Hush Puppies Goes Lux

July 23, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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ROCKFORD — Hush Puppies shoes are like the late Rodney Dangerfield. It seems like sometimes they don't get any respect — but lots of people apparently like them.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article in its Style section that focused on a new wave of higher-priced dress shoes for men. One of the shoes featured was the Epic from Hush Puppies, which will retail for about $150 when it is introduced next spring.

The Wall Street Journal asked a "conflicts analyst" at a financial advisory firm for an off-the-cuff evaluation of the Hush Puppies Epic; he was not enthused. (What would you expect from a conflicts analyst?)

That doesn't faze Jim Zwiers, president of Hush Puppies USA, because the market seems receptive to higher-end shoes from Hush Puppies. The Wall Street Journal reported that in general, sales of men's dress shoes are rising faster than casual shoes.

"Right now, the dress portion of the (shoe) market is getting a little stronger," confirmed Zwiers, adding that the word "dress" may be "too formal" of a description. But he said there definitely is a trend toward "more tailored footwear."

Zwiers said Wolverine World Wide introduced higher-end Hush Puppies in the fall of 2005, in its new Black Label Collection of leather and suede shoes. The three styles in the collection range in price from $135 to $145. Several more styles will be added in the spring, including the Epic.

Zwiers said there are three goals behind the Black Label line. The first is to "showcase the essence of the Hush Puppies brand," which he described as an authentic, relaxed style. The second goal is to "create new Hush Puppies customers" — men who shop at the better men’s apparel stores. Third, the company wants to "challenge our design team and push the envelope with Black Label, which results in not only great product in Black Label, but also our entire footwear line."

Zwiers said the Epic and a companion slip-on shoe called Star (which will also be offered in the spring) feature "a unique puckered skip stitch, burnished Italian leather, sheepskin lining, and exceptional detail. They have been well received by retailers."

The bottom of the sole on Epic and Star is decorated with intricate laser-etched designs, which will undoubtedly leave some classy footprints.

Hush Puppies already enjoys success with Roadster, a higher-end men's loafer priced at around $120. Roadster "has done very well for us in the men’s apparel channel for several seasons," noted Zwiers. He said it features antelope leather, unlined construction, "and the essence of Hush Puppies: relaxed with style."

Zwiers said Hush Puppies is targeting upper end men's apparel stores and footwear specialty stores throughout the country. He noted that Hush Puppies are in several stores on Esquire magazine's "Best of Class" list of "the finest men's specialty stores in the country." One of those is Guy La Ferrera Italian Clothing in Boca Raton, Fla., which was listed in Esquire previously (most recently in March 2006), and will reportedly be listed again in the September issue.

Guy La Ferrera, who opened the store with his father 25 years ago, tells a classic Hush Puppies story when he recounts how he came to sell them. A couple of summers ago, he was in New York on business, which entailed a lot of walking in Manhattan's Meatpacking District (actually the city's hot spot for designer apparel and other luxury goods). He was wearing a nice pair of dress shoes — "I won't name the brand" — and his feet were killing him. So he went into a boutique called Scoop, saw some Hush Puppies, and discovered a pair that were right for his hard-to-fit feet.

"It felt like my feet were released from Alcatraz," said La Ferrera. Later at a trade show, he sought out the Hush Puppies booth and linked up with a sales rep in his area. When asked which Hush Puppies sell best at his store in Boca Raton, La Ferrera didn't have to think about it: Roadster. He's also having good luck with a more casual Hush Puppies sneaker called Shift.

According to Zwiers, Hush Puppies sales are about 15 percent of total Wolverine World Wide global sales, which amounted to $250 million in the second quarter of 2007.

Last week Wolverine reported record revenue and earnings per share for the second quarter of 2007, making it 20 consecutive record quarters in a row. The results prompted the footwear and apparel company to increase its estimate of earnings per share for 2007.

Second quarter 2007 revenue totaled $250.3 million, a 5 percent increase over second quarter 2006 revenue of $238.5 million. Earnings per share for the second quarter of 2007 were $0.28 compared to the $0.25 reported for the second quarter of 2006, an increase of 12 percent.

For the first half of 2007, revenue reached $531.4 million, a 6 percent gain over the $501.3 million reported for the first half of 2006.

"Our strong performance in the quarter was broad-based across our branded footwear groups, with the Merrell brand leading the way with strong double-digit gains in both revenue and earnings. Both the Heritage Brands Group and Hush Puppies business also realized solid revenue and earnings gains in the quarter," said president and CEO Blake W. Krueger.

He said planned decreases in the military contract and private label businesses offset other revenue gains in the Wolverine Footwear Group during the quarter.

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