The Indian market is the target of another investment by Asics, the Japanese running footwear brand, which has struck an exclusive distribution deal with the mushrooming Reliance Retail group. Asics is to be sold in India from April through a mix of mono-brand stores and about 15 multi-brand stores operating under the Reliance Footprint banner, owned by Reliance Retail.

Like the market for golf products (see previous story), the market for running gear is growing very fast among younger people in India, who represent two-thirds of the total population. An official of Reliance estimates that there are about two million runners and joggers in India right now and that their numbers are increasing by between 20 and 30 percent per year.

Asics’ partner in India is part of Reliance Industries, a huge conglomerate based on oil, gas and textile, the largest private company in India with a turnover equivalent to about $28.8 billion for the year ended March 31, 2009. This business is controlled by Mukesh Ambani, the wealthiest Indian, who famously fell out with his younger brother, Anil, leading to a split of Reliance, the company founded by their father. This placed Anil at the helm of another conglomerate, Reliance Power, which still enabled him to build his own fortune.

Launched in November 2006, the Reliance Retail operation already counts more than 1,000 stores, ranging from food supermarkets to a raft of specialist banners selling clothing, electronics, home furnishings, books and much more. Reliance Retail already has distribution deals with several foreign players, including Hush Puppies and the Marks & Spencer Group. A younger subsidiary of the Indian group, Reliance Brands, has deals in place with brands such as Diesel, Paul & Shark and Timberland.

Asics has already been selling its running shoes in India at temporary stores set up along the itinerary of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, of which it has been an official partner since 2008. Described as the biggest marathon in Asia, attracting some of the world’s top runners, it had 38,450 registered participants in various races for its 2010 edition this week, including 3,500 for the full marathon.

In its deal with Reliance, Asics will become available at Reliance Footprint stores in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kochi. From the middle of the year, the company plans to market Asics through exclusive brand outlets in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. The distributor will start by focusing on running and walking footwear, widening to cricket, football, basketball and other sports at a later stage.

The partnership will enable Reliance to fit exclusive Asics stores with three-dimensional foot measurement equipment, which will be a novelty in India. Asics will support the distributor with staff training for the stores and at special events.

Reliance Footprint aims to become a leading footwear retailer in India, with about 50 footwear brands ranging from Buckaroo and Lee Cooper for men to Tosca and Pavers for women, and many international sports brands. The offering comprises several private labels, including Monza for sports footwear.