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Shoppers Giving Costly Athletic Shoes the Boot

Apparel: Fashion shift, economic worries spurring many consumers to buy simpler, cheaper footwear.

September 09, 2002|LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shoppers who once thought nothing of shelling out $100 or more for fancy sneakers have pulled back sharply and are buying cheaper, simpler styles.

At the highest end of the market, sales of athletic shoes costing $150 or more plunged almost 41% in the first six months of 2002, according to recent market data. And some companies that make and sell hot youth brands say their customers aren't willing to shell out $85 for a pair of shoes for skateboarding anymore.

"Lower price points are growing and the higher price points are declining," said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD FashionWorld, a unit of Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group Inc., a market research firm.

Driving the change are a struggling economy that has made shoppers wary and a shift in fashion that is prompting the athletic shoe industry to try reinventing itself, as one insider put it.

After a decade of shoes laden with lights, flaps, "air bags" and even shock absorbers, many consumers now want sneakers that look downright old-fashioned, experts say.

"Has there been a period of overkill?" Cohen said. "We just left it."

At the Foot Locker Inc. store in Costa Mesa recently, 12-year-old Ryan Ripley skipped past the more expensive brands in favor of low-top Vans, black with a white stripe, for $38. "It's old school," he said.

Another young shopper said he'd prefer to have his parents buy him two pairs of modest-priced shoes rather than one costly pair.

"I don't like those $100 shoes," said Kevin Kung, 12, of Fountain Valley. "If you buy expensive shoes ... they say you should wear them all the time."

The U-turn back to basics reflects a much broader retro consumer trend that is sweeping the nation, evident in everything from Chrysler Corp.'s PT Cruisers to the "Scooby-Doo" film and paraphernalia, Cohen said.

That's not to say there won't always be buyers for snazzy shoes bearing the names of star athletes. For example, Foot Locker in Costa Mesa is selling out of some styles and colors of the $200 Jordan 17, which comes with a shoe-sized "suitcase," employees say. And serious athletes are likely to continue paying top dollar for performance shoes.

"For the rest of us, I don't think it matters that much anymore," said Fawn Evenson, vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Assn. in Arlington, Va.

Many people who were swept up in the high-tech shoe fever of the 1990s bought the eye-catching sneakers because they thought they looked cool, not because they needed them. Now, many of the extra touches just seem superfluous.

"Who cares if they're high-performance anyway?" Evenson said. "Why should I pay that much money for a shoe to walk to the Safeway?"

Even trend-setting skateboarders are looking for more basic, less-expensive shoes, retailers and manufacturers say.

When Hermosa Beach retailer Dave Hollander noticed that customers at his Becker Surf & Sport stores were bypassing his more expensive shoes earlier this year, he canceled some orders and began loading up on shoes that cost less.

"The only way to sell an $80 shoe was to drop the prices rather dramatically," said Hollander, who operates five stores in the Southland.

Generally, young shoe shoppers want less "razzle-dazzle" on shoes now, said Trent Armstrong, manager of the Becker Surf in Corona del Mar.

"Simpler, lighter, more basic shoes are what's doing well for us," he said.

Sole Technology Inc.--maker of the Emerica, etnies and es brands--has resurrected some older styles that are "more minimal" and less expensive, a spokeswoman said. The Lake Forest company's lower-priced styles now cost about $60, compared with $90 a year ago, she said.

In general, skate shoemakers are simply stripping away the unnecessary features, said Saba Haider, managing editor of TransWorld Skateboarding Business magazine. "The really teched-out shoes from the late 1990s would, obviously, cost a lot more money than simple shoes," she said.

A wide range of offerings--from stripped down to teched-out--was on display at the Action Sports Retailer trade show in San Diego last week.

Memphis Collection, a fledgling skate shoemaker in Carson and one of the exhibitors at the show, zeroed in on the back-to-basics trend, sales director Paul Ellis said. But by the time it was ready to show its line to retailers last week, a growing number of competitors were on the same bandwagon.

"We're kinda bummed about that," Ellis said.

Costa Mesa-based Hurley International Inc. launched its first men's shoe line at the show. Since the youth apparel maker was purchased earlier this year by athletic shoe giant Nike Inc., some retailers expected Hurley to present skate shoes with more technical features. But Hurley opted for simple, classic styles, priced from $36 to $65.

"We definitely talked to a lot of consumers and knew about the price they wanted to pay," Chief Executive Bob Hurley said. "It's not your $100 shoe that you'd go buy to run a marathon in."

As far as tennis player Casey Sheehan is concerned, a good shoe shouldn't cost $100 anyway. The Newport Beach resident says he was frustrated throughout the 1990s that he couldn't find the simple styles he likes at prices he could afford.

"I don't need air, I don't need funny lacing, I don't need stars and stripes," the trade show designer said. "I just need a functional court shoe."

So Sheehan was all smiles recently as he pulled no-nonsense sneakers--with $55 price tags--from the display wall at the South Coast Plaza Foot Locker.

"I'm here to buy a pair of shoes," Sheehan said, "and I wouldn't be here if these were $100."

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