Following a sluggish year for sales, the mood last weekend at the Super Show in Atlanta, he sports industry's behemoth annual convention cum swap meet, was somewhere between hopeful and wildly uncertain. This was particularly true among attendees from the athletic-footwear business, which has been racked by the NBA lockout, the retirement of Michael Jordan, a trend toward "brown" (i.e., hiking) shoes and a dearth of innovations by the industry's bellwether, Nike. Last year, sales of athletic footwear in the U.S. hopped by 8%.
Against this backdrop it seemed fitting that a fledging Los Angeles-based shoe company—one mat has zero professional athletes under contract and is best known for its trendy work boots and women's sneakers—stole the Show. The roughly 100,000 wholesalers, retailers and industry reps who converged on the Georgia World Congress Center could hardly pace from one display to another without seeing some reference to Skechers USA. "I had barely heard of Skechers," said Randy Miller, a sports marketer from Chandler, Ariz. "You'd think hey were bigger than Nike."
For a weekend, anyway. Skechers took aver the prized 54,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom, which became available when Mike, claiming its needs were no longer being met by the Super Show, stayed home. Skechers spent $7 million to assemble a 30-foot-tall transparent wall displaying tens of thousands of shoes illuminated by pulsating lasers. All around the Super Show, scores of models shod in Skechers distributed invitations to a "multi-media experience" at the company's exhibit space that included aerobic dancing by 60 fog-enshrouded dancers. Even the backs of some Atlanta taxi receipts were emblazoned with the Skechers logo. It all added up to a bold, percussive step for a privately held company that did only about $400 million in worldwide sales last year. (That was a 100% increase from 1997 but nothing like the $9.6 billion that Nike generated.)
Skechers president Michael Greenberg relished his role as the Admiral Stockdale—Who am I? Why am I here?—of the Super Show. "Look, 85 percent of the people who wear athletic shoes wear them not for sports but as a casual shoe," he said. Skechers's sneakers are, in fact, inspired by athletic shoes but not meant to be used as such. "We're a style company, and we want consumers to buy all their footwear from us."
Still, can a newcomer that unapologetically puts edginess and fashion ahead of performance significantly cut into the market share of Nike or another Super Show absentee, Reebok? "They're great at coming up with creative ways to promote the brand, and they do fashion shoes well," John Horan, publisher of the newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence, says of Skechers. "But I don't see the [companies] with strong performance-shoe heritages changing their business because of this trend."
Nevertheless Skechers's presence in Atlanta served notice that at least some degree of change in the industry is already afoot.