Power in Partnership
Brands Committed to the Independent Channel Share Insight on the Current State of Brand & Retail Relationships.
Relationships make the world go round. And for brands and retailers in today’s challenging and rapidly evolving marketplace, reliable business relationships are more important than ever. Here, we shine a light on 16 different brands that independent retailers have told us are “powerful partners.” In these snapshots, brand execs discuss why the independent retail channel is so important to them, how this is reflected in the way their brand does business, and how this past year has impacted brand and retail relationships.
“What’s so important about independent retailers to Xelero is the sense of community that can be garnered,” says Dan Werremeyer, president, Instride Footwear (Xelero). “It’s a great thing when new people find out about our shoes and give them a go, but what’s really important is the relationships from customers who keep coming back for our shoes. Those relationships are possible with our independent retail channels.”
Over the past year-plus, Xelero has done its best to keep retailers informed, says Werremeyer. “We are in the process of rolling out a B2B portal so retailers can check inventory availability in real time. Most importantly, we support our retail partners by allocating their future orders and our full inventory is available to them. Many of our larger competitors are taking a different approach by giving inventory priority to their B2C business. Thankfully, most of our retailers understand the supply chain challenges and are placing more future orders, which helps us service them better.”
Having a shared understanding of customers is crucial to good brand and retail relationships, believes Werremeyer. “Many of our customers buy our shoes for the orthopedic benefits because they aid in recovery from common ailments. It’s important our retailers understand our brand and how our shoes are different from others in order to market them correctly.”
“We started in the independent retail channel, and still maintain that as the heart of our business,” says Ayelet Lax Levy, CEO, Naot USA. “I truly value my relationships and friendships.”
Of this past year, she says, “As everyone else has, we have probably faced the most challenging year in the company’s history. We had retailers and friends close doors overnight. We had to come up with creative ways to help our retailers continue to receive product and pay their bills. Employment in certain areas of the company has certainly been challenging, especially in the factory and warehouse sides. Shipping has been a struggle and is now starting to right itself. Sourcing from small family owned European companies has also been hard as many of those shut down for months.”
However, Lax Levy says, “During times of struggle you see people’s true colors. Those that failed to show up when you need them most are not true partners. As soon as things opened, demand for our brand grew in huge numbers and we sold through our inventory extremely quickly. Trying not to disappoint our retailers with inventory and flying goods in was our number one priority. Luckily we own our factories and were able to replenish weekly.”
Regarding the key elements of a successful brand and retail relationship, Lax Levy says, “I believe it has to be a win- win. When one side is strong arming the other, then the relationship will automatically fail. If we can help our retailers win, I feel it’s a win for us. I expect when our retailers help us win they feel the same.”
For Arcopedico, independent retailers account for 95% of the brand’s overall accounts, according to Sydney Simas, Vice President, Simco Imported Shoes (Arcopedico USA). “So I would say they’re critical to our business model,” she notes. “We rely on retailers to bring our shoes out to the customer to try on, and ultimately build brand awareness. We are in business today because of our retail partners.”
With both brands and retailers currently facing similar challenges, Simas believes that what separates Arcopedico from most brands are the sacrifices made by the brand to help its retail partners. “For example, in 2020 we halted all collections because we understood retailers were having a hard time making ends meet when stores were facing mandatory closures,” she says. “And we have chosen to absorb the cost of rising shipping because we never want to decrease the margins retailers count on to survive. In a partnership, sometimes we have to take a little less for our partners to survive, and hopefully this loyalty is rewarded when things start to turn around.”
As a family owned business, Arcopedico has flexibility when it comes to offering solutions to retailers, says Simas. “We have the ability to come up with creative solutions if a retailer needs something specific, including but not limited to, taking product back if it doesn’t work, additional dating, contests for the employees, and pre-season discounts,” she says. “Additionally, we never offer discounts on our Direct-To-Consumer website. These are just basic concepts that help maintain the integrity of our brand and hopefully make us one of the best vendor partners to independent retailers.”
“When launching Hälsa Footwear, our foremost goal was the independent retailer,” says Tony Adams, VP of sales, Hälsa Footwear Group. “We recognized that they are the building blocks, backbone and future lifeblood of the footwear industry. The independent retailer thinks outside the box with vision, drive, insight, and determination. When Hälsa Footwear was launched we asked key retailers what they needed from a brand; we listened and answered to their needs. They said, ‘Brands need to help us build our business, not compete against us.’ So we don’t. Selling Direct-To-Consumer (D2C) is not our focus. We don’t want to compete against independents with our own D2C web site. The independent retailer’s eyes are wide open and now looking for new supportive brands as opportunities. Hälsa is filling that void in their business currently and will for the future.”
