Tuesday, March 18, 2003

PF Flyers join retro shoe fad



By Jay Lindsay
The Associated Press

BOSTON - The classic PF Flyers canvas sneaker used to promise to help you "Run Faster ... Jump Higher." Now the brand has been reborn with a vow to simply look good. New Balance relaunched the brand last month in a move to add fashion sense to a product line best known for no-nonsense running shoes.

Company officials acknowledge it's a departure, but say they're confident PF Flyer can help New Balance take advantage of the retro sneakers craze and make inroads into a younger, hipper market.

"We felt the company had an opportunity to show some flexibility," said Paul Heffernan, executive vice president of global marketing for Boston-based New Balance.

PF Flyers - the PF stands for "posture foundation" - were introduced in the late 1930s by the B.F. Goodrich company. They're best-known as the baby boomer generation's alternative to Converse's better-known Chuck Taylor sneakers.

Converse bought the PF Flyer name in 1972 but later sold it to settle an antitrust complaint by the Department of Justice. The brand gradually faded into obscurity - despite flashes of fame in movies such as The Sandlot - before New Balance bought it in 2001.

New Balance has enjoyed steady growth in recent years, rising from No. 12 in domestic sales of athletic footwear in 1991 to third behind Nike and Reebok in 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the trade publication Sporting Goods Intelligence.

The company, which reported $1.3 billion in sales in 2002, was looking to expand when it purchased PF Flyer. But Heffernan admits that when the company first acquired it, the brand seemed a bit out of place in New Balance's stable of shoes for serious athletes.

"Early on, we were kind of scratching our heads wondering, `What are we doing?"' Heffernan said.

An early idea to roll out lower-priced sneakers under the PF Flyer brand was scratched. Eventually they decided to enter the "active casual" market, already occupied by old rivals such as Chuck Taylor.

That means the new PF Flyer sneaker is about fashion, not fitness.

PF Flyers, priced in the $40 and $80 range, are designed to appeal to consumers in their 20s and 30s, the children of those who might best remember PF Flyers, potentially reducing the nostalgic value of the name. For instance, Shane Sullivan, 18, liked the look of the Ghost 79 PF Flyer when he was shopping at Allston Beat in Boston on Friday, but he'd never heard of the brand.

"I might be out of the loop, I don't know," he said.

Craig Leonard, owner and buyer at Allston Beat, said it probably won't matter much if younger buyers haven't heard of PF Flyers.

"It doesn't have a big brand name like a Chuck Taylor, but it does have New Balance behind it," he said. "And as long as the product is good, they have a chance."

Heffernan sees the brand growing to $50 million to $100 million in sales annually.

The company is rolling out the brand slowly, starting in about 150 to 200 retail locations - mostly trendy boutiques - and hoping to build from there.

Styles range from the classic canvas look to more modern designs.

Bob McGee, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, said New Balance isn't running much risk with the PF Flyer line, particularly since its initial investment and strategy are so conservative. In addition, the New Balance brand name is distinct and well-insulated from the PF Flyer name.

"If it does well, great," he said. "If it's a disaster, they lose the investment but they don't tarnish the (New Balance) brand name at all."




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