minn., “We have a lot of parents who’ve put their kids in See Kai Run shoes [since they were babies], and they’ve now outgrown the line. We love that they are making larger sizes.” She noted that the brand has strong potential outside the baby category. “We’ve seen consistent sales increases with each season [as See Kai Run has expanded its offering]. If our store is any indication, they will do very well.”
Pemberton said the company aims to further broaden its footwear assortment. “We believe there is an opportunity for our brand to capture all sorts of different wearing occasions,” he said.
Still, Pemberton is adamant about keeping the company’s focus on shoes and has no plans to pursue other product categories. In fact, See Kai Run launched a line of organic cotton socks and tights in 2011 but has since exited that business. “We want to focus our attention exclusively on the footwear business,” Pemberton said. “[As one among a small group of independent, kids’-specific brands] remaining today, we have a real advantage. We truly understand children’s feet and how to design healthy shoes. We’re not an adult brand making kids’ shoes.”
Next year, See Kai Run will celebrate its 10th anniversary, although specific plans for marking the milestone are still under wraps. Pemberton said the company’s significant strides have made for an exciting time. “Three years ago, we were strictly a first-walker company. We were a tiny brand, and now we’re a small brand,” he said. “We’ve experienced a lot of growth in the last few years, but we still have much more ahead.”