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MILAN-Luggage marketer Samsonite Italia, inspired by its home base in the world's most elegant footwear market, is stepping into the worldwide shoe business.

In line with an industrywide move to diversify into new leather products, Samsonite's Italian arm will introduce its first two shoe ranges in Italy in September with a $2 million magazine, newspaper and TV campaign. The as-yet-unfinished effort, spearheaded by in-house ad agency Saturn & Saturn will be lifestyle oriented, according to the company.

The new Italian-made shoes will be introduced in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in January 1995 and France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands in September 1995. The U.S. introduction is slated for 1996.

While having a foot in both product categories is increasingly popular for marketers like Samsonite, production and distribution are major obstacles to overcome. Outside contractors are producing the shoes and Samsonite is opening franchised shoe stores, so far only in Italy, to carry its footwear, luggage and other products. Twelve franchised stores have already opened and there are plans to open 100 more, some in other markets, by April 1996.

Though the Samsonite label is usually associated with luggage, 65% of Samsonite Italia's $43 million in 1993 sales came from other products such as handbags, umbrellas and travel accessories.

Executives at the Denver headquarters of privately held Samsonite declined to provide additional diversification details. The company's worldwide sales are estimated at $600 million.

The idea to move into shoes came from U.S.-based Samsonite's Italian executives. "We aim to double our sales [in Italy through the diversification effort] by 1997," said Beppi Fremder, president and managing director of Samsonite Italia, Milan.

Altogether, Mr. Fremder estimates the company's footwear division sales worldwide should bring in $25 million in annual sales by 1997.

But first, Samsonite shoes will go toe-to-toe with stylish Italian shoe monikers like Ferragamo and Fratelli Rosetti, who sell and export footwear for the fashion-conscious around the world. The highly fragmented Italian footwear industry, including exports, is estimated at $8 billion a year by shoe trade association ANCI.

Although by some countries' standards, Samsonite shoes-selling from $149 to $174-are a bit pricey, they are competitive and even considered inexpensive in much of well-shod Europe. Compared with Manolo Blahnik, London's hottest shoemaker marketing footwear in the $350 range, for example, Samsonite's leather-soled Avenue shoes and rubber-soled Forest leisure line are relative bargains.

Looking ahead, Samsonite's line extension and new stores could also provide it with a distribution system to handle its newest project: A Samsonite bicycle. But that's another thing they're not yet ready to talk about.

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