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Kai Ryssdal: For the retail community, the summer of '09 will not be fondly remembered. Even the back-to-school season isn't working out so well. It's not just pencil and notebook makers bemoaning slow sales. Clothing stores are, too. They're trying almost anything to sell more T-shirts, jeans and shoes. And to get more traction, some sneaker makers are selling their wares very, very close to home.
Curt Nickisch reports now from WBUR in Boston.
CURT NICKISCH: See a line around a store nowadays and you might think a new iPhone or video game is coming out. But earlier this summer in Cambridge, Mass., more than a 100 people waited in line for a week -- mostly in the rain -- to get their hands on a limited run of sneakers.
Nick Ferdo waited under an umbrella, spitting chewing tobacco into an empty water bottle.
NICK FERDO: Oh man, I've been out here in the rain. I didn't sleep last night. I'm going to wear them every day.
"Them" is a pair of Blue Lobster Nike SB Dunk Lows. Blue sneakers with fluorescent yellow laces. A boutique shoe store here teamed up with Nike to design them. Just 300 pairs went on sale -- only here -- for $250 each. Ferdo was determined to strut out with one of them.
FERDO: The exclusiveness. People break their necks looking at you walking down the street.
News of the sale spread on blogs popular with kids who call themselves "sneakerheads." The store fielded calls from around the country. Three teenagers even drove all the way from Cleveland to stand in line. It was a minor marketing coup for Nike.
MARSHAL COHEN: It's almost like a walking billboard for them.
That's Marshal Cohen. He follows the sports apparel market for NPD Group. He says the recession has forced sneaker companies to slash marketing budgets.
The problem is, consumers are harder to reach during a downturn. So Cohen says instead of investing in national ad buys that are costly and anonymous, sneaker companies are trying more small-scale efforts. So-called hyper-local marketing tries to connect with consumers where they shop and get them to help spread the message for companies.
COHEN: This is the product and the consumer that's going to be talking about this and giving them all kinds of leverage against their competition.
Competition that's getting stiffer all the time. Although clothing sales are down overall, sneakers are one of the few products that are still selling. The global sneaker market is worth almost $30 billion. And that's attracting new players like Under Armor to a field already crowded with heavyweights like Nike, Adidas and PUMA.
So to try to keep its edge, PUMA just launched an ad campaign in a few U.S. cities that showcasrd some of its workers at the company's local retail stores.
AD: Hi, my name is Basmah. I'm from Houston. And I work at the Houston Galleria Store.
The Global Marketing Officer for PUMA, Antonio Bertone, says this new campaign doesn't mean that his company is dropping its sports stars. He was thrilled to see sprinter Usain Bolt shatter a world record recently in bright orange PUMA racers.
But Bertone thinks by letting consumers get to know sales associates at their local PUMA store, they'll be more interested in getting to know the brand and its products.
ANTONIO BERTONE: Nevermind the United States. It's not even East Coast/West Coast. I think brands are going to have to think city by city, you know, in terms of how to effectively communicate to consumers and hope that there's a spillover effect into other markets.
Expect more hyper-local campaigns spilling over to you. The recession is changing the race, and even the biggest sneaker companies are finding that little steps may be the way to win it.
In Boston, I'm Curt Nickisch, for Marketplace.