In a market crowded with athletic-shoe retailers, The Athlete's Foot stays ahead of the game by keeping focused on its goals.

"We offer a product that is functional," says Robert J. Corliss, CEO of Atlanta-based The Athlete's Foot Group Inc. "(Our priorities) are fit, function and fashion in that order. We know what kind of shoe fits what kind of foot."

When The Athlete's Foot opened its first store in Pittsburgh in 1971, it was the first athletic footwear specialty store of its kind. Now, the retailer has some 700 stores in 43 countries; its 400 domestic stores are in almost every state in the country. About 65% of its stores are franchised and 35% are company owned.

But the company, now owned by Paris-based Group Rallye, still has bigger shoes to fill. The Athlete's Foot has an aggressive expansion plan, Corliss says, with plans to operate more than 1,000 stores by the year 2000.

Currently, there are two store concepts: full-service mall stores that average 2,500 to 3,000 sq. ft.; and service-plus superstores that measure up to 12,000 sq. ft. and are freestanding or in power or strip centers.

The store design format is a work in progress. Many of the existing stores will be remodeled over the next year to provide a warmer, friendlier environment, Corliss says. One design aspect likely to remain the same is the arrangement of merchandise by gender and by sport, as the company believes this is the easiest way for customers to find what they are looking for.

The Athlete's Foot focuses on how to fulfill consumers' needs through research conducted at its fit-and-wear test center just outside Chicago. The Athlete's Foot is the only retailer to operate an independent facility of this kind, says Corliss. The center allows the company to thoroughly test construction, durability and performance of every major athletic shoe brand on the market.

Knowledge gained at the testing center gives the company a technical edge over competition, Corliss says. Unlike other retailers in the market, he says, the company focuses not only on shoe style but also on fit and performance. The Athlete's Foot employees participate in a certified fit technician program to increase their knowledge of footwear.

The Athlete's Foot also monitors customers' needs through its Herald Square flagship store on 34th Street in New York. At approximately 20,000 sq. ft., the multi-level store offers more than 1,000 athletic brands and serves as a way to experiment with a larger variety of merchandise.

"We view the New York store as sort of a marketing environment," Corliss says. "We see it as a lab for what we might want to do in the future."

The store has the largest sales volume and the most merchandise of all The Athlete's Foot stores. However, since it is located in such a high-traffic area, Corliss believes the New York store can still increase sales volume.

Along with its expansion plans, the company will concentrate on marketing its stores. "We have been undermarketed in the past," he says. "We recognize we have a lot of work to do. We believe the shopping experience (at The Athlete's Foot) is better than what other retailers offer."

Contact: Roger Kehm, executive vice president, The Athlete's Foot Group Inc., 1950 Vaughn Road, Kennesaw, GA 30144; (770) 514-4500.

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