2005: Shoemakers try to get foot in the door

FootJoy, FootJoy, FootJoy.

With the brand’s long-running domination of the footwear category, there often seems little to talk about in this $XXX-million-a-year business. And it appears unlikely that anything will change soon considering that FootJoy commands nearly 60 percent unit marketshare – more than double No. 2 Nike and No. 3 Adidas combined.

But dig beneath the ho-hum status quo of these popular brands, and there’s a fight for survival that’s downright dirty.

A quartet of players – Etonic, Ecco, Callaway and Bite, each with less than 4 percent share – are scrapping for much more than the bragging rights of being No. 4. For all intents and purposes, they’re vying for the last spot that actually means something in the category.

With limited shelf space, many golf professionals carry only two or three footwear brands. It’s almost a given that they will stock two of the top three brands because of the broad appeal. Their final selection is a wild-card pick with which they can appeal to consumers whose tastes and budgets fall beyond the norm.

Determined not to be on the outside looking in, Etonic, Ecco, Callaway and Bite offer unique profiles, punctuated either by style, technology or price.

Here’s a look at their distinctive pitches to make the cut:

Etonic

A major player in shoes until collapsing during the fall of its parent, Spalding Sports, Etonic is making a comeback after being acquired less than two years ago by a group of private investors.

“Etonic has always been the brand that has pushed technology in the footwear category,” says Karen Pitts, vice president of global marketing. “We did that in the past with things like waterproofing, and we are doing that now with things like the recently released G-Sok, which is golf’s first non-cleated performance shoe.”

It may be ahead of its time, but Etonic is betting that golfers will embrace the notion of never having to replace their cleats again. The G-Sok features a durable sole – made by Goodyear – with an array of turf-grabbing “nodes” and “pyramids.” Although one major competitor privately acknowledges the sole is virtually indestructible, consumers could fret about wearing it out prematurely and shy away from buying the G-Sok.

But Pitts says the shoe’s benefits and reasonable cost (price) are overriding such hesitancy; the G-Sok is Etonic’s best-seller and accounts for roughly 30 percent of its sales. Etonic’s products cost between $40 and $100.

Whether the G-Sok is enough to resurrect a brand remains to be seen, but it has put Etonic back on retailers’ radar.

“We sort of walked away from Etonic when it was part of Spalding, and the brand was suffering quite a bit,” says John Watts, a sales director for Edwin Watts Golf Shops. “We admire and respect the people who are running it now, but we are still waiting to see what they do, and how they do it.”

Ecco

Denmark-based Ecco, the world’s seventh largest shoe manufacturer, is a relatively new entry in golf footwear. But it’s not bashful about stating its ambition, especially having 40 years of experience making high-quality shoes.

“The consumer we know today is between 35 and 55 years old, and we would like to expand that, down to those in their early 20s and all the way up to death, so people are wearing Ecco’s as long as they play,” says Jeff Street, general sales manager for the company’s sport division.

The shoes styling feature a European flair and expensive prices; not a single pair in its lineup sells for less than $140 and some cost as much as $400.

That price structure limits Ecco’s mass appeal, but could help it target lucrative, niche audiences.

“I saw Ecco, and I liked its stylishness and comfort,” says Tim O’Neal, head professional at the North Shore Country Club outside Chicago. “I bought some for my shop as a supplement to my FootJoy collection, and did very well with it.”

Callaway

Callaway has thrown its hat – or in this case, shoes – into the ring by extending a license to Tour Golf Group in Portland, Ore. The company plans to ride the Callaway name and live up to its “demonstrably superior” mantra with distinctive features such as the Big Bertha spike, which is 25 percent larger than any other cleat on the market, according to Kyle Weiner, Tour Golf’s president. Its Callaway shoes also incorporate a moisture management membrane called Event, which has Gore-Tex-like properties. It prevents water from coming into the shoe while allowing perspiration to escape.

“One thing that sets us apart is that we have such good golf brand equity,” Weiner says. “And we are also able to distinguish ourselves with a variety of technologies and styles that allows us to position our golf shoes the way Callaway positions all its golf products, as things that will enable people to get more pleasure from the game.”

Weiner says Callaway is targeting a broad range of avid golfers and its pricing reflects that strategy – its shoes costs from $69 to $279.

Some retailers say Callaway may struggle at the upper end of its price spectrum.

“Callaway makes a great product. . . (but) their high-end shoes are more expensive than FootJoy’s,” says Scott Peters, president of the Golf and Ski Warehouse, which has three stores in New Hampshire. “The consumer still perceives FootJoy to be at the cutting edge from a technological and fitting standpoint, and it is hard for Nike and Adidas to compete there, let alone an upstart like Callaway.”

Bite

Arguably the original alternative in golf footwear, Bite has fashioned a legitimate business and a loyal, albeit small, following with golf sandals. Its unorthodox product menu, which includes footwear ranging in price from $49 to $129, continues to expand with the addition of golf boots and shoes incorporating mesh.

Bite’s aspirations are simple, which may limit its growth, but ultimately, could help preserve its place in the market: Stay committed to its unique products and satisfy a consumer need.

“Looking back, there have been lots of companies over the years who started making crazy deals with retailers in order to keep their (marketshare position) and eventually slid back because they were focusing on the wrong things,” says Dale Balthum, chief executive of Bite. “We have always been the alternative, and we are interested mostly in providing another choice to the mainstream. We are happy sticking to our niches.”

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