Can a shoe define a city or where it's headed?
The New Balance 247, a high-end sneaker that was being launched Saturday at UBIQ, a premium men's boutique at 1509 Walnut St., is testing the theory.
Seven U.S. cities were chosen for the shoe's launch that have a "24/7 culture and atmosphere," according to the company. Other launches were in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Washington DC, and Houston.
Center City Philadelphia is among them, given all the good things happening here, such as a thriving nightlife with new dining and entertainment, and not the least, an influx of empty nesters and millennials (ages 19 to 34), with a lot of disposable income.
The 247 sneaker, even in its name, appeals to "a 24/7 urban lifestyle" in its marketing ads.
"Philadelphia, with its culture and history of innovators, creators, and artisans, as well as New Balance's popularity in the market, was a natural fit to launch a new silhouette that is rooted in New Balance's DNA but designed for the modern, urban consumer," said Meg Johnson, director of North America marketing at New Balance. "The combination of a vibrant city, shared background, and important retail partner is why Philadelphia was chosen."
Johnson adds that the 247 sneaker "is meant to take the urban millennial from day to night and fulfill their daily footwear needs."
Industry experts and observers say this is all part of a new urbanism trend among retailers to appeal to city dwellers. These new urban stores typically have smaller footprints and reduced parking requirements, and are often bilevel. A key component is the merchandise mix, which varies from what you would generally find in traditional retail environments, such as malls and lifestyle centers.
"Retailers are following the population shifts and are moving stores into the urban environment," said Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "Target has recently opened smaller footprint stores in center cities, which is a shift from their old 'big box' strategies."
Two such Target Express stores have opened and two more will open in the city by this fall.
"When stores change locale and move to stores to areas with different demographics, it makes sense that the merchandising and advertising would shift," Kahn said. "The big-box Target stores, for instance, that are in rural and suburban areas are more likely to be catering to families. Whereas the smaller footprint Target stores that we are now seeing in the cities are catering to people who live there, which tends to be a higher proportion of single adults, and specifically millennials."
Advertising Age magazine recently projected that the percentage of the total global population living in cities in 2017 will be five points higher than in 2007, the year global urban population first surpassed rural residents.
Retailers are adjusting their format and merchandise to accommodate millennial preferences in these urban centers, said Catherine Timko, CEO of the Riddle Co., an economic and real estate development consulting firm. It has been assisting the Center City District and the Philadelphia Retail Marketing Alliance since 2010.
Timko cited the Bloomingdale Outlet, a 22,700-square-foot store at the Shoppes at Liberty Place, which is smaller than a traditional store, and Bonobos on Walnut Street, which is more a showroom and features much of its inventory on an iPad. The team member then ships the purchase directly to your house or office – for free.
"The limited inventory onsite requires less space while offering optimal convenience," Timko said. "I expect we will see more of this format emerging in urban areas as people continue to move back downtown."
David Green, vice chairman at the commercial real estate firm Colliers International, focuses on urban retail and has watched downtown Philly's evolution.
"Over time, it has gotten much better for Philadelphia itself and Center City as a place to go vs. a few years ago," said Green, who is based in Manhattan. "Like anything else, it takes time. Philly is a great city. For a period of time it was underappreciated.
"It is an excellent testament of Philly's strength," Green said. "I believe there is an urbanization trend because people want to be in the big urban center and to feel the energy, especially young people. That bodes well for New York, Philly, and the rest of the big urban centers. You have all the trappings: excitement, energy, and there is so much happening."
Which takes us back to the 247. Historically, New Balance has a penchant for numbering its sneakers. It also sells the 990, 1300, and 576.
But the 247 is special, said Brian Lynn, senior product manager at New Balance Lifestyle. Like its name, it's all about a 24/7 urban lifestyle. A pair retails for $119.95.
"It has a socklike bootie construction in conjunction with asymmetric vamp detail and lightweight RevLite midsole for superior fit and comfort," he said. "Sneaker consumers, in general, have become increasingly knowledgeable, and there is now an expectation for premium quality and innovative materials across the board."