Most people past their mid twenties probably can’t recall what kind of shoes they wore in the third grade. All I can remember about mine is that they were white canvas and had grass stains. I had little say in the matter. I’m sure I had a little influence, but I didn’t care.

Not so for the little dudes of today. For the past few years style has infected kids at a younger and younger age. Everything from beanies to belts are scrutinized by eyes that are no longer as naive as they used to be (when was the last time you saw a kid wearing a plain T-shirt?). Ten-year-old girls dress like pop stars and ten-year-old boys dress like skate stars–at least for now. My friend’s son is three and already has more shoes than I owned for the first decade of my life. Every day he gets to pick what style to wear.

It’s not just styles that are hitting earlier, today’s youth start skating at a younger age. “Kids are getting into skateboarding younger and younger,” says Etnies Footwear Product Manager Jason Smith. “Plus, the younger consumer is constantly becoming more fashion- and brand-conscious. We definitely have room to grow.”

“We always carried kids’ shoes–for the last seven years at least,” says Tony Mellick, vice president of Brother’s Boards in Fort Collins, Colorado. “But obviously it’s increased in the last few years.”

Paul Wilson, buyer for Skater’s Paradise in Santa Barbara, says that his youth-shoes sales have doubled in the past year. With best-selling video games and TV coverage, kids are introduced to the four wheels as soon as they can hold a remote. A lot of them dress the part all the time while rolling around some of the time. The skate costume is more popular than ever, and that puts smiles on the faces of manufacturers and retailers.

It’s not as easy as the old days, though. Back in the 80s and 90s, boards and clothes were smaller versions of the big-boy equipment. Today, the really young purchaser is more influenced by his peers and sometimes demands unique products from companies. “Kids have the most influence on each other,” Mellick says. “Parents sit down and wait for kids to pick the shoes out.”

Getting In Early

Steve Van Doren and his family have been putting tykes in Vans shoes since 1966. Their operation, at the time, custom-made every shoe, so squeezing a small size out wasn’t a problem. Vans didn’t have to plan runs and styles seasons ahead. Today, they own a sizable chunk of the kids’ skate-shoe market, due in part to the fact that they have stores in malls all over country. Families strolling through the stores can get yanked in by kids wanting some cool shoes. Vans is also one of a few companies making infant shoes. “We make shoes for babies before they can walk,” Van Doren says. “We can?t even fit Vans on the bottom. We put VA on one shoe and NS on the other.”

A different marketing strategy is needed for kids aged between four and eight, because most aren’t hardcore skaters who react to the same influences teens and above do. Vans has a shoe-design department of around fifteen people, and two are dedicated to working on smaller sizes. Van Doren says that they try to jazz up the smallest features for the young kids’ sneakers. “On one shoe we changed the insole and put colorful graffiti art on it. If you go into McDonalds’, there are all these kids-packages–they want things to be more fun. A lot of kids are looking for a Spider Man shoe, and we won’t make that shoe, but we need to make it exciting.”

“The kids tend to want brighter accents than the adults,” agrees Smith. “We offer some shoes that match the adult line and then some that differ with brighter colorways.”

DC reaches the young consumers (and their parents) by also selling their smaller sizes in mall stores. Such broader distribution for these lines is a necessity for companies like DC, Vans, Osiris, and Etnies, as most skate shops don’t carry toddler and infant shoes. With the flood of shoe companies out there, it’ss hard enough to decide what brands to carry, never mind what size to go down to. Shoes are a risky business, and the last thing you want to do is take up valuable space on the display wall or get nailed with overstock when you’re not even sure if the target market (parents) are going to come into your shop.

A friend who works for a popular skate-shoe company and his wife recently bought their two year old shoes at a Vans store. As stale and sterile as malls can be, they’re one of the sure bets for parents to get footwear for their little dudes or dudettes.

Crossing The Great Divide

There is a thick dividing line in today’s youth-shoe market. The toddler to eight year old, whose clothing and shoes are usually picked by their parents, is an exploding market. But after that, kids start making up their own minds–with the help of advertising, magazines, videos, and peer pressure. Once they cross the line they want something completely different than “baby” shoes. At that point they want what the big boys tie up and are skating more often. “I never see a kid with a size three and a big ollie hole,” observes Mellick.

This also creates headaches for brands trying to instill brand loyalty early. “You want to get them started in your product,” says Van Doren, adding the hope is they remain a customer.

“Kids are all about trends,” says Skater’s Paradise’s Wilson. He says he knows older skaters who only skate in one company’s shoes, but that younger kids bounce around between brands. “They want what their friends have.” He mentions that unlike older skaters, the young ones will come in with a shoe in mind, but compromise with a different color if it’s not available.

Shoe styles and marketing change radically for the six year old. All the companies I spoke with mentioned that this is when the seeds of the older skater get planted. They pay more attention to what the pros are wearing. “We advertise to the mothers with the younger ones,” Van Doren says, “Then with boys’ (sizes) and above we advertise through who they aspire to be.”

Even though kids have more leverage by the time they’re around eight, parents still hold the almighty purchasing power. Most youth shoes hit the retail roof at around 50 bucks. “Our shoes range from 39 to 59 dollars retail,” Etnies’ Smith says. “Kids tear through shoes so fast, plus their feet are constantly growing. If they don’t wear them out, they’ll outgrow them. Parents don’t want to pay as much money for the younger kids’ shoes.”

Some parents do seem willing to compromise colors, style, and price to wrap the whole experience up. “The parents are the ones driving their kids around,” Wilson says, and he’s heard them tell their kids to just settle on a shoe because “they don’t want to go to a bunch of other shops.”

Mini Me

One thing that has the shops and shoe companies jumping around is the unique background of new families. For the first time on a large scale, skaters have kids who are old enough to roll around with them. Think they’re going to run to the mall jock shop to lace up some Reeboks? Children are a reflection of their parents, and a lot of the skaters from the 80s want their kids looking like skaters, even if they don’t skate yet.

But like the story of Oedipus will tell you, there comes a time when the last thing kids will want to be is like their parents. Once again, building brand loyalty hits the wall head on. If Pops is sporting one brand, the kid may soon be looking for something else. Or he may be looking for a pair of Mullens because that’s his hero for the moment. Or he may be lacing up a pair of McCranks because that’s his favorite character on the skate video game. But one thing is for sure, he won’t be putting anything on his feet without having a reason why.