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The footwear business is currently characterized by increasing material and distribution costs, and if these rising costs coincide with a softening market, some consolidation may be inevitable. U.S. shoe manufacturers and sellers in particular have been hurt by a conservative retailer appetite at home and worsening retail conditions in Europe. In a sign of things to come, privately-held U.K. footwear manufacturer R Griggs Group recently appointed investment bank Rothschild to determine market sentiment over a possible sale of the Dr. Martens brand.

The highest profile acquisition in the footwear sector in 2011 was that of Timberland by VF (NYSE:VFC) for $2 billion in cash. Other transactions, which were more in the high-end segment, were the acquisition of Jimmy Choo shoes by Labelux Group from TowerBrook Capital Partners for an estimated $811 million and the purchase of U.K. shoe retailer Kurt Geiger by Jones Group (NYSE:JNY) for $350 million. Smaller deals included the takeover of teen and young adult U.K. Schuh Group by Genesco (NYSE:GCO) for $162 million and the purchase of American Sporting Goods by Brown Shoe (NYSE:BWS) for $145 million.

As these examples show, M&A activity is occurring across the footwear spectrum, from athletic through rugged to luxury, and involving both private equity and strategic buyers and sellers. I believe the following five footwear companies will be targets in 2012, based on an increasing trend of merger and acquisition activity. In this article, I will analyze how each company is positioned for takeover, and what impact this will have on investors.

Crocs (NASDAQ:CROX): Crocs primarily offers casual and athletic shoes and shoe charms. It also designs and sells a range of footwear and accessories made of its proprietary closed cell-resin called Croslite. As of December 31, 2010, it operated 164 retail kiosks located in malls and other high foot traffic areas, 138 retail stores, 76 outlet stores, and 46 web stores. Crocs has operations in the Americas, Europe and Asia. The company is branching out beyond its signature plastic clogs by expanding into sneakers, casual shoes and boots. Crocs-branded hats, bags, backpacks, socks, gloves and sunglasses are also being added through licensing deals. Crocs might make a good acquisition target for VF or Wolverine World Wide (NYSE:WWW). Its market valuation is $1.80 billion. It is trading at a price to sales ratio of 1.85, the highest among the potential takeover targets, which looks expensive compared to the 0.61 for the apparel, footwear and accessories industry as a whole. However, there are signs that it is a well-run company. Its operating margin is 13.85%, above the industry average of 7.94%. In my opinion, a takeover of Crocs would boost this stock significantly, something I will watch for in the coming months.

Genesco: Genesco operates Journeys, Journeys Kidz and Shi by Journeys stores that offer footwear for young men, women and children. Its recent acquisition of Schuh should help overall sales. Schuh's 59 stores will give it greater penetration of the U.K. and Irish markets. Genesco plans to open 83 new stores and close 76 underperforming outlets, which should also boost growth and increase its attractiveness as a takeover target. However, any competitor or private equity buyer considering an approach will have to consider Genesco's M&A history. The Finish Line (NASDAQ:FINL) and its financier UBS (NYSE:UBS) had to pay Genesco a $204.1 million settlement over a $1.5 billion takeover offer which failed as a result of the financial crisis. Finish Line's offer of $54.50 per GCO share had beaten Foot Locker's (NYSE:FL) $51.00 per share bid. Both Finish Line and Foot Locker were looking for a partner to make them less dependent on athletic footwear brands. Five years later, Genesco is trading in the mid-60s, giving it a market cap of $1.56 billion. Its price to sales ratio is 0.74 and its operating margin is 5.82%. As a prime takeover target, I believe Genesco is in a great position to climb higher.

K-Swiss (NASDAQ:KSWS): K-Swiss designs, develops and markets footwear, apparel and accessories for athletic and casual wear under the K-Swiss brand name, including vintage-style offerings similar to the All-Star lineup. The company also offers footwear for various terrains under the Palladium brand and martial arts apparel under the Form Athletics brand. K-Swiss has suffered from rising (and mostly short-term) debt which now stands at $15.50 million, falling profit margins, and a $20 million write-down on its Form Athletics brand acquisition in the second quarter of 2011. But its cash level is higher than its debt and it has been able to revive its sales figures, resulting in a revenue jump of 30.80% over the last quarter. K-Swiss could be run more efficiently by a company with the resources and capacity of Nike (NYSE:NKE) than by its present management, which has produced an operating margin of -23.93%. It is a small company with a market cap of $123.88 million and a cheap price to sales ratio of 0.47. In my opinion, this company needs to refocus its overall growth strategy. An acquisition here would benefit this stock greatly. I will be watching this closely in the coming months.

Skechers (NYSE:SKX): Skechers operates 105 concept stores, 99 factory outlets and 40 warehouse outlets in the U.S., and 28 concept stores and 16 factory outlets internationally. Its brand, which enjoys significant market penetration through its "Shape-Ups," is comparable to Nike-owned Converse. Skechers could be picked up by Nike to compete with Adidas-owned Reebok. Its -1.68% operating margin signals that Skechers could use some management improvements. Skechers' current equity value is $697.46 million. It has more cash than debt. Its ttm price/sales ratio is the lowest of the target group at 0.39. I believe a takeover here would put Skechers in a position to grow its market share substantially, and compete with more mainstream brands like Nike and Reebok.

Wolverine Worldwide (WWW) - Wolverine World Wide is the parent of the Merrell and Hush Puppies shoe labels, and is also well known for its work boots, which are similar to those of Timberland. It manufactures, sources, markets, licenses and distributes branded casual, work, sport, and uniform footwear, apparel and accessories. As of June 18, 2011, it owned and operated 92 retail stores in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and operated 45 consumer-direct websites. Wolverine might also be a takeover target for Nike. It currently has a market cap of $1.89 billion and a P/S ratio of 1.34. Its healthy 12.08% operating margin is close to that of Crocs. I strongly believe a takeover would allow Wolverine to compete more directly within its segments, as it could gain significant market share from Timberland in its work boots division.

Source: 5 Footwear Acquisition Targets In 2012