Custom Sites Let Users Cobble Their Own Shoes

By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

Nike.com sells nearly 200 styles of sneakers for men and women -- which, for some footwear fiends, apparently isn't choice enough. In fact, the convenience of being able to shop online isn't enough.

Enter NikeID.com, the Web site where you can design a one-of-a-kind shoe using dozens of colors and fabrics. Candy-apple low-tops with a lime-green swoosh? Caramel trainers with your initials embroidered on the back? Dream up combinations from the colors offered, click until you've got it right, and custom-made shoes can be delivered to your doorstep in about three weeks -- for only $10 or so more than their non-customized counterparts.

While NikeID's shoes have become must-haves among those with a sneaker fetish, they also herald a larger trend: the "just-have." As in, just you have it.

Nike is not alone in offering customized footwear. The "Just Do It" brand has been selling custom designs since 1999 and has more than doubled the number of custom sales every year since then. But when the company relaunched the NikeID Web site this spring with a vastly expanded product lineup, it was part of a small crowd.

There's Shop.vans.com, which offers 11 ways to modify the company's Old Skools -- not to mention eight ways to design their Slip-ons. Converse, which is owned by Nike, has recently jumped into the fray: The month-old ConverseOne.com allows customers to choose colors and patterns for the iconic Chuck Taylor lace-up basketball shoe, with 14 hues for the tongue alone. Its Jack Purcell shoe will be added to the site next month and the One Star this fall.

There's little question that sneakers are big business: U.S. sales topped $16.55 billion last year, a little less than half of the $38.45 billion spent on all footwear, according to market research firm NPD Group. For many people, every day is casual Friday. There's even the concept of the "sneaker wardrobe": a pair for each day of the week. Said Amanda Freeman, vice president of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based trend analysis firm, "It's easy to justify a sneaker collection."

U.S. sneaker sales rose a modest 4.3 percent in 2004, NPD Group says, and brands are struggling to distinguish themselves in a fiercely competitive market.

Customization may help with that, but it may not help the bottom line. Then again, that may not be the motivation.

"My guess is that they don't care" about turning a quick profit, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. "This is about connecting with the customer."

"It's more about being innovative, showing that you have an understanding of consumer needs," said Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, who thinks the customizable offerings may be "a loss leader."

It's also well-suited tothe demographic all manufacturers, retailers and broadcasters hunger for: the young.

"This is a consumer who places a lot of value in being unique," said Wendy D. Farina, principal at Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm.


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