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Athletic footwear marketers are finding there's still some spring left in the sneaker business' step.

More than 115 million pairs of athletic shoes were sold in the first four months of the year, up 5.2% from a year earlier, an Athletic Footwear Association-Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association survey found.

Dollar sales rose 1.4% to $3.38 billion, the footwear association said. Lower prices, hot new styles and aggressive marketing pumped some air back into a business that last year was deflated by the trendy outdoor look.

"The figures confirm financial reports from individual companies and what we hear from industry sources: that the post-recession demand for athletic footwear is greater than it has been for several years, but that competitive pressures are containing prices," said Gregg Hartley, the footwear association's executive director.

But the serious growth remains in outdoor footwear. Hiking boots topped $390 million at retail in '93, up 21%. Sandal sales zipped to $76 million, up 81%.

To boost athletic footwear sales, marketers have increased offerings in the $65 to $90 range and cut prices.

"The days of being able to crank out a $100 shoe and have consumers gobble it up are over. They want value," said Dan Brown, Reebok International's director of basketball, a $1.7 billion segment that's been hardest hit in recent years.

Last year, smaller companies like British Knights, Converse and Fila USA saw significant gains by positioning themselves as hip alternatives to the established basketball powers. Nike and Reebok paid attention.

Nike introduced Air Max Squared cushioning technology in its spring basketball shoes. The shoe and an accompanying ad campaign have "single-handedly brought the basketball business back to life," said an industry observer.

The ads from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., were set in a hip barber shop frequented by pro basketball players.

Now, Reebok's fall and spring basketball lines are also getting positive feedback in previews from retailers. Reebok this fall will introduce the $90 Kamikaze Mid, whose design suggests the jaws of a killer whale. A print and TV ad campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, breaks Nov. 1.

Shaquille O'Neal returns to Reebok advertising in January in a humorous, special effects-laden TV spot for the Shaq Attaq InstaPump shoe. It features two teams of Shaqs playing each other.

And at the NBA's all-star game in February, Reebok will launch the Romulus, a sleek, InstaPump basketball shoe to be showcased in a $2 million print campaign.

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