WSA Show exhibitors look to break into more niches in tough economy

While there are a few familiar outdoor brands at the World Shoes & Accessories (WSA) Show in Las Vegas, the twice-a-year fashion and casual shoe event is a very different world from most outdoor trade shows, like Outdoor Retailer. Leggy shoe-models in spiky heels. Slick-haired guys in shiny suits. And everything faintly scented with perfume and cigarette smoke. It's no wonder the fashionistas crane their heads curiously as they walk by the Keen booth.
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While there are a few familiar outdoor brands at the World Shoes & Accessories (WSA) Show in Las Vegas, the twice-a-year fashion and casual shoe event is a very different world from most outdoor trade shows, like Outdoor Retailer. Leggy shoe-models in spiky heels. Slick-haired guys in shiny suits. And everything faintly scented with perfume and cigarette smoke. It's no wonder the fashionistas crane their heads curiously as they walk by the Keen booth.

"People give us dirty looks for throwing frisbees in here," said Keen Marketing Manager Linda Tom.

You almost can’t blame them. Despite booths from a few outdoor brands like Keen, Teva, Ahnu and Naot, the WSA Show is dominated by casual and dress footwear brands -- and buyers. "I would guess it is 5 percent outdoor and 95 percent better footwear, department store, etc.," said Troy Ballard, vice president of business development at Keen.

But despite the cultural differences between the two worlds, fashion footwear shows signs of cross-pollination with the outdoor industry. Most of the show’s exhibitors are fashion brands like Nine West and Naughty Monkey. But there are also more than a few sandal, casual and rugged footwear brands whose products wouldn’t look out of place on the slot-wall in a specialty outdoor store. And given the slump in the retail economy, some of these are now looking to tap into markets such as running and outdoor specialty.

"My sandals are an opportunity," said Diane Carlson of Spring Footwear, makers of Spring Step and Fly Flot. "In this market, people are more open to looking at different options and different brands. Everybody needs to look for new products and better margins."

Carlson, an independent rep, is starting to target outdoor specialty retailers to build her business. "I have called 50 potential customers and have set up meetings at (EORA's regional show in Hartford, Connecticut)," she said. Carlson sees regional outdoor shows as the perfect way to introduce her brand to a new channel without the cost of exhibiting at a national show. She doesn't rule out Outdoor Retailer, though, as a future venue. "I think I have the features and benefits that appeal to those customers. They do Birkenstock; why not do my cork and leather sandals?"

While Carlson sees opportunity in a down economy, other brands look to take advantage of untapped market niches. Grendha Shoes, the Brazilian owner of the Rider sandals brand, took the opportunity to create a new category in its mix. "We walked into running stores and said, 'What do you do after you run?'" said JR Dubler, Grendha's marketing consultant. He was convinced that Rider could get traction in the specialty running and outdoor channels by focusing on after-sport footwear.

Dubler understood early on that the secret to credibility in the specialty market lay in talking the talk of technical footwear. "I spoke their language," he said. "Our sandals have anatomical footbeds and straps designed so your foot won't slide off. We're not orthotics, but we have technology that the running market understands." And with an attractive price, the after-running sandal made sense to dealers as a no-brainer, add-on sale to customers buying new running shoes. So much so, that Dubler sees after-sport footwear as a growth opportunity across many specialty sport categories.

Brands that can't find a way to create new categories in specialty athletic footwear channels will have a tough time competing with what's already there. Both from a styling and feature-set standpoint, outdoor shoe designs are more likely to influence the mainstream market than the other way around. "There's some cross-over when the designs come from the outdoor market, but not so much the other way," said Bradley Gruber, national sales manager for Grendha. "It may not be a one-way street, but it's a lot easier in one direction."

The reason, said Gruber, is that outdoor consumers, especially in the U.S. market, have extremely high expectations for shoe technology. It's seldom that a new brand is able to make inroads in the outdoor market based on sheer styling alone. "What happened with Crocs is a rarity," he said.

--Chris Harges

SNEWS® View: Reports from various shoe companies at WSA, as well as from our roving eyes on the floor, indicate that WSA, like many other U.S. trade shows (Outdoor Retailer, SIA and Interbike being the exceptions), is feeling the pressures of a challenged economy and perhaps a shifting attitude toward the value of national shows. Though WSA did not have final attendance numbers, there is little doubt attendance was off, and the show footprint was certainly down. Further proof of the show’s declining importance in the eyes of exhibitors and buyers can be found in the announcement of Aug. 3 that for next year, 2010, the WSA Show will consolidate under one roof at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino for its February show and be held solely at the Las Vegas Sands MegaCenter starting next summer. Compare that to the most recent show, from July 31-Aug. 2, which was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the MegaCenter.

--SNEWS® Editors

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