The brand has worked to have a flexible response to the current pandemic challenges in order to help its independent partners out, according to Adams. “We were that brand that supported them in many ways like extended payments, worked with them by keeping a focused inventory on key styles, colors and sizes that the independent relied on for survival and future growth,” he says. “Those that were able to keep their orders received our product and had great sell-throughs with great margins. Those retailers that supported Hälsa during the pandemic that maintained some status of inventory are now seeing the fruits of their labor. They continued to merchandise and promote the brand at the grass route level. Hälsa stands out among the brands that did not fail in supplying and re-filling the independents inventory.”
Listening to the “needs, wants and desires” of retailers has been a key to success for the brand, says Adams. “We put ourselves in their shoes — no pun intended. Brands need to respect and adapt for a rapidly changing retail landscape. Great communication is key. Don’t try to compete with retail partners, rather educate our partners on our product info, brand awareness, and inventory planning for the season. Don’t compete with them through direct online sales but rather offer them tools to help them grow a brand to make a successful relationship.”
As business rebounds and the industry copes with the ongoing effects of COVID and the impact on the supply chain, it has exposed the fact that having a diversified vendor base can be a huge benefit for independent retailers, notes Adams. He believes that retailers “need to start challenging their partners.”
He concludes, “The only thing you can’t do is ignore change, because things do change.”
“The independent retailer is the primary means by which we reach the Finn Comfort consumer,” says Justin Orrell-Jones, president and CEO, Finn Comfort USA, Inc. “This is because our footwear sells best in environments where the consumer can be fitted correctly. As I often point out, it takes a certain skill set, knowledge, and confidence to introduce our products to a consumer and the independent channel is dedicated to this approach.”
Orrell-Jones says the adversity faced by brands and retailers over the past year-and-a-half has helped draw those working in the business together. “These shared challenges have enabled both suppliers and retailers to better understand each other’s perspective and forge creative solutions,” he says.
Orrell-Jones adds, “As with all relationships, understanding each other is a must. I think we all have a better understanding now that the challenges of business between retail and wholesale are very similar. Ultimately both parties need each other to be healthy.”
“We make every brand decision including packaging and product design with the independent retail customers in mind,” says Nick Adams, VP of sales, PowerStep. “The independent retail channel is the backbone of PowerStep and has been since we launched the PowerStep Pinnacle.”
The challenges of this past year have strengthened the brand’s relationships with its retail partners, says Adams. “PowerStep is made in Ohio which helped minimize the supply chain issues and return to normalcy more quickly as the retail landscape opened back up. We listened to the needs of our customers and created new programs to help sustain their business.”
Direct feedback from retail partners is a key element in helping PowerStep best serve the consumer, says Adams. “The PowerStep brand was created to help consumers live healthy and pain free lives
and we need retail partners to help spread our mission and provide feedback on what is and is not resonating with their consumers. We supply the products that allow our retailers to build their reputation and their business, and we take that partnership extremely seriously.”
“The independent retail channel is the foundation on which Dansko established itself as a premium comfort brand and remains critical to Dansko’s business and overall success,” says Jim Fox, CEO, Dansko. “Our sales force and customer service teams remain structured so that they know the independent retailers, understand their business, and can provide a high level of service and responsiveness. Dansko continues to run its business so that independent retailers can offer a broad range of Dansko footwear that includes a balance of perennial sellers and new launches that help retailers maintain a high margin on Dansko sales.”
When it comes to addressing the challenges currently facing the market, Fox notes that since March 2020 Dansko “has run the full spectrum of working with retailers to accommodate the initial period of reduced foot traffic and excess inventory, to more recently chasing product and ramping up futures orders to meet greater than anticipated demand.” Adds Fox, “Our goal is that independent retailers see Dansko as a partner that they can count on through thick and thin. The key is the communication among the retailers, our sales reps, and our corporate office to be clear about the challenges and adjust when possible. Continuing to move forward with focused new product development that provided new stories and fresh product in 2021-22 has also had a positive impact for independent retailers.”
The key elements of a successful brand and retail relationship can be seen where there is an overlap in terms of knowledge and respect for the consumer, says Fox. “Both the retailers and Dansko want to exceed consumers’ high expectations in terms of both service and footwear. The high level of trust that comes from working together over several decades makes it easier to communicate and share information so we can both succeed. Consumers depend upon independent retailers’ deep understanding of their specific needs and the overall market that results in a curated product selection, and retailers in turn trust Dansko to provide product that they can confidently recommend to consumers.”
“The Rieker brand has evolved, and blossomed in the USA with the partnership of the independent retailer,” says Rich Rask, president, Rieker Shoe Corporation. “The Independent Retailer is in the DNA of the Rieker and Remonte collections. It is of the utmost importance.”
