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Pricey sneaker is pumped up despite trends

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Some sneaker makers say flashy and pricey high-tech shoes are getting slam-dunked by the recession, so they are designing footwear for the cost-conscious athlete. But not Reebok.

The athletic footwear maker's current trophy piece is its Double Pump, which retails for $159. And Reebok International Ltd. is introducing more advanced versions of the Pump this year with features such as a digital readout and a hand-held gas can for quicker pumping. The new versions may cost more than the Double Pump.

Reebok hopes its Pump design, which allows wearers to inflate the shoe for a more form-fit, will up the company's No. 2 ranking and 24 percent share of the athletic footwear market.

"The technology demonstrates that Reebok is trying to push the Pump to new applications," said Reebok spokesman Michael Payton.

But the No. 1 athletic shoe company, Nike Inc., says Reebok has failed to realize that the heyday of the expensive sneaker is _ temporarily _ deflated.

Nike says the casual athlete wants more for less, so it is promoting high-tech shoes in the mid-price range.

"We don't feel we should be in the business of selling gimmickry," said Dusty Kidd, public relations director for the Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike.

"All other shoe makers are coming out with mechanical devices and props. It has always been key to the Nike product that it performs," said Kidd.

The company will highlight new adaptations of its Air line priced in the $50 range.

Nike controls 30 percent of the more than $5-billion U.S. sneaker market.

LA Gear, third with an 8 percent claim, also is catering to the tight-fisted consumer.

"People are a little bit skittish about parting with their money," said Mark Goldston, president of LA Gear, headquartered in Los Angeles. "So 80 percent of the items LA Gear will be marketing will be from $40 to $60 retail. We are pricing them to where we think the economy will gravitate to."

The company's plan is to introduce Third Gear shoes, high-tech footwear made with top of the line materials and endorsed by big-name athletes.

But the true focus of the concept is the next line of footwear, dubbed Second Gear, which looks like the Third Gear shoes but are scaled-back versions.

"The visual aesthetic is very similar, and some of the materials are different . . . it would be highly functional, but not as highly priced," said Goldston, a former Reebok employee who has headed LA Gear for four months.

"You are going to have a mass of consumers _ most of America _ that doesn't want to spend $75 to $120 on a sneaker," he said. "If someone gets to the point of sale and is intimidated at spending $120 on a shoe, we have a real good alternative."

A First Gear line, following the same premise, also will be available.

Reebok's new shoes "would probably be at a premium price point," spokesman Payton said. He declined to provide a price.

The Stoughton, Mass.-based company is debuting its two new footwear lines _ the Insta-Pump and the Pump Custom Cushioning _ this summer in the Olympics.

Wearers of the Insta-Pump will be able to fill the air bladder in the shoe quickly by using a carbon dioxide canister. The shoe is lightweight and has a valve that prevents the bladder from being overblown. The canister costs about $1 and is available in most athletic stores.

Only an Insta-Pump running shoe is available now, but basketball and tennis versions are planned. The other new Pump, Custom Cushioning, has an electronic pressure gauge that gives a digital readout of the amount of air pumped into the shoe. This allows the wearer to measure comfort levels during use.

"That technology is really meant for the serious athlete. The person who is looking for every advantage in his or her sport," Payton said.

He acknowledged there isn't much profit in such limited marketing.

Nike and LA Gear say Reebok may be getting carried away with the technology, and in a recession, that's bad business.

"Think about how shoes are used and think about how logical that is," Nike's Kidd said of Reebok's digital readout and carbon dioxide canister. "You don't want to have to wear a back pack to go running."