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Kids say
April/May 2002

Teens say...

how they choose footwear

Teens are the biggest fans of big brands. Whether they take part in sport, or not, NIKE or adidas or Quiksilver or Diesel represent to them much more than a label on clothing or footwear. A brand name is an image. It says who they are. It gives them confidence, and makes them feel good. “Getting it right” with the free-spending brand conscious teenage market, is the dream of every large brand that spend billions on advertising campaigns and trend advisors. Yet how can they be sure that their shoe will be picked above their competitors’? We decided to ask the kids to explain how they go about buying footwear – and which brands they prefer

Until a few years ago, sport retailers could safely stock up on technical performance footwear and leave anything not used for a sport to the fashion stores … but this has changed. Consumer demand – especially from teenagers - have forced sport retailers in all areas to take a new look at fashionable lifestyle footwear.

Nowadays about half of all the footwear he sells is lifestyle, instead of athletic styles, says Brian Basson of Bokkie Sports in Upington. Converse, Dickies and Millé are currently leading his footwear sales. Non-technical styles from athletic brands like NIKE and adidas (Cortez or Country Ripple, for instance) are also very popular.

Other retailers from country areas confirm this trend. ”I was forced to change my mind due to the demand from teenagers,” says Henry Engelbrecht, owner of the Boland Sports group of stores. “In the past I thought I only had to stock technical sport shoes.” Nowadays surf brands like Island Style and Lizzard are strong sellers, he says – and in many cases the kids come and ask for a specific brand and model.

Why teens buy

But, teens have their own code of conduct when it comes to deciding what is cool and what is not. The rules about which brands are acceptable — and not — differ from suburb to cultural group to peer group … and with the myriads of brands available, choosing the right ones could be worse than trying to cross a minefield.

We therefore asked twenty urban teenagers aged 15 – 18 from different socio-economic, language and cultural groups to explain to us how and why they buy shoes. It transpired that kids from certain backgrounds do show a distinct preference for a certain “look” — for instance, white English-speaking kids favour the surfing look — while these brands do not appeal to black and coloured kids.

The most interesting discovery was, however, that there are many points on which all the teens from all the language and socio-economic groupings agree on. For instance…

  • All but one of them said that they are most likely to buy a shoe because it appeals to them while they are browsing through stores or pass a window display – needless to say, it must be a branded shoe. The way shoes are displayed, is therefore extremely important. The exception is a surfbrand lover from Pretoria who gets his inspiration firstly from surf magazines, and then by browsing through stores;

  • All of them said that they buy shoes because they “look good” – and that appearance is the most important thing they consider when buying footwear. Most believe that Diesel fits the bill because it ‘goes with everything’ and ‘the design is good’. If they like the look of a shoe, things like brand name, cost and comfort will also become factors in their choice;

  • All the teens wear brands because it gives them confidence and makes them feel good – therefore price is only a factor to those who feel they want to impress others with how expensive their clothing is … none would admit to ever wearing discount store brands (or shopping there);

  • Being the first – or only one – to wear a certain model of footwear is important, but it is OK if your friends wear the same brand. It is, however, very embarrassing and a social boo-boo to wear the same shoe as someone else … but you might just be able to get away with a shoe in a different colour, especially if the colour is radically different. Therefore, a variety of styles, rather that large numbers of the same style, would appeal more to teens;

  • But, they do not like to buy a shoe the first time they spot it, and rather prefer to mull over the choice. The more retailers that stock a shoe, the more likely they are to buy it – one girl explained that she will admire a shoe in the first store, try it on in the second store and probably buy it in the third;

  • The store where they buy must have legitimacy. They will not buy brands from discount stores – despite being a legitimate surf brand, Hang Ten will never be acceptable because it is considered to be an Ackermanns, and not a surf store, brand;

  • Certain types of footwear and clothing are associated with certain groups and it is a big no-no to try and adopt the dress style of another group. One group, for instance, uses the derogatory term ‘wiggers’ to describe ‘white kids trying to dress black’. Another girl said she loved a certain shoe style, but dare not wear it because another cultural group at their school started wearing it first;

  • Most teens are more influenced by the dress code of the area they come from and socialize in after school, than their peer group in the school (probably because they mostly wear uniforms to school, except for civvies days). Kids from an urban school with a multi-cultural mix will therefore have various dressing codes, even in the same group of friends;

  • Adverts in fashion magazines or on TV will only influence them if it is a really cool ad (and cool means something different to every group) – or if the shoe featured looks very striking. But the wrong type of advert can be off-putting;

  • High profile endorsements can be equally dicey — if it is a flavour of the month singing star or group, maybe (like the red cap trend started by Limp Bizkit) but it can count against a brand if a star is chosen with whom they prefer NOT to be associated with … all agreed that Skechers erred when signing Britney Spears’ “unless you want to reach the 4-5 year olds’’ and most are not aware of – or care about — sport stars who endorse brands;

  • They do not believe that it is so important that all your clothing should be branded (or be an expensive brand) – as long as you wear at least one item that is a very good brand. There is a difference of opinion about the advisability of mixing brands – some “hate it when people mix brand names” while others believe you look like a sponsored athlete if you wear one brand from head to toe;

  • Branding can be subtle, because those in the know, will recognise the brand no matter how small the logo.

