The newest thing in the shoe...


It’s midwinter, and another layer of snow has just fallen on frigid Buffalo, N.Y.

But Ron Pecci, a Franciscan priest, is wearing sandals as he navigates the snowdrifts that ring Sts. Rita and Patrick Church. “With socks, sandals are warm enough to wear year-round,” Pecci said. “Unless it’s really cold rain, it doesn’t matter. And I wear them in the winter as long as the snow is clean.”

Consumers are rapidly discovering what the Franciscans have known for ages: Sandals can be four-season footwear, sturdy enough to go long distances over any terrain.

Some of the biggest names in footwear are scrambling to capitalize on that epiphany. At least 20 manufacturers are now selling sport sandals, tough footwear that travels boldly where flimsy flip-flops would never dare to go.


Footwear manufacturers are pitching sandals as appropriate gear for everything from canoeing and sailing to hiking, jogging or simply knocking about. Annual U.S. sales of sport sandals, now about $125 million, are expected to hit $400 million in a few years, industry analysts say.


Sandals strolled into the fashion spotlight just as America’s longstanding love affair with athletic shoes was fading. Sales of regular athletic footwear declined by 2.4% in 1992, in large part because consumers were switching to shoes that are more at home outdoors than in the gym.

“Some market changes had to occur because people were looking for something new,” said Nancy Larsen, spokeswoman for shoemaker Asics Tiger Corp. The company, based in Fountain Valley, sold 60,000 pairs of sport sandals in 1993, a 300% increase from 1992, when it entered the category.

“The outdoorsy look and the sandals craze are a natural progression as people look for something more to wear,” Larsen said.

Nike, Asics and Adidas are counting on the fast-growing outdoors market--which includes sandals--to balance the sales slowdown in their main shoe lines. But they are facing stiff competition from Timberland and other entrenched makers of outdoor footwear.

As manufacturers rush to meet changing consumer demands, the lines that separate footwear categories are blurring.


Asics, for example, has developed a high-performance tennis shoe that looks like a hiking boot. Shoe manufacturers also are readying “some interesting designs that mark the start of an interesting bridge between sandals and athletic shoes,” Larsen said.

As established manufacturers and upstarts jockey for position, “everyone will come out with every kind of iteration on a shoe and sandal that anyone could conceive of,” said Gary Jacobson, an analyst with the brokerage Kidder Peabody & Co. in New York. “This is just the start.”


Indeed, the nation’s leading sport sandal company is already sticking its toes into the shoe market. Deckers Outdoor Corp. in Carpinteria, which distributes the popular Teva line of sandals, will introduce this fall three new models that will further blur the distinction: SandalHiker, SandalShoe and SandalBoot.

“Nike, Timberland and Rockport have been in the sandal business for (at least) three years, and we’re still beating them in the marketplace,” said Peter Link, Deckers vice president. “We’re feeling pretty confident in our back yard, and now we’re going after their back yard a little bit.”

Despite strong competition, Deckers has kept its dominance of the sandals market. The company reported 1993 revenue of $50 million, up from just $5.9 million in 1990. It also made its first public stock offering last year.

Deckers’ growth is driven by sales of the Teva line of sandals, which Grand Canyon river guide Mark Thatcher designed to solve a pressing personal problem: what to wear on your feet while white-water rafting. Deckers acquired the right to manufacture Teva products in 1985.


The company controls about half of the sport sandals market but is keeping a wary eye on Nike. “Everybody has to pay attention to Nike because of their strength, size and power,” Deckers President Doug Otto said in a recent interview with Footwear Plus, a trade magazine.

Deckers is wary--but not afraid--of the bigger guys. “Our business is better than ever, in part because these guys have legitimized the category,” Link said.

Nike bears watching, though. It did not introduce its first sport sandal until late 1992 and has already logged $50 million in sales. “The sandals market is booming for us,” said Keith Peters, a spokesman at the company’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters. “Our Air Deshutz is the single largest selling model, and we hope to overtake (market leader) Teva next year.”

Action Sports Retailer, a trade magazine, also reports that Nike received more early orders for its Air Deshutz sandal than any of its better-established lines--a dramatic development at a company whose very name is synonymous with athletic shoes.

An executive at another shoe company said Nike’s 1993 sandals advertising budget exceeded its revenue from sandals. “That’s a real good indication of how important they think sandals are,” the executive said.

Manufacturers also are honing marketing campaigns to help persuade consumers to strap on their products.


Consider Teva’s tough-sounding Terradactyls. The sandals, which retail for $69.95, feature an “all-terrain dino-grip foot bed, a unique Shoc Pad . . . and grooved traction sole for running and hiking.”

San Diego-based Flojos describes its Agave 4x4 model as an “all-terrain sandal that’s the most athletically correct sandal available.” Marketing director Jim Watson said Flojos “even had marathon runners test them.”

Several footwear manufacturers have also introduced tough waterproof models that do double duty as boat shoes, giving sailors gripping power combined with the comfort of sandals.

Fashion, rather than function, explains some of the sandal boom, though. Designers in New York and Europe are incorporating a wide array of sandals--many to be worn with socks--in their 1994 lines. College students and the coffeehouse set are also wearing sandals, even in cold climates such as Buffalo’s.

“We’re even selling them to kids who’d been wearing Doc Martens,” Watson said. “We give them a heavy look with lug soles and a nice European-looking upper.”

Gayle Rettig, who sells Birkenstocks and other sandals at stores in Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, said sales are being driven by “a generation now in its 30s that was raised in tennis shoes . . . and who find it very difficult to put on a dress shoe that cramps their feet.”


“Feet are the foundation for your whole body, and once you’ve had comfortable shoes on, your body rebels if you put on something that doesn’t feel right,” Rettig said.

Margot Fraser, who has marketed German-made Birkenstock footwear for 25 years, said: “What’s happening to the sandal market is really amazing.”

“Things started to change two or three years ago, and sandals now have much more acceptance,” said Fraser, president of Novato, Calif.-based Birkenstock Footprint Sandals Inc., which reported 1993 sandals sales of $60 million, up from $50 million in 1992. “Particularly among men--they’re not afraid anymore to show their feet.”

Trying to Step Up Sales

Flat revenue has prompted athletic-shoe manufacturers, such as Asics Tiger Corp. in Fountain Valley, to add sandals to their product lineup. Here is how athletic footwear retail sales fared from 1988 to 1992, the most recent year for which figures are available: Pairs purchased (in thousands) 1988: 377,103 1989: 388,625 1990: 392,977 1991: 381,345 1992: 374,389

Value of sales (in millions) 1988: $9,737 1989: 10,885 1990: 11,941 1991: 11,929 1992: 11,639

It’s a Young Guy Thing

Among teen-agers, males were by far the bigger buyers of athletic shoes in 1992. In other age groups, females led. The market, by sex:


Males Under 18: 51% Males 18-34: 27 Males 35-55: 15 Males Older than 55: 7

Females Under 18: 37% Females 18-34: 30 Females 35-55: 22 Females Older than 55: 11

Why They Buy Exercise and sports participation play a minor role in compelling consumers to buy athletic shoes. About 80% of 1992 purchases were intended for non-sports purposes: Casual wear: 43% Work or school: 34 Sports: 11 Walking for exercise: 8 Dress: 1 Other: 3

Source: Athletic Footwear Assn.; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times