|(Posted 9/25/2005) |
By Shannon McMahon for the San Diego * Union-Tribune. Edited by Josh Rabinowitz for SkateboardDirectory.com
San Diego, California * -- Maybe it's the tongue. Or the short toe. Or the puffy exterior.
Whatever it is that makes skate shoes cool, their sales are surging, and skateboard footwear is gaining popularity even among kids who've never picked up a board.
Skate shoes outpaced all other athletic shoes in sales last year, according to the NPD Group, a marketing research firm. A study they conducted found that while demand for running shoes grew by less than 2 percent, sales of skate shoes increased by more than 19 percent over the previous year.
The difference in those sales figures is that running shoes are often bought by people who actually run. Skate shoes, on the other hand, are often bought by people who want to look the part.
"The 14-year-old kid who doesn't ride a skateboard still wants to look like a skateboarder," said Ed Dominick, president of Vox Footwear in Encinitas.
This trend has translated into a boon for the action sports industry in San Diego County and reshaped the way skate shoe companies develop and market their products.
Before skateboarding was considered a sport worth catering to, skateboarders had to seek out shoes that would hold up to the stress. They glommed onto Vans *, which in the 1960s introduced so-called vulcanized shoes, in which a rubber sole was cooked onto the body of the shoe.
As the sport grew, shoe manufacturers started to cater to the skaters.
Today, San Diego County, considered by many to be the cradle of skateboarding, has become the skate shoe capital of the world, said John Bernards, executive director of the International Association of Skateboard Companies *.
It is home to eight companies – Dekline, DC Shoes *, Hawk Shoes *, Vox Footwear, Adio Footwear *, Fallen Footwear, Osiris Shoes * and Duffs International – devoted to developing the next hot skate shoe.
The company that led the charge in the 1980s was Airwalk, a now-defunct firm in Carlsbad that developed an oversized shoe that combined an inflated tongue, thick sole, suede exterior and air pockets that cushioned the foot.
These innovations are not necessary for successful skateboarding, although skateboarders believe they improve board control and protect their feet from flying boards.
Yet they are essential to the sartorial persona and fashion sensibilities of professional skateboarders, complementing their low-slung jeans and fitted shirts. Airwalk used wild colors to enhance the design and promote an underground fashion statement.
In the 1990s, DC Shoes made major advances in shoe design. It added stronger fabrics, multidensity rubber, gel pockets, plastic eyelets that encased exposed shoelaces and soles with a gumlike grip that improved foot-to-board traction. As skate shoes began to resemble tiny life rafts for the feet, DC Shoes began to dominate the action-sports footwear market.
In the mid-1990s, skate shoes went mainstream. Their evolution was influenced as strongly by popular culture as by the demands of skateboarding. In the past five years, the loud, blocky skate shoe has fallen from favor as the hip-hop culture of the 1990s faded. The current style reflects the punk-rock look of the 1970s.
Today's shoes are slimmed-down versions of their former selves. The colors are less outlandish and more suited to everyday wear.
"We had to completely re-trend our style," said Hans Molenkamp of Osiris Shoes. "The change happened literally within a year. We saw the pros doing it first. With kids it has happened within the last two to three years."
Within the past year, fewer boys are participating in the sport.
Skateboarding peaked in popularity in 2003 * with almost 13 million skaters, according to Board-Trac, a firm that follows the industry. Today, Board-Track measures that there are just less than 12 million skaters.
But skate shoe companies have weathered the downturn because the sport has reached its critical mass.
Skateboarding video games have brought in billions of dollars. The X Games are a proven success, and skatepark * construction is happening across the country.
"The (skate) shoe market is booming right now," said Cullen Poythress, senior editor of skateboarding at Transworld * Business, pointing to the industry's mainstream appeal. "There are more shoe companies now than ever before."
To meet the current demand and capitalize on the niche's potential, traditional sneaker companies such as Nike *, Adidas * and Reebok have spent millions to make popular skate shoes.
Skate shoes generate more sales than any other segment in the action sports niche, according to both Board-Trac and the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, which track the category. Skate shoe sales reached $1.5 billion last year, with 24 million pairs sold, a Board-Trac study found.
In 2004 *, skate shoe sales accounted for 28 percent of total retail sales in the category, more than sandal and jeans sales combined, according to Board-Trac.
"What we're seeing now is more saturation in the market," said Ken Block, president and co-founder of DC Shoes. The Vista company was sold to Quiksilver * for $87 million in cash and stock last year. "When we started making skate apparel 15 years ago, this was a small market."
Adidas is debuting three footwear and apparel collections geared to skaters in its fall collection. Reebok signed its first skate athlete, Stevie Williams *, in December.
After several failures, Nike gained street credibility with its Nike SB Dunk Low Pro, a retro-style shoe based on footwear popular in the late 1980s.
"When you have huge companies trying to break in, you can see that there's something here," said Dave Ahumada, brand manager for Adio Shoes in Carlsbad. "It speaks to our industry as a whole. Skate shoes are being elevated to the next level and we're all a part of that."
To maintain sales, companies must maintain credibility with active skateboarders.
One key to credibility is gradual distribution. Most skate and surf shops are family-owned businesses with one location. Brands make their names at this level, but to grow – and weather economic downturns – they must enter larger markets. When Airwalk tried to expand beyond skate shoes, skateboarders shunned the company for dipping too deep into the mainstream. In its early days, Airwalk had a segmentation strategy – core distributors were given more cutting edge, technical shoes than major retailers.
The method worked until Airwalk switched its distribution strategy by giving the same shoes to malls and specialty shops. Small retailers and skaters didn't like seeing the same shoes in JC Penney stores and their local skate shops. Brand loyalty died, and Airwalk – a company that had sales of roughly $175 million in 1996 * – went under.
Smaller companies, such as Vox, plan to focus their appeal to their core consumers.
"We're skateboarder specific. We're not trying to sell to any other market," said Dominick, who co-founded Vox this year. If you appeal to the core group of skateboarders, mainstream "people are going to buy the shoes anyway, so we don't have to market to them."
This article was originally entitled "Skating to the top: Sport's footwear gains popularity, even among those who have never owned a board" and was found at http://www.signonsandiego.com/ news/business/20050925- 9999-mz1b25skate.html
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