The Walking Company Charts New Path

NEW YORK — For spring ’15, The Walking Co. is changing course.

In a move to expand its platform, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based comfort chain will begin offering its private-label Abeo collection to independent retailers.

Faced with a challenging real estate market, the company turned to wholesale to fuel growth, said COO Mike Grenley.

According to Grenley, Abeo, priced from $90 to $150, is expected to rack up sales of $80 million in 2014, a dramatic increase from its launch year in 2010, when it netted about $3 million in sales. Overall, Abeo accounts for one-third of company sales.

While The Walking Co. has put the focus on wholesale, it has scaled back on store openings. The chain will count 218 doors by the end of 2014, up slightly from 213 in 2010.

However, Grenley did not dismiss the possibility of adding more units in the future. “I wouldn’t say we have maxed out, but we see some changing demographics in the real estate world,” he said. “For the near future, [wholesale] is a better way to expand. It doesn’t mean we’re not opening stores, but we’re not going at the same pace and level.”

Grenley believes now is the time for the company to work with independents and develop a program to partner with stores rather than view them as competitors.

In fact, the move came after a number of retailers inquired about stocking Abeo, according to Grenley.

“We had been getting inquiries from independents for a while and we thought about it, but we weren’t ready,” he said. “[Now] we believe we will be offering a competitive package across the board.”

For their part, retailers expressed mixed feelings about the potential of Abeo.

Dave Astobiza, president of Sole Desire, a comfort chain based in Santa Rosa, Calif., which competes with The Walking Co. in Northern California, said that “anytime a retailer sells to another retailer, it can be a challenge.”

But Danny Wasserman, president of Tip Top Shoes in New York, noted Abeo could be an alternative for retailers that are unable to get key shoes from certain vendors. A similar style from Abeo could fill the void, he explained.

While Grenley acknowledged there is plenty of competition in the comfort sector, he’s confident Abeo’s proprietary technologies will give it an edge.

“It’s been developed as a bio-mechanically engineered product,” he said. “Everything within it has some technology story.”

Included in the offering is the B.I.O. series, which features a customized built-in orthotic that can be matched to an individual’s foot by a 3-D digital foot analysis system.

“Consumers get measured for length and width, [as well as] the contours of their foot,” said Grenley. “That’s the extra element.”

Other subdivisions of the brand include the Aero, featuring an air-flow technology designed to absorb shock and reduce impact. There is also Lite, a lightweight technology, and Smartsystem, developed and tested at Stanford University to reduce knee pain. In addition, Abeo offers a line of customized after-market orthotics.

For now, Grenley hasn’t set a long-term wholesale forecast for Abeo. “We’re not looking at creating wholesale to go out and drive giant numbers,” he said. “It’s a continuation of building the brand and enabling us to [distribute] internationally.”

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