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Retail Realities: Sneakers Drive Back-to-School Footwear Sales

A highly promotional retail environment has thrown the traditional retail calendar in a state of flux. However, back-to-school (BTS) season—which takes place from mid-July through early September—remains a key selling period for independent children’s footwear retailers.

According to The NPD Group, buyers, on average, are expected to spend $102 on footwear during the 2017 BTS season. “Almost half of consumers surveyed in NPD’s pre-BTS study said they planned to spend more on footwear this BTS season than they spent last year,” added Beth Goldstein, NPD Group executive director, industry analyst, accessories and footwear.

While big box retailers bait consumers with discounts, independent retailers calm BTS woes with personalized customer service, curated product selections, welcoming environments and a roster of top-notch, parent-approved brands. “We really do fit properly and I think the customers really appreciate it. And that doesn’t happen when you go into Target and pick a shoe off the floor,” said Athena Marriott-Bradley, owner of Ten Toes Shoes in San Carlos, Calif.

This year, retailers see parents basing their purchasing decisions on quality, athleisure and price. “[Parents] are looking for quality in the younger child, but as they get older the children want quantity so they can match their outfits perfectly [and] follow the trends,” said Debbie Diaz, owner of Step by Step in Miami, Fla.

Located in the Bird Road Art District, Step by Step stocks brands like Stride Rite and Skechers for BTS. Diaz says customer service is key to competing with the big box stores and online giants like Amazon. And, for the past 19 years, she has offered BTS coupons as well as offering a frequent buyer card to incentivize customers to shop local.

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While Florida may be known for its year-round sandal weather, Diaz said athletic footwear is becoming increasingly popular and widely acceptable for both school and the weekends. Gray and black are among the store’s most popular colors in sneakers for the season, along with a smattering of silver or gold metallic. For private school kids, classic Mary Janes by Stride Rite and School Issue remain a go-to silhouette for younger girls.

Although mini-me versions of current women’s footwear trends like slides, booties and strappy sandals are picking up momentum in the girls’ market, Goldstein pointed out that “active is still the hottest trend in footwear and the biggest back-to-school category.”

Mark Mehren, co-owner of Walking Tots located just outside of Houston, agrees. “Brands like Tsukihoshi, Pediped, See Kai Run, and the sneaker brands, Under Armour, New Balance, Asics, Skechers are great quality and hold up to the rigors of kids playing,” he said.

The Woodlands, Texas store began promoting its BTS selection in June with a newsletter highlighting new arrivals from Converse and Under Armour. And for an extra special touch, Walking Tots provides monogramming and embroidery services, allowing kids to customize their kicks for an additional $6.50-$12.50. Mehren said parents love adding customization to shoes, lunch kits, bows, clothes and more.

Mehren said there is no major difference between the store’s boys’ and girls’ sales—sneakers are winning across genders. “[It’s] all about sneakers. Dress styles and uniform are not moving as much because most of my area does not have strict requirements,” he said. “Any Skechers running for girls, Under Armour for boys and Asics all around are flying, along with Cienta’s casual Mary Janes and slip-on sneakers.”

Hi-top sneakers are resonating with Marriott-Bradley’s Cali clientele earlier than usual this BTS season. The retailer normally sees hi-tops sales increase around October, but this year See Kai Run and Plae hi-tops are popular.

Likewise, Black Wagon in Portland, Ore., is having a successful run with sneakers by Vans and Plae. Owner Sarah Shaoul said the store’s hipster clientele—kids included—are gravitating to Vans’ iconic checkerboard print and collaboration with Peanuts. The eclectic store sees consistent online sales growth. However, Shaoul says brick-and-mortar sales outpace online.

Quality sneakers come at a higher price. However, when parents have sticker shock, Mehren reminds them that children are on their feet all day. “My son did 25,000 steps on a lazy Sunday. My point, kids are very active,” he said. Mehren encourages parents to invest in their children’s footwear, pointing out that if they spend $60 on a pair of quality sneakers, the cost will break down to about $10 a month because their child will wear that shoe for the next four to six months.