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States visit

Las Vegas footwear show WSA is a priority for those in the US market, but how relevant is it for UK visitors? Drapers hops across the pond to check it out

The WSA footwear fair in Las Vegas last week was - like the luck of the late-night gamblers huddled around the roulette tables in the city - an up and down affair.

Sprawled across 1.9 million sq ft, the show is vast, with three venues covering all categories from men's and women's footwear to comfort and kids. It is an unmissable show for US labels, providing an excellent platform from which to showcase their product.

WSA is also vital for any UK brand wanting to crack the notoriously tough US market. However, the show is still not top of the agenda for most UK and Irish buyers.

Despite attracting buyers from multiples such as Marks & Spencer, Topshop, New Look and Kurt Geiger, as well as a few independents like Bishops of Coleraine in Northern Ireland, Office buying director Ghassan Hodeib said WSA is not a big priority for most UK footwear retailers. "It's true that if you don't go you miss out," he said. "But the show is too far, especially considering the difficult state of the market."

WSA is certainly at least a three-day visit for any buyer wanting to cover it comprehensively. Hodeib believes that the show is too time-consuming, and that product-wise the trends are usually off-beam, at least for the UK market. "The US market is one-dimensional and offers very white-coloured, basketball-based shoes. If you look at the men's footwear on show, it's very middle America, and very department store-centred."

The European perception of fashion and trend is different to that of shoppers across the pond. WSA provides an opportunity to see US brands such as Converse exhibiting their full collections - which is something the UK showrooms don't always offer - but big players such as Nike are missing from the line-up.

However, there are benefits to be had. By visiting the show, retailers have the opportunity to forge relationships with key teams from the US brands that they stock, and can negotiate exclusive contracts. A benefit for UK buyers, says WSA chief operating officer Diane Stone, is that they can place orders close to season and receive product up to six weeks ahead of their competitors.

Nigel Hamilton, director of Northern Irish retailer Bishops of Coleraine, said the show's variety and distance from the UK gives it an edge. "With the footwear industry moving from a national to a global market, a trip to WSA gives us access to product that is unique," he said.

New Look footwear buyer Ruth Hammond added: "What I got out of it was confirmation that we are doing the right thing, but we knew about most things already."

With the US market being a different beast, patent, animal print and metallics were key new trends at the show. But these are styles that most of the UK market would have already bought into in autumn 05.

There is a refreshing air of professionalism and commerciality about WSA compared with European trade shows such as Bread & Butter or Micam. But that is mostly due to the nature of the market - people visit the show to do business, the visitors are wearing smart clothing and there is no music being played in the halls.

All of this is foreign territory for most UK buyers, who are used to a more relaxed and contemporary show environment where they can view product then book an appointment for the showroom. A taste of this atmosphere can be had in The Collections, one of the three venues at WSA, which is where UK brands such as Georgina Goodman, Scorah Pattullo and French Connection exhibit, adding a cool edge to the show.

Although not every buyer is looking for the next contemporary big thing at WSA, even those from long-standing independents notice the lack of exciting product. Hamish Mason, joint owner of William Mason of Dunbar, said: "The show is not that relevant, because the product isn't cutting edge. It's only really the marketing ideas that I come away with."

With much of the high street duplicating each other's offer, attending as many shows as possible is one of the best ways to secure a USP. However, even though some US labels at WSA were at the front of the pack in terms of trends, the uniqueness of the offer is something that WSA needs to ramp up if it wants to grab, and hold, the attention of the UK contingent as time and money tightens across the sector.

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