  • Apart from the fact that teenagers are the most prolific buyers of shoes – all of them said that they buy a new pair of shoes at least every season, and more than 50% buy more than one pair per season – they are also the biggest spenders … albeit with someone else’s money.

    Price factor

    This is a worldwide trend. Last year, more than 6% of the athletic footwear bought by 14-17 year old Americans cost more than $100 — that was 2.1% more than in 2000 – while other age groups toned down their expenditure, reports the US National Sporting Goods Association.

    Apart from the very high spenders, the American consumers were mindful of the recession as consumers in the age groups 14 — 17, 18 - 24 and 25 – 34 – all spent less on footwear costing $60 to $99, but more on footwear costing $40-59.

    There were also big spenders amongst the SA teenagers we interviewed. Surprisingly, the teens from the more affluent areas were more concerned about keeping within a budget than the township kids — although they said that they will “try and make a plan” to buy it, regardless of cost, if they really liked an expensive pair of shoes.

    For the township kids, price point meant buying as expensive as possible. “That way people can see I can afford a really good brand and this gives me confidence,” says an 0-year old from Gugulethu.

    A trendy teen would not be seen entering a discount store without a disguise.

    There were some other interesting differences in the preferences of the cultural groups. All groups described the ‘street’ or ‘gangster look’ that is popular on the Cape Flats as an athletic footwear brand, combined with jeans (Levi’s) or formal pants. As one joked: ‘You have to be able to run fast’.

    The surfer/skateboarding look is popular in the English–speaking white areas and amongst the boys from an Afrikaans background – city girls tend to consider it to be the domain of the genuine surfers and skateboarders.

    The Black and coloured kids prefer a more sophisticated look. “If you have to wear a surf brand, then at least make sure it is Quiksilver or Billabong,” says a trendsetter from the Cape Flats. According to him, some surfing footwear look “like pillows around your feet.”

    Making an individual statement, wearing something new and way-out, “being me”, is very important to the trendsetters from the townships … especially if you wear a very expensive brand. For the township kids comfort – as represented by Converse, for instance — is OK … if you wear it around the house. “When you go out you have to make a statement.”

    The kids from Gugulethu showed a strong preference for Lacoste … although it is only available in two stores in the Cape Town area.

    The Afrikaans-speaking girls favour the NIKE and adidas fashion styles for their looks, stylish accessories and comfort … but the boys came out strongly in support of skate- and surf brands.

    Interestingly, 44% of the respondents chose Vans as a favourite brand, although it is no longer available in SA … likewise most of the Afrikaans girls chose Fila, no longer imported, as a favourite.

    Comments from the Brands

    It is true that Diesel is a very strong brand, and therefore a prime target for counterfeiters, says Stanley Kotkin of local distributor, Footwear Trading. To ensure copyright protection and to simplify prosecuting counterfeiters, certain styles are now also registered in SA.

    The company also distributes Skechers – and according to Kotkin teenage boys worldwide have commented negatively about the Britney Spears endorsement, while many girls love it.

    “We have found that the skate look has dropped off with us and there has been a definite increase in the running shoe silhouette,” says Brian Kerby, MD of adidas SA. “Basketball shoes also seem to have become more popular again. Having said this, nothing can touch the growth of the retro styled sneaker look (Country Ripple, Country, Superstar, etc) which has really taken off. The volumes of Superstar (the biggest selling adidas shoe in the US) we are now selling is extremely pleasing and we are expecting this trend to continue for some time to come.”

    “The demand for Globe is interesting as the brand is getting replaced inland by Osiris and DC shoe company [two other niche skate brands] driven by bands such as Limp Bizkit, POD, Puddle of Mudd,” says NIKE footwear expert Padraig Muldoon.

    Some Statistics:

    The TOP 3 brands (Diesel was selected as one of the top 3 brands by the vast majority of teens – with NIKE and adidas sharing second place and Globe and PUMA also receiving support)

    The TEENS favourates (Before interviewing the teenagers, we asked them to name their favourite brands. They were not limited in the number of brands they could choose. Every one selected Diesel amongst their favourites — and interestingly Vans, no longer imported into SA, also featured strong)

    The CULTURAL differences (The teens showed distinct different brand preferences along cultural lines: the white English-speaking group showed distinct preferences for surf brands Globe, Quiksilver and Island Style, alongside the all-favourite Diesel. Apart from Diesel, the Afrikaans-speaking group like the sporty adidas and NIKE look, but also favour Soviet, Converse and Vans! Members of this group also named skate brands Emerica and Osiris as favourites. Apart from Diesel, the black teens favoured sporty brands NIKE, adidas and Reebok and were the only one’s to choose Lacoste and Timberland as favourites. They liked Converse ‘for around the house.’ The teens from the coloured community also chose Diesel, NIKE and adidas as favourites, but were the only one’s to show a strong liking for CATS)

    Ratings from 1-3 (Diesel was also the number one brand selected by the largest number of teens, with NIKE following. Globe, adidas and Lacoste was also the first choice of more than 10% of the teens – with Lacoste receiving strong, but exclusive, support from teens from Gugulethu. Diesel, adidas, Soviet and PUMA made strong showings as second favourite choice)


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