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Rival sneaker marketers Airwalk and Vans are both set to launch

e-commerce initiatives this fall, becoming the first major athletic footwear brands to sell shoes through their Web sites.

Brand marketing is at the heart of the efforts, not a desire to radically depart from traditional retail channels. Still, the trade has been wary of what e-commerce might do to chains such as Foot Locker or boutiques and specialty stores that carry brands such as Vans and Airwalk. The consensus among several retailers is these first forays pose little threat to their business but do bear watching.


One reason retailers aren't sweating these moves is because both Airwalk and Vans will be selling products retailers have chosen not to order. A slumping footwear market, coupled with a fashion shift toward clean, white looks, is causing retailers to order conservative styles and proven winners.

But offering the safer styles from Airwalk and Vans means an edginess and creativity integral to the brands' personalities doesn't show up at retail. Airwalk is known for off-the-wall sneakers. Vans' retailers used to let consumers order customized versions of their slip-on and "old school" shoes, with color schemes of their own choosing.

So this fall, Airwalk will retail 12 different shoes through its Web site (, handled by Airwalk's ad agency, Lambesis, Del Mar, Calif. And before the end of the year, consumers will be able to design and order their own Vans shoes at Vans is currently in talks with several undisclosed interactive agencies to help.

"We don't want to compete with our retail accounts, but at the same time we want to be risky and innovative and give the kid what he wants when he wants," said Greg Woodman, Airwalk's VP-marketing and sales, adding success online may inspire traditional retailers to order these edgier styles.


Mr. Woodman said the company "wrestled" with whether to offer a broader selection of styles, but opted against it for now. He said pricing wouldn't undercut traditional retailers.

"We're doing this really to build the brand, to remind people of our brand's heritage, and to offer some of the old shoes you can't get at retail. We have some big loyalists who still love the old school look," said Jay Wilson, Vans' VP-marketing.

Mr. Wilson said these efforts focus on making the brands more meaningful to teen-agers who watch and participate in extreme sports and alternative culture. Sales at both companies have been on the rise over the past few years, but increased success and size have sparked some backlash from core hipsters who prefer their brands to be uncommercialized.

For Airwalk, one-to-one marketing will be its mantra in 1999. Mr. Woodman said the company plans a significant retreat from what he calls the "carpet bombing" approach to advertising and marketing. This year, unmeasured media constitutes 20% of its marketing budget. It's being increased to 70% next year.

Airwalk's brand has been rooted in sports, fashion and entertainment. The latter will get emphasized in 1999. Spring and fall TV and print ads will direct consumers to its Web site, which is seen as a channel for entertainment and information pertaining to extreme sports and alternative culture. Lambesis will create that work, which will run in even more targeted media. Comedy Central's "South Park" will be a primary TV vehicle. A consumer database is being built for a major direct marketing initiative. Identifying as a trend among hip teens an appreciation for vinyl records, Airwalk will release 7-inch records every quarter featuring both signed and independent, unsigned bands to members of a soon-to-be-formed "7-inch club." Airwalk is looking to license or create sticker books, postcards, even zines. And the company is in negotiations with unspecified parties to create a branded block of radio programming called "Radio Free Airwalk."


"We are refocusing and rebuilding with the 12-to-18-year-old," Mr. Woodman said. "Teens appreciate a more one-to-one approach. . . . Maybe it's what we should've been doing all along. It was fun to grow a couple hundred million overnight, but it was inorganic. This is more organic."

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