Interview with David Helter, GM, ECCO Performance, on BIOM and ECCO Performance, by Larry Eder

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We have been watching ECCO for several years now, but their new BIOM launch defies description. David Helter, an ECCO lifer, is the general manager for ECCO performance and, as the saying, goes, loves his brand.

We discussed an interview in November at the Running Event, and in late December, provided David with the questions. Early in 2009, late at night, his answers showed up, with pictures the next day.

ECCO is an example of the high level of competitiveness within the marketplace, and the high quality of product within said marketplace. Running performance drives a seven billion dollar business. If you do not get support here, the influencers will not be telling their neighbors what shoe to buy.

Where Helter makes tremendous sense, and his interview requires thoughtful reading, is in the need for educating staffs instore. This is, as Helter says, a lost art. The brands who provide great product, but little training, will finish behind the brands with good product and great training.

2009 will be a battle of many sides: great product, targeted support of the selling channels, and supportive education. Without all three, your brand will have trouble getting room on the fabled shoe wall.

RBR: The running industry is at its most competitive in the last two decades, tell us about the reasoning to launch ECCO at this time?


David Helter: ECCO is a 45 year old Danish company. We have been in the US for the last 18 years. Seven years ago, ECCO launched a new Division; ECCO Performance or athletic product. One of the categories we launched was running. Running is the #1 sport worldwide and is the heart of training for all sports. If an athletic brand wants to be "authentic," it has to be in well positioned in the running category. ECCO has been doing running product for the last 7 years. But, BIOM is the first running product with major points-of-difference and unique selling properties, which allows us to go head-to-head with the major running brands like Asics, Brooks and New Balance. In addition, the running specialty trade channel has been one of the most successful channels within sports distribution. Based on the innovativeness of BIOM and the strong running market, we felt like the timing could not be better for ECCO BIOM to be introduced by an alternative, new running brand.



Biom A, leather, sideview, sole

RBR: Can you give us a bit of history on the ECCO brand? You have a strong reputation in the high end and you have been testing running and trail shoes for several years, can you comment on that?

David Helter: I touched on this in answering the first question but can expand a little here. ECCO is a premium brand in regards to quality, price, distribution and service. We are well positioned with premiere retailers globally and across the US. The brand has strong equity in the brown channels; shoe stores and department stores. One of the last frontiers for ECCO has been sports distribution; outdoor specialty, sporting goods, athletic specialty and running specialty. Yes. We have a strong reputation in the high end and have been offering running and trail shoes. But, before BIOM, these running and trail shoes didn't have enough of a point-of-difference to gain us strong penetration in the sports channel. BIOM should help position ECCO as an authentic athletic brand which is making innovative running shoes. Our position of selective and premiere distribution should give us and advantage in premiere independent retailers over brands, which are sold in big box concepts.


RBR: You are launching your shoes in several stages, can you tell us about
that?

David Helter: In March of 2009, we will launch the BIOM concept in approximately 50 running specialty stores in the US. The initial BIOM launch
will include 6 sku's; BIOM A version in men's made in both a textile and leather version, BIOM B in men's made in both a textile and leather version and BIOM B in women's made in both a textile and leather version. BIOM A is for a runner running a 6 minute per mile pace or faster. BIOM B is for a runner running between 6 and 9 1/2 minutes per mile. BIOM C will be launch in the back half of 2009. We choose to launch BIOM for the serious/elite runner and the fitness runner. These runners represent approximately 20-30% of all runners in the US. Even though the market share is smaller in these two categories, we felt launching to the more serious runners would help position BIOM and ECCO within running specialty. BIOM C for the occasional runner, who represents between 70-80% of the market and BIOM Trail will be launched after we have penetrated running specialty and established ECCO as a "new" and alternative running brand.

RBR: Your launch is in specialty, how are you getting the attention on
the specialty business?

David Helter: We have been "speaking" with the running specialty retailers for the last 2-3 years. We first established brand penetration in this channel with performance lifestyle. This included fitness styles, performance Mary Janes, water sport and sport sandals. This is all product, which fits nicely into a running specialty stores assortment and best of all it creates incremental sales. Another benefits is that much of this product is not offered by the traditional running brands like Asics, Brooks and Mizuno.

