If the shoe fits

WASHINGTON – Nike.com sells nearly 200 styles of sneakers for men and women – which, for some footwear fiends, apparently isn’t choice enough. In fact, the convenience of being able to shop online isn’t enough.

Enter NikeID.com, the Web site where you can design a one-of-a-kind shoe using dozens of colors and fabrics. Candy-apple low-tops with a lime-green swoosh? Caramel trainers with your initials embroidered on the back?

Dream up combinations from the colors offered, click until you’ve got it right, and custom-made shoes can be delivered to your doorstep in about three weeks – for only $10 or so more than their noncustomized counterparts.

While NikeID’s shoes have become must-haves among those with a sneaker fetish, they also herald a larger trend: the “just-have.” As in, only you have it.

Nike has been selling custom designs since 1999 and has more than doubled the number of custom sales every year since then. But when the company re-launched the NikeID Web site this spring with a vastly expanded product lineup, it was part of a small crowd.

There’s Shop.vans.com, which offers 11 ways to modify the company’s Old Skools – not to mention eight ways to design their Slip-ons.

Converse, which is owned by Nike, has recently jumped into the fray. The month-old ConverseOne.com allows customers to choose colors and patterns for the iconic Chuck Taylor lace-up basketball shoe, with 14 hues for the tongue alone. Its Jack Purcell shoe will be added to the site next month and the One Star this fall.

Customization may help distinguish businesses, but it may not help the bottom line.

“My guess is that they don’t care” about turning a quick profit, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. “This is about connecting with the customer.”

“It’s more about being innovative, showing that you have an understanding of consumer needs,” said Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, who thinks the customizable offerings may be a loss leader.

It’s also well-suited to the demographic all manufacturers, retailers and broadcasters hunger for: the young.

“This is a consumer who places a lot of value in being unique,” said Wendy Farina, principal at Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm.

Although the sneaker companies decline to cite figures for online sales, making it hard to gauge them, the custom sites have a third, perhaps crucial, advantage. Customizing brand-name shoes lets shoppers behave in ways that are both creative and conformist, a duality that may particularly appeal to teens.

They’re “trying to establish their individuality,” said Wood, and at the same time they’re “trying very hard to fit in.”

The sneaker sites also open up a wealth of market research possibilities. Thousands of shoppers logging their preferences on the minutiae of laces, tongues and soles amounts to a free focus group.

Industry watchers speculate that companies may plan to use the data supplied by these style-minded shoppers to help design their regular wares. “It’s a great way to insert the consumer into the process of product development,” Farina said.

“Customization is going to be everywhere,” Cohen said. “This is definitely one of those sneak peeks into the future.”

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