Boomers drive retro styling, sneaker sales

NEW YORK — Michael Jacobsen says his trendy teenagers are rarely impressed with the clothes he wears. But the 45-year-old got a different reaction after buying a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors, the high-top sneakers popular when he was a kid.

"The funny thing is that kids see them and say, 'Those are cool,' " said Jacobsen, a writer for a communications company in Oakland, N.J.

He owns several pairs of sneakers, including a pair of New Balance shoes for everyday use, but saves the Converses for more social occasions.

"The Chuck Taylors are definitely a statement," Jacobsen said. "It looks cool with a pair of shorts."

Athletic-footwear companies, conscious of baby boomers' desire to look and stay young, are increasingly promoting both retro styling as well as more functional, comfort shoes to help cash in on the fast-growing sales demographic.

In demand are shoes with width sizing that caters to a boomers' aging feet at a price that the age group would consider practical. But more fashion-oriented retro styles, which cost $100 or less, also are selling well, analysts say.

Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, said boomers are probably the wealthiest component of American society.

"And more important, they're more athletically and fitness-inclined than any 50-plus generation in the history of this country," he said. "Companies are starting to recognize that."

Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964, currently account for nearly 30 percent of the $15.7 billion in annual sneaker sales. They are second only to the 13-to-24 age group, who make up about a third of all sales, according to SGMA.

The trade group predicts that boomers will become the largest sales demographic in the next few years, as the health-conscious demographic seeks to combat slowing metabolism and growing obesity, which has been linked to ailments such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.

Analysts say that represents a major opportunity for athletic-footwear companies, particularly in sales of running and walking shoes. Less-functional retro sneakers, which are known more for their looks than athletic performance, also will offer boomers a sense of nostalgia for earlier times.

"There's definitely a demarcation point between consumers looking for a fashion lifestyle and consumers looking for an active lifestyle. With boomers, they mix it all in," said R.J. Jones, footwear analyst for Delafield Hambrecht in Seattle.

Indeed, retro styles have enjoyed double-digit sales growth since 2000, with the category enjoying an 11.4 percent gain last year compared to a 2 percent decline for other styles, according to the SGMA.

Companies are responding.

Reebok in recent years has heavily promoted its no-frills "Classics" sneakers, which are marketed both to teens and their boomer parents as having a hip-hop flavor.

Converse now offers a wide range of colors and even camouflage styling to its basic white Chuck Taylor offering to broaden its appeal to all age groups.

And New Balance, which draws half of its business from boomers, continues to tout its width-sizing shoes as comfortable and functional, but has also added a PF Flyers retro line to capitalize on the growing fashion trend.

Ken Cline, 40, of Alameda, Calif., wore Chuck Taylors in junior high.

He now keeps a red pair among the several sets of sneakers he owns for working out, mowing the lawn or just hanging out.

"It's more of a nostalgia issue," said Cline, who wears them as a "dress" sneaker for events such as going to the beach. "Those who wear them are cool."

Marketing to boomers also creates risks of alienating the important market for teens, who often want to distinguish themselves from their parents.

As a result, many companies rely on an age-neutral marketing strategy that stresses their shoes' general trendy styling or superior performance in a given sport, analysts say.