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The Performance Footwear Newcomer Going One Degree Beyond

Considering that China is the largest manufacturer, consumer and exporter in the global footwear industry—with sales there expected to reach nearly $80 billion by 2020—it’s no surprise that one of the world’s up-and-coming performance brands was born in the footwear mecca.

After launching in 2003 and growing to more than 6,000 Chinese storefronts, 361° set its sights on bringing its “one degree beyond” message to international markets, including Europe, South America and—as of July 2014—the United States.

But unlike its approach to the Chinese market, the overseas division of 361° is dedicated to offering more elevated, premium products in the running, training and basketball spaces. “We spend a lot of our time marketing very high-end performance, and that message of high-end performance in running and training is consistent, whether it’s in Europe or it’s in Brazil,” said James Monahan, president at 361° USA.

But even with an elevated product, entering the U.S. market three years ago wasn’t all that easy, thanks to dwindling demand and slipping sales in the performance category. As a relatively unknown label stateside, the company also had to fight for market share with giants like Nike and Under Armour, while convincing brick-and-mortar retailers to take a risk on a challenger brand.

“They’re worried about inventory turns, they’re worried about profitability and there are very few who are interested in curating new brands,” Monahan said of potential U.S. retail partners. “But we knew we could compete at a very high level with all the existing brands that were here and, in some cases, be better. There’s always an opportunity in any market you’re in to be better than what’s out there, and that’s our position.”

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After zeroing in on the running specialty market when it first launched in the U.S., the brand is now branching out to include the sporting goods and multibrand e-commerce markets, too. “The opportunity lies in providing the consumer with something different, but then also finding retail partners that want to set themselves apart,” Monahan said. “And in today’s world, you don’t need a ton of retail partners. You need the right retail partners.”

To date, 361° has nearly 230 U.S. retail accounts open, with its performance footwear and apparel available in more than 890 doors across the country, not including e-commerce platforms. However, the challenge doesn’t just lie with convincing retailers to take a shot on an unfamiliar brand; convincing customers to try its products in lieu of household names has been a challenge for 361°, too. “But with the amount of information flow today and the way you can get messages out so quickly, the desire to try something new is very high,” Monahan said. For 361°, this particularly holds true with fitness-minded shoppers who care more about innovation than buying brand-name products.

Over the coming months, the activewear label will be appealing to these consumers with two key silhouettes: the Spinject for running and the Meraki for training. At $110, the Spinject marries style and performance, boasting an engineered knit upper that offers support and flexibility without losing its shape. The Meraki ($130 retail) is a high-mileage trainer made with the brand’s proprietary Quikfoam technology, which allows for full-ground contact throughout the midsole for additional stability. Combining EVA and rubber, the Quikfoam midsole has a high degree of resilience, with impressive bounceback and surprising softness, Monahan said. The foam is also encapsulated in a polyurethane coating, helping to capture its natural airiness and energy, while providing high levels of durability.

“People are getting tired of paying $120 for shoes that are lasting 175 miles, no matter how comfortable they are.”

“We have data done at independent labs that shows that the performance of our midsole material at 350 miles is almost similar to what it was coming out of the box at zero miles,” Monahan said. “If you’re able to extend the durability, you’re able to extend comfort, which at the end of the day is still the most important reason why consumers buy shoes.”

For Spring ’18, the brand will focus on updating key styles like the Sensation and the Spire, making them almost 1.5 ounces lighter, while also continuing to simplify its uppers, create a sock-like fit, and strive to make its shoes both softer and more durable.”

“People are getting tired of paying $120 for shoes that are lasting 175 miles, no matter how comfortable they are,” Monahan said. “If people can still have that lightweight package and they can still have that soft, comfortable feel on their foot—but at 250 miles it still feels like it did at 10—they’ll find that to be better.”

Also better: the brand’s U.S. sales. Year to date, business is up by more than 50 percent across the country, Monahan said. “There’s a lot of upside for the brand, and we just need to be smart with how we continue to pursue that business,” he added. “Being a small challenger brand, we should still be growing for 10 more years.”