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Despite recent numbers indicating a softness at retail in athletic footwear, vendors still see growth opportunity in children’s, the driving force behind the athletic business. Manufacturers who have long been in kids’ are increasing their commitment, those who abandoned the category are jumping back into it, and others are testing the waters for the first time this season.

Reebok

A long-time contender In children’s athletic footwear, Reebok is restructuring Its approach to kids’ for fall ’98 to get the maximum potential from its children’s division. According to Dennis Baldwin, director of children’s marketing, the children’s division will offer two categories: plantar fasciitis insoles, which are takedowns of adults, and kid-specific styles. Baldwin says children between the ages of 8 and 11 continue to demand authentic product brought down from the adult collection. But for youth ages 10 and younger, the company sees an opportunity for kid-specific product at better price points.

Last year, Reebok introduced new technology to adults called DMX, a cushioning system incorporating dynamic or moving air. This year, the company is bringing the same technology down to kids. Key models include the Juke DMX 10, which is a cross training shoe. This shoe will be worn by featured running backs, including Emmit Smith of the Dallas Cowboys. With a suggested retail price point of $80, this model boasts ultimate heel-to-toe cushioning provided by a ten-pod air transfer system, and a molded midsole for lightweight, durable cushioning. The DMX 10 will be offered in junior sizes 3.5 to 7 and will be available in two colorways.

There is also a basketball model called the Vision DMX, which will be worn by Boston Celtic Chauncey Billups as well as other NBA key guards. The Vision, offered at a suggested retail price of $75, features DMX 6 technology, a CMEVA midsole for lightweight cushioning and stability, a rubber outsole for traction and durability and combination material uppers for comfort and breathability. Available only in junior sizes 3.5 to 7, the silhouette will be shown in three colorways, including a black/dark green/metallic silver and will be introduced in June.

In its kids-only division, Reebok has created a wide-range of back-to-school product that expands across the major categories. It’s in this category, says Baldwin, that Reebok projects the greatest growth. “Price is the main issue when addressing kids ages toddler to 10, and parents want the most value. We please the parent, and at the same time please the kids with aggressive designs.” The first in this collection is a basketball shoe called the Proof II. Available in junior, children’s, toddler, and crib sizes, this silhouette features a leather/mesh upper, mid-cut design and a sculpted rubber outsole. It’s available in more than four colorways, including a white/insignia blue/metallic gold combo. The suggested retail price range is $22 for a crib shoe to $40 for junior sizes.

The running silhouette is called the Sizzle 11 and is available in junior sizes 1-7 for boys, and 1-6 for girls. It features a mesh/synthetic upper and a molded EVA midsole for comfort. The suggested retail price is $48. And in the cross training category, there is the Venom, an aggressive looking silhouette with a unique metallic logo treatment. It features a mesh upper, a sculpted rubber outsole and ghilly lacing, and is available in both junior and children’s sizes with a suggested retail value beginning at $40.

In addition, Reebok is placing a greater emphasis on its girls category. As a sponsor of the ABL, Baldwin says Reebok is committed to female athletes and sees the importance of nurturing young women in sports. In addition to three girl-specific silhouettes added to its kids–only collection, the company has also developed performance products for girls. In the fourth quarter, there will be a reintroduction of the Saudia Roundtree shoe, Arid the Lobo II, named after the WNBA super star Rebecca Lobo, will debut in June 1998. It features a leather upper, a mid-cut design, a multi-directional outsole and a CMEVA midsole. The suggested retail price point is $55.

Vans

Vans says it believes the children’s category has been largely neglected by athletic footwear firms and sees tremendous opportunity in the category. In May ’97, the company hired Sharon Lee, formerly with L.A. Gear, as senior designer of women’s and children’s. In fact, Lee says the problems at L.A. Gear have opened up the children’s market and “everyone is fighting for a piece of the business.” According to Lee, the performance category is very important for kids. Last season was the first time Vans downsized its performance silhouettes, and the company will continue to do the same for fall. Seven new models will be introduced for fall ’98, including the Shake, the Sonus and the Knu School.

The Shake is a skateshoe from men’s performance unlimited. It’s a higher-end silhouette featuring a new performance outsole, a suede and mesh combination upper, aggressive rubber side stripes and a bubble window. The suggested retail price starts at $42. The Sonus is another takedown featuring a suede and mesh combination upper with interesting stitching on the original cupsole. In boys’ the suggested retail is $40 and for youth, it’s $35. The Knu Skool is a spin-off of Vans’ traditional vulcanized shoe the Old Skool. Knu Skool features cold cement processing for more durability and comfort, a molded side stripe and updated colors. Suggested retail price starts at $40 for youth sizes.

Although Vans originally hired Lee to produce both take downs and kid-specific items, Lee says the company accounts weren’t ready for it. As brand awareness spreads throughout the children’s market, Lee says Vans will again try to introduce a core group of kid-specific items.

As for girl-specific product, Vans is taking the Carabeth, named after the signature skate rider, down into girls for fall ’98. Introduced in women’s sizes for spring ’98, the Carabeth features a suede upper on a traditional skate lost with a sun emblem on the heel. The emblem is a replica of Carabeth’s trademark tattoo. The shoe will retail for $39.

