2006: No strings attached

By John Steinbreder

Premium golf shoes often employ plenty of technology in their construction, but it is rarely perceptible from the exterior.

Which causes a vexing problem for footwear makers: How do you make one golf shoe look distinctly different from another?

FootJoy executives think they’ve come up with a clever, and what they’re banking will be a marketable, answer: Make shoelaces obsolete and replace them with 49 strands of polymer-coated aircraft-grade steel that can be tightened or loosened with a “reel” installed on the shoes’ heels.

Says FootJoy president Jim Connor of the new ReelFit line: “It is one of the more significant design developments in footwear in my 20 years here.”

Coming from the category’s dominant leader, it’s a bold statement that underscores the significance of the launch. In a relatively flat category where market share is won only by snatching it from competitors, FootJoy’s ReelFit debut is a textbook risk/reward play: Unveiling an unconventional shoe with a knob and no laces is a gamble, but if embraced by consumers it could dent the sales of popular fashion-forward models recently unveiled by rivals Nike and Adidas.

On a more macro-level, the ReelFit also sends a clear brand-positioning message: These are not your father’s FootJoys.

“As good as FootJoy is and has been, they still have something of a problem with the younger person who grew up wearing Adidas and Nike shoes for other sports,” says Kerry Kabase, sales director at Edwin Watts Golf Shops. “But the ReelFit shoe is saying they are not only a leader in market share but also in innovation and technology.”

Specifically, Kabase expects the ReelFit to compete head-to-head with Nike’s SP line of shoes and the popular Adidas Tour 360 model.

FootJoy officials have similar expectations and more. With its unique “Boa” lacing system (named after the constricting snake) that promises a more precise and stable fit, the ReelFit should appeal to a broad demographic and become a mainstay in FootJoy’s lineup, according to Andy Jones, the brand’s vice president of marketing and apparel.

Available at retail beginning Oct. 15, the ReelFit line features three models, each selling for $200 per pair. Favorable early reaction from retailers has prompted FootJoy to double its initial sales forecast for the first year, Jones says.

To support the shoe’s fall debut, FootJoy’s tour staff soon will wear the ReelFit in competition. And at least for this product launch, FootJoy is benching funnyman Sign Boy in favor of an actual boa constrictor that will appear in an upcoming advertising campaign.

According to Jones, the technology behind the ReelFit system was created for use in coronary angioplasties. Its inventor, Gary Hammerslag, later developed other applications, mostly in footwear such as snowboarding boots, bicycling racing shoes and hockey skates.

FootJoy acquired exclusive rights to use the technology in golf shoes and added its usual complement of features – including premium, waterproof leather from Pittards of England and cushioned polyurethane Fit-Beds – to create the ReelFit. Retailers hope it’s a winning combination.

“The shoe is very cool looking, and while the reel may be slightly cumbersome in appearance to some, it is the sort of thing our customers will ask about, which will create conversation with our sales staff,” says Ken Morton Jr., vice president of retail and marketing for Morton Golf, a major on-course retail operation in Sacramento, Calif.

“Several members of our staff like the way it cinches up and provides a very personalized fit in a way regular lace shoes cannot. We think it will be a very solid shoe for us."

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