We have also spoken to running specialty through our participation in events like The Running Event and our support of the IRRA. Last but just as important, we have done our share of grassroots marketing by attending various race fitness expos across the country. We have participated in these events with running specialty stores in the respective markets as our partners.

We think that it is important to support the independent running specialty stores in a variety of ways. One of the most important ways is to have limited and premiere distribution. Hopefully this loyalty to and support of independent specialty will continue to gain us penetration in the important and successful trade channel.


RBR: Tell us about your shoes (need photos) and how did you come up with
the pricing strategies?

David Helter: The foundation for the BIOM concept was natural motion and minimalism. In a recent study done in Europe, it was documented that the injury rate in runners has shown no or only minimal change in the last 20 plus years. All the technologies developed (cushioning, motion control, stability, etc.)
have not reduced running injuries. ECCO saw an opportunity to build a technology based on natural motion, which was to mimic barefoot running as best as possible. ECCO built BIOM using three main pillars; ECCO's expertise in footwear making, Professor Dr. Peter Brueggemann's expertise in biomechanics and Torbjorn Sindballe's status as a world class athlete and "test lab." The results is an innovative concept, which has several major unique selling points and features & benefits:

o BIOM is the only running shoe built using the direct inject process.
o The entire midsole of BIOM is made of PU and not EVA.
o The is a Yak leather version of all levels of BIOM.
o The last utilized for BIOM is anatomical and not a flat last.
o The midsole is lower profile and has a rounded heel construction.
o The flex points in the outsole mimic the skeleton foot.
o BIOM uses an anatomical shank.

The pricing strategy was simple and consistent with the successful foundation on which the ECCO brand has been built. We have created premium product at a premium price. BIOM will be the most expensive running shoe on the market. We will simply let the price/value of BIOM speak for itself. It is our learning that there is always a segment of the consumer which wants the best and is willing to pay for it.


BIOM A, mesh, side view and sole view

RBR: ECCO is known for high quality product, tell us about the team involved in the new running product?

David Helter: This question was answered above.


RBR: As ECCO picks markets around the country to develop the launch, what areas do you see as key for the launch?

David Helter: There are several areas in the US, which are hot beds of running. The key areas where there seems to be a lot of critical mass in terms of number of strong independent running specialty stores are TX, FL, Southern CA, Northern CA, Chicago, pacific Northwest and the Mid Atlantic. We are trying to develop a strong network of distribution in these areas and grow from there. This doesn't mean we will not sell to premiere stores in other regions but we will concentrate our efforts and marketing here initially.


RBR: Your marketing plan, how are you planning to develop the interest in the brand, and put consumers in running stores?

David Helter: Based on our current success in men's & women's European comfort/casual/dress, golf and kid's, the ECCO brand has already establish strong brand equity. The first step in 'marketing" BIOM was to pursue the best distribution. We will support the "charter" launch partners with national marketing in consumer publications like Runner's World, and also with targeted regional consumer publications. I addition, we will continue our grassroots marketing at race fitness expos. We have embarked on an extensive PR campaign, which has already garnered favorable PR in Men's Vogue and other publications. We also intend on support the BIOM launch via the Internet and possibly running support groups.

Maybe the most important "marketing" is to do in-store sales clinics to train the sales associates on the features & benefits of BIOM. This has been is a dying art and a model we have used quite successfully in the brown channel with our comfort footwear. Even though it isn't marketing, ECCO supports its retail based with a strong replenishment inventory. The retailer makes more profit when it can reorder successful items not wait for their next future order and disappoint their consumer by being out of a size of a style they want.


RBR: Will the web play a part in your launch? Will you have presence at road races?

David Helter: Yes and yes. Hopefully this has been answered above.

David Helter: Any final thoughts?

ECCO has had incredible success in the premium market in the US but still seems to be a bit of a "secret," especially in sports distribution. I may be a bit bias but I believe BIOM is going to open many eyes at the wholesale, retail and consumer level. We look forward to our March 2009 launch and will share the results with you and your readers.

Happy BIOMing!


For more on the ECCO brand, please check http://www.ECCO.com

For more on the sport of running, please check http://www.runningnetwork.com

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