Hitting Stride

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2003-11-01 Print this article Print

New Balance had nearly faded into irrelevance six years ago. Then, accurately forecasting demand for its shoes became a sport for the entire company and its retailing partners. Now it's making up ground quickly, in its footrace with Nike.

Hitting Stride

Nike officials would not comment on New Balance or its growing popularity, much like a marathon runner refusing to look back at a competitor closing in. But, the way things are going, New Balance will soon be breathing down Nike's neck.

Though overall sales of athletic shoes in the U.S. have fallen since 1997, research firm Mintel Inc. predicts sales will grow 2% percent a year through 2007. Serious growth for any single company will require taking market share away from other players, and it's precisely why Holland's system for codifying what weekend warriors want is so important. Right now, it's New Balance that's taking share.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, Nike sold $134.6 million worth of athletic shoes in the U.S. in 1997, while New Balance sold only $10.9 million. By 2002, Nike sales had fallen to $89.5 million, while New Balance sales quadrupled to $39.7 million.

"New Balance is the real comer of the group," Shanley says. "They are focused in a way that we've never seen from a Nike or a Reebok or any other athletic-shoe company. They understand the importance of offering narrow and wide shoe sizes and they build relationships with their retail partners."

Product manager O'Brien sees Holland's system as an essential mechanism for wrestling away a chunk of Nike's basketball-shoe market share.

"When I took over three years ago, product planning was more of a manual process," he says. "Meetings took longer, everything took longer." Now, meetings go faster. And results are better. "I've been able to plan my business more effectively. I don't make as many mistakes."

For example, every time a customer buys a pair of New Balance shoes from any of the 3,600-plus Foot Locker retail store locations, that data is transmitted from the Foot Locker point-of-sale system directly to New Balance headquarters in Boston. The exact same size, model and color of shoe is then reordered for that particular retail location, guaranteeing a steady and predictable flow of inventory for the Foot Locker locations.

Nike doesn't have the same relationship with Foot Locker, which forces Foot Locker buyers to order Nike shoes six months in advance of shipment. That's a long time in an industry that can be turned upside down by something as simple as a hip-hop artist wearing a pair of shoes in a music video or, more acutely, by sexual-assault charges leveled against a superstar-athlete endorser.

Foot Locker isn't the only retailer New Balance has that arrangement with. "We have more than 50 retailers who do it," says Mescon. All of New Balance's major retail "partners," including Nordstrom and The Sports Authority, provide the data, as do a number of smaller regional shoe chains. New Balance takes the risk of creating more shoes—as long as its partners supply the information about which shoes sell as soon as they're sold.

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.

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