Nike Women's Biz Gets Pounded as Toning Footwear Kicks Butt

Skechers, Reebok Rack Up Sales With 'Derriere-Enhancing' Shoes While Market Leader Sits Out Explosive Segment

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Nike looks to have woman trouble.

The footwear and apparel behemoth's share of the U.S. women's footwear market slipped to 29% last month, down from 36.5% in the year-earlier period, according to SportsOneSource. Its sales of women's footwear, meanwhile, declined by mid-single digits even as the category grew in the teens.

It's no mystery where they went: Skechers and Reebok. Skechers tripled its share during the same period, climbing to 16.5% from 5.5%, and Reebok nearly did the same, jumping to 8% from 3.3%. Both of those marketers have invested heavily in the hugely popular segment of toning shoes, which artificially create additional resistance and turn a simple walk into more of a workout. Reebok is at work trying to widen its franchise with additional products including apparel under its Easy Tone brand.

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THE SALES RACE: Change in U.S. market share of women's footwear among leading brands, 2010 vs. 2009.
"The explosion of growth in this space in such a short period of time eclipses nearly everything I have witnessed in the industry over the last 25 years," said Herbert Hainer, CEO of Reebok parent Adidas. "We are well on track to selling at least 5 million pairs of toning footwear in the U.S. alone this year."

Not Nike's style
But Nike refuses to sell toning shoes, which it says don't fit with its performance-obsessed brand.

"Unlike today's toning products, we won't ask the consumer to compromise on stability, flexibility or any other key performance characteristics as they train," a company spokesman said in a statement.

The spokesman added that the company has a range of new women's training products set for fall and winter release. And, speaking to investors last month, CEO Mark Parker promised "more compelling presentations at retail" aimed at women, calling the category "a massive opportunity" for the company.

Some analysts, however, suggest the category may be more challenge than opportunity at the moment. "It's more nuanced than just [not selling] toning," said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource. "They're also losing business in nontechnical, fashion styles."

Part of the problem, said Mr. Powell, is a surge among competitors who talk to women in a very different manner than Nike does. Nike's testosterone-soaked "Just Do It" tone has always been an uneasy fit with women, although it didn't prevent the company from acquiring the largest share of the segment sales by beating out competitors who, at times, seemed to be doing their best to mimic the market leader.

Reebok's work
Take Reebok: The brand was an aerobics sensation in the women's-fitness space when it made its debut in the U.S. during the 1980s, but it gradually drifted into performance-oriented pitches for team sports, inking high-profile sponsorship deals with athletes such as Allen Iverson. It even set a deal to make NFL jerseys.

The company has, however, in recent years refocused on its core women consumers, and those efforts are clearly paying off -- at Nike's expense. "There is a huge market opportunity out there that is not attracted by win-at-all-costs communication," said Katrin Ley, Reebok's VP-brand strategy and women's business.

Ms. Ley said that the marketer's research showed that, while female consumers viewed the Reebok brand as dormant for some time, they still thought of it as approachable and fun, and "they still felt openness to us and felt that we still had the right to reconnect" with them.

BUM DEAL: Reebok has benefited from its fun approach to selling its toning sneakers.
BUM DEAL: Reebok has benefited from its fun approach to selling its toning sneakers.
So the company has focused its energy behind its Easy Tone line -- marketed with taglines such as "Get a better butt" -- and a training-shoe line called ZigTech that it describes as "an energy drink for your feet." Both efforts have been backed with TV, print, retail and digital efforts from ad agency DDB, which works on the brand in U.S. and European offices.

Look for more to come: A running version of the toning shoes and a related apparel line are hitting the market soon, and apparently without toning-category competition from Nike, which continues to sneer at the space.

That's OK with Ms. Ley. "If you look at toning, it's focusing on the walking category, which has been dormant for awhile," she said. "Now walking is sexy again."

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