ST. LOUIS — Cross-marketing and multimedia weren’t the buzzwords they are now when, 100 years ago, a suburban St. Louis shoe company took a chance and bought licensing rights to a comic strip character.
In his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits and Dutch-boy haircut, Buster Brown took swats on the backside in his comic strip and helped the Brown Shoe Co.’s bottom line. The lineup of children’s footwear bearing his name helped build the company into what is now a $1.8 billion concern.
The winking boy with his sidekick pooch, Tige, made his way into everything — comic books, radio, TV and theater spots. For decades he proved a superb fit for Brown Shoe, which has stumbled some in recent years as it grows into a larger concern owning store chains and other shoe lines.
Shares in the suburban St. Louis-based company are trading at around $27, narrowly above its 52-week low of $25.35 and well below its high for the year of about $42. In recent years it has worked at restructuring, closing about 100 stores in its Naturalizer chain and laying off about 600 workers.
Since then, Brown Shoe has grown, returning its global work force to about 11,500 workers and now happily celebrates Buster’s anniversary.
“Few brands ever make it to 100 years,” Brown Shoe spokeswoman Beth Fagan says. “So when you have a cherished brand like Buster Brown that can say it’s been putting shoes on the feet of children for 100 years, it’s a real milestone.”
Buster Brown debuted in Richard Outcault’s comic strip in the New York Herald on May 4, 1902, nearly a quarter century after shoemaking Bryan, Brown & Co. got its start. It then changed its name to Brown Shoe Co.
By 1958, Buster Brown shoes were the world’s best seller for children, by then versed in the well-worn tag line: “That’s my dog, Tige. He lives in a shoe. I’m Buster Brown. Look for me in there, too.”
Decades since, Brown Shoe’s portfolio has grown to include the 915-store Famous Footwear chain of family shoe stores and the 380-store Naturalizer chain selling women’s shoes in the United States and Canada.
In announcing last month that its second-quarter earnings were off 32 percent at $7.8 million, Brown Shoe said its net sales for the period largely were flat at $458.7 million. And although sales for the Bass footwear line contributed $9.1 million in the quarter, weakness in children’s and women’s private label markets more than offset that increase.
Still, Juli Niemann — an RT Jones analyst based in Brown Shoe’s home turf — considers the company “a totally focused business” since its retooling — and more nimble in a world where “fashion can change on a dime.”
“Along with other retailers, it’s down for a reason — it has to do with consumer spending” curtailed at least in part by higher oil and gas prices,” she said. “It’s affecting all retailers at the moderate end.”
Brown Shoe, she believes, “has very good long-term potential.”
And Buster Brown presses on.
Next month, the company expects to end its nationwide “Pairs to Remember” contest by tapping six boys and girls to be featured with their dogs on Buster Brown shoe boxes, which — like most of the past century — will come with a little gift.
“If we didn’t invent the gift-with-purchase concept, we made it a marketing tool,” Fagan said.
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