The Crystal Ball Was A Bit Smudged This Year

POWER ON: Electricity will surge next year. As we enter a new era of e- commerce, look for Internet and in-store electronic sales to go full throttle. We’re not just talking computer sales — there will be in- store kiosks where consumers can activate a screen to make purchases. Kmart has added them, and it’s creating a new world of virtual retailing: fewer sales staff, less SKUs, more sales potential.

And don’t buy this talk shoppers have to see a shoe to buy it on a computer; that may be true for mature people, but to a 14-year-old who spends hours each night browsing Web sites, it’s an electronic world. They’ll soon be as comfortable buying womens running shoes for high arches and apparel on computer screens as they are purchasing books and CDs.

E-commerce is on the rise: A Kurt Salmon Associates survey found 59 percent of people own computers and 39 percent have online access. More than one quarter — 28 percent — go online one or more times a day, and KSA noted that’s more often than many visit a store. And 84 percent of those who purchase online are satisfied. It’s estimated the number of Web shoppers will rise to 128 million by 2002, representing $400 billion in e-commerce transactions.

WHY Y?: Graying baby boomers may grab marketers’ attention, but keep your eyes on Generation Y. Young teens today are fueling a major push in the fashion market, making their own statements with retro looks and electronic techno music. Even little kids are shopping specialty and high-end department stores. They’re setting new standards in what’s in and out, and they even have their own electronic fashion Web sites to purchase from. They are the most educated, wealthiest and computer- literate young generation in history.

NICHING UP: It’s niche time. The market can’t absorb too many more mass-market trends. Specialty footwear niches are coming forward and breaking new ground. It could be for the luxury market, cold weather styles, active casuals…whatever. But it may take smaller, creative concepts to flesh out retail sales projections. Remember when in-line skates, aqua sandals and comfort heel cups for plantar fasciitis were considered niche markets? Other new concepts will be out there breaking new ground.

NEW CUSTOMS: We live in a specialty world, and consumers increasingly want something special. Customization — or at least specialty sizing and fit — will be the answer in footwear. According to KSA, footwear rated poorly with consumers on fit. Only 36 percent were satisfied. And 36 percent would pay more to have certain items custom made. But while 28 percent have bought customized apparel, only 7 percent have had shoes custom made. Of those who have bought custom-made goods, 59 percent would do so again. KSA noted 14 percent would pay more for custom made shoes.

Some brands already are giving customers more choices. Nike’s Alpha project has shoes with one form of cushioning for size 7-10, another for 10 and up. Look for firms to start similar sizing trends this year as consumers respond.

A DEAFENING QUIET: Don’t expect shoe sales to turn around dramatically this year. No fashion trends are particularly hot, ad campaigns aren’t exactly setting consumer appetites on fire, and few firms have been that innovative or adventurous. Consumers perceive the industry malaise and are voting with their wallets. Voting not to buy, that is. People still need new comfortable shoes for bunion sufferers. The fashion world continues to roll out new themes and styles. But retail sales are quiet. Until something dramatically new comes along, cash registers may not be ringing too often.

THE CONSUMER SPEAKS: We’re entering the era of the consumer. They’ve been rising in power in recent years, but in 1999 will be more powerful than ever. It’s a new age of consumer behavior: They’re shopping less, buying fewer items, but still demand better service and sales help. They want to get in and out of stores quickly, with no hassles, but still expect a full selection and service. Look for consumers to get even more vocal and demanding next year.

KEEPING DRY: I’ve been predicting waterproof footwear would gain popularity for a while, but I really feel the timing is here: The weather across the world has been the worst in decades, with an ongoing string of hurricanes and tropical storms. And El Nino, or whatever it’s called these days, still is in the news.

Wet weather is everywhere, and consumers increasingly want footwear that guarantees their feet will stay dry. And while waterproof outdoor boots have gained popularity, better-grade styles — like those from Aquatalia — have stepped forward and proven style and waterproofing is a winning combination.

ATHLETIC GAINS: Enough already with this talk of athletic styles quieting down. Fashion cycles come and go, but time-tested categories stay alive. Look for athletics to hang in there and return near full force when casual and outdoor looks run their course. Of course, the basketball lockout won’t help sell. And research reveals team sports are less popular. But look for running to continue its comeback and tennis to continue its spurt. Casual styles have been strong, but in many regions in America, athletic shoes are a way of life. Consumers who have grown up with them may be experimenting with other looks, but they’ll be back. Maybe the real reason for the slowdown is marketing campaigns haven’t inspired people to run out and buy. But athletic shoe sales will rise again.

IT’S IN THE BANK: Dollar days used to be big at discount stores. This year they’ll be happening at banks. When the stock market surged years ago, people cut back savings as mutual funds shot up. Now that reality has sunk in, look for consumers to start shifting back to savings again. That’s not great news for retailers — if shoppers are stashing cash in savings accounts, they may choose not to run up big credit-card bills and extend debt. Impulse buying may be hampered, making it even more difficult to stimulate sales.

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