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Comfort Rolling Out New Lines

Brands are banking on their proven track records to convince retailers to try something new.

Launching a new brand in a challenging economy is risky business. But for established comfort players with new collections, the odds are in their favor. While retailers may be reluctant to take a chance on rookie brands without a proven track record, they might be more inclined to add new lines from already successful brands.

David Astobiza, owner of Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Sole Desire, is one retailer who is always willing to consider new initiatives from his current roster of vendors. Now more than ever, he said, “we need to be open-minded so as not to get into a rut of black and brown [shoes].”

Mindy Henderson, manager and buyer of The Shoe Mill in Tempe, Ariz., also considers the challenging economy an opportunity to try something different — particularly from vendors with which she has strong relationships. “Lots of vendors come up with new stuff, and I try it,” she said. “You have to to stay fresh.”

Jack Levine, co-owner of Rochester, N.H.-based Shoe Concepts, has his own formula for keeping the store fresh, while not going too far out on a limb. “If we’re adding something new, it’s something we heard good things about from other retailers,” he said. “It may not be a brand new line, but it’s new for us.”

For example, this past spring, Shoe Concepts introduced the Picante collection

of tooled leather sandals from Spring Footwear, a vendor that is new to the store. “People loved it,” Levine said, adding that he expects to continue with it for spring ’10. For fall ’09, he is adding Fly London, another brand that is established but new to

his mix.

To give their retail accounts the newness they are seeking, vendors are stepping up with expanded offerings — everything from new styles to new categories. High-end fashion-comfort brand Pas de Rouge will debut its first sandal collection next spring. “Retailers asked for them,” said John Roselli, president of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.-based Team Roselli, the brand’s distributor. “We’re trying to have a point of difference — uniqueness is important. We try to tell that to our customers.”

Roselli said he believes it is essential that established brands step out of the box with fresh product in this economic climate. “You’ve got to offer consumers something different,” he said.

Clarks, based in Newton Upper Falls, Mass., had been working on its new Elements women’s collection for some time, with no firm launch date set. But recently, it spotted an opportunity in the current economy and prepped the collection for a spring ’10 introduction. “[President] Bob Infantino decided two weeks ago that the line was ready to bring to The WSA Show,” said Margaret Newville, VP of marketing. “We wanted to get it out there. We think the retailer is still looking for new things.”

The $85-to-$90 collection focuses on flexible, lightweight clog and sandal styles in leathers with a natural feel. “Consumers are looking for versatility,” she said. “We’re not afraid to bring the shoes to WSA and have retailers get them in for fourth quarter.”

Newville admitted that Elements comes with a definite advantage: the Clarks heritage. “Retailers will be looking at brands they trust,” she said. “Clarks is one of those.”

Fifty-year-old Hush Puppies also is betting retailers and consumers will go with brands with a history. “When things are tough, retailers and consumers look to brands they know,” said Dani Zizak, VP and director of global marketing for the Rockford, Mich.-based company. “Our challenge is to add freshness and unique twists to complement our core values.”

For spring, Hush Puppies has updated its Body Shoe line — first launched in the 1980s and since distributed on a limited basis — with the latest technologies and components. “We’ve made it relevant,” Zizak said.

When it comes to branching out with new concepts during a difficult time, Ariat International, known for its clog-inspired styles, has experience under its belt. After seeing success with the spring ’09 launch of its Southcoast collection of sandals on lightweight, low-profile outsoles, the Union City, Calif.-based company is broadening the offering for spring ’10.

According to Bruce Kaplan, GM and national sales manager, the spring ’09 collection quickly sold out. “The inventory evaporated during a tough season,” he said. Banking on a repeat performance, Ariat will add three edgier styles for the coming season. “If the product mix is compelling and the items are right,” Kaplan said, “retailers are going to buy as aggressively as always.”