Fila

While take-downs still dominate Fila’s kids’ line, the company’s children’s division is incorporating more kid-specific colorways and material into the takedown selections. Fila’s new technology–2A–is becoming increasingly important in kids’ and is featured in several of the key children’s styles. In basketball, one of the top profiles is the Webber, which features Fila’s patented 2A cushioning system, a molded basketball grain leather upper with nubuck details, a mesh insert for breathability and a wrapped polyurethane midsole. Available in two colorways, the silhouette is available in boys’ sizes 3.5 to 6 at a suggested retail price of $70. In cross training, the Turf Burner is an important silhouette. It features a lightweight upper with leather and breathable mesh, a speed lace system for enhanced upper support and a low profile cupsole designed with traction pods to ensure a secure grip on all surfaces. Available in trubuck and leather in sizes 3.5 to 6, the shoe will be available at a suggested retail price point of $55. And in running, the Voltage goes down to infants’, and features a synthetic and mesh upper for breathability and support, a ghilly lacing system for great fit, a cushioned innersole for added comfort and a dual density EVA midsole/outsole. The suggested price point starts at $45. Chelle Orenstein, children’s business category manager, says to expect a full line of kid-specific sandals in spring ’99. As part of its committment to women and girls, Fila is sponsoring Nikki McCray, originally of the ABL and now touted as one of the poster women of the WNBA. The company has even designed a shoe using her name and is bringing it down to girls sizes 10 1/2 to 4 at a $48 value.

Adidas

In fall ’98, Adidas will be concentrating on separating its distribution and creating product for specific channels of distribution. According to Ken Thornby, category product manager, this new strategy will result in a wider array of product, specifically for family footwear. Highlighted products for fall are the Ozweego-J, a running profile featuring lightweight synthetic leather and open mesh, a three-strip design for exceptional fit and a compressed, molded EVA midsole/outsole. The product will hit the shelves in July, and will be featured in two colorways at a suggested retail price of $60. In cross training, the Sport-K will be an important profile featuring a lightweight leather and mesh combination upper on a full-rubber, non-marking cupsole. The womens shoes for bunions will be available in sizes 10.5 to 5 and will start at $45. In addition, the company is taking its Millennium basketball series, which in the post consisted of performance-driven shoes, and is making them more value priced. Super Star Millennium -J and the Super Star Millennium-C retail for $60 and $48, respectively. The Super Star Millennium will be available for $35.

In addition, look for more lifestyle categories in kids’. Adidas recently developed skate shoes and BMX product and will be bringing down one skate shoe into kids’ for holiday ’98. The outdoors category will also be key. The Garvite, Adidas’ signature adults’ hiker, is offered in kids for fall ’98, and Thornby says there will be others.

Skechers

After a tremendous spring ’98 with retailers, Skechers’ predicts further growth in children’s from 1996 to 1997, the children’s division tripled its size. Skechers’ commitment to its kids’ division can be seen in the development of an exclusive full-time children’s sales force. In addition, the company has designated a product development team strictly for its children’s business. For fall ’98, Skechers will introduce a few line of lighted footwear. The walking shoes for high arches are fashionable and stylish, so they are appealing even without the lights. New sequencing patterns have been developed and there will be more lights on each shoe. Styles will include oxfords, hikers, boots and sneakers. In girls’, new upper treatments and fabrications are key. Traditional skateboard silhouettes have been feminized by updated, feminine colors and fun treatments like metallics, glitter and holograms Outdoor styles, especially in boys’, are projected to be key sellers.

Asics

When Asics started to experience softness in the marketplace three years ago, it stopped building its youth business to focus on its adults’ category. Now that business has improved, the company is looking to expand in kids’. It believes a key to its success is the brand strength with parents. “Parents know our quality, our fit, the strength of our product, and they feel comfortable putting their children in our shoes,” says Jim Monahan, product marketing manager. The kids, line will be targeted to children ages 12 and under who wear sizes 1-6. Running will be an important category, which is natural since it’s the company’s number one category overall. New for fall is the GEL Travuco Junior, a trail running model featuring a studded, solid rubber outsole for good traction and an outsole forefoot, two-wrap cap for durability. In addition, there is the Gel Sport Junior, a take-down of the adult cross trainer. An outsole wrap makes it great for playground activity, and the gel in the heel provides extra comfort.

Converse

Converse has revamped its corporate ideology to focus on the company’s roots and heritage. The children’s division has taken this new focus and combined it with kids’ love of the game, resulting in a line of product that reflects both the company’s roots and a sense of playfulness. While the division will still be very involved in takedowns, Tonya Bhatt, children’s category manager, says most of the growth opportunity will be in kids-specific product. In the performance category, the react story is still important. Three new shoes have come down to kids’, including the Rival, a clean, yet aggressive cross trainer featuring a full EVA midsole. The suggested retail price point is $48. There is also the Wheel and Deal, which reintroduces the running basketball concept. At $55, the Wheel and Deal is very aggressive looking, yet it has a great price value.

In the kid-specific category, diversity is key. Bhatt says the division is going to focus on products ranging from athletic to original categories. In addition to silhouettes like the Blitz, an aggressive looking cross-trainer at a $38 price point, there will also be a skateboard type shoe and the continuation of Converse classics–the Chucks and In Stars in a new color palette.

Going forward, Bhatt says Converse will redirect more resources on girls’, a growing category for the company. Bhatt says the goal is to develop feminine, yet athletic and streamlined products for the discerning girl. Currently, the company is actively going after the girls market with girl specific colorways and a couple of new girlsAE lasts that provide both fashion and an exceptional fit.

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