Of the added challenges of this past year and how it has impacted the company’s relationships with retail partners, Rask says, “Frankly, it has strengthened our relationships and partnerships. We rely on each other to succeed. Communication [with retail partners] is the key element. All situations are unique and require solutions on an individual or case-by-case basis.”
In Spring 2022, Rieker is launching a new R-Evolution Lifestyle brand for both men and women — the collection is geared for the independent retailer with “long margins,” says Rask.
“Specialty [shops] are where consumers had their first experience with the HOKA brand, and they represent an area of the business that we have a great appreciation for, and commitment to,” says Chris Cohen, VP of U.S. sales, HOKA, noting that a brand “goal” at HOKA is to operate in a high touch, high service manner. This is best demonstrated, Cohen says, through the efforts and alignment of the brand’s field team of AEs & FER (Field Experience Reps), which currently numbers over 60, with the sales team focused on all specialty channels, including Run Specialty, Outdoor Specialty, and Better Footwear.
“As a brand, we believe in the power of story-telling and the kind of experiential retail that today’s consumer has come to expect, and know that the specialty and independent community has the ability to provide the expertise, while also bringing the HOKA brand to life in a powerful and meaningful way,” says Cohen.
The added challenges of this past year have yielded some benefits when it comes to retail relationships, according to Cohen. “I think it’s impacted our relationships in a positive way, as we were able to provide some solutions to the specialty community early on,” he says. “As market conditions have shifted, our [reps] have been very engaged, working closely with our retail partners to identify opportunities, from product to events, resulting in a win for both. Also, as consumers have had more time to devote to all things outdoors, or perhaps recently discovered running, walking, or hiking, demand for HOKA increased significantly, creating value for both brands (HOKA and retailer), while providing a positive brand experience for the consumer.”
When it comes to pinpointing the key elements of a successful brand and retail relationship, Cohen, says, “First and foremost, trust — followed by consistent communication between AEs & retail partners. When coupled with profitable solutions and great products that consumers are seeking, a true collaborative approach will grow and ultimately thrive. The relationship between a brand and retailer truly flourishes when both parties are aligned and focused on delivering value and a great experience to the consumer. Our goal has been, and remains, to have meaningful relationships and partnerships with all of our trade partners — those relationships become even more important during challenging times.”
“Independents are our channel,” says Josh Higgins, president and owner, OS1st. “From our marketing, partner programs, independent reps, websites all the way down to our consumer postcards, the goal is to drive customers of OS1st into independent retailers.”
When the pandemic hit, Higgins says his “Yes” button got “real busy.” He explains, “Drop Ship? Yes. Extended Terms? Yes! Marketing support? Yes! E-Commerce Support? Yes! All those Yes’ to our partners, have come back to create some very good Karma and some lifetime friends for us.”
Communication, trust and saying “yes” more than “no,” have all been key elements to successful retail relationships for the brand. Says Higgins, “Like most of our retail partners, we are also a small family business. This creates a deeper understanding of how we can help in each other’s success.”
“Independent retail has always been a key channel for us,” says Jennifer Sokso, director of marketing and customer service, Propét USA. “We have always worked to develop product and programs to help support the independent retailer.” Sokso notes that during the pandemic, the brand has seen more interest from independent retailers looking to “take advantage of special programs and consider the Propét brand as a core part of their products.”
In the past year, programs offered to retailers by Propét have included: offering a Free shipping day with 6 pair; and waiving dropship fees to try to assist retailers with the downturn of foot traffic. “We continue to look at ways to assist retailers that are meaningful to their business,” says Sokso.
Communication is the key to fruitful retail partnerships, notes Sokso. “That is why we continue to use experienced regional sales managers to ensure that our retailers can reach out day or night to their RSM to get updates on the supply chain, inventory and special programs. Our RSMs have many tools at their disposal to provide inventory status and can help guide our customers to fully stocked items.”
“The independent retail channel is our No. 1 channel and [these stores] are the eyes, ears and figurative face for Cadence, so they are very important to us,” says John Hinds, PT, founder and owner, Cadence. “They educate their customers, introduce new products, provide options, and tailor product selection to fit customer needs. But beyond being an advocate for Cadence, we also understand that independent brick-and-mortar retailers are the backbone of our economy as a country so we will do anything we can to support them.”
Examples of Cadence’s commitment to independents include offerings such as: exclusive in-store only product; fee-free drop shipping; no minimum order quantities; fast order fulfillment; responsive and engaged customer service; customized terms and payment plans; free shipping for any backordered product, and more.
“I believe the challenges of the past year have strengthened the relationships with our retail partners,” says Hinds. “Most everybody has similar challenges and working together helps mitigate challenges for both sides. Challenges reinforce the importance of communication and action and with that comes trust and a partnership built on more than just a transaction. Frankly, as much as I love our product and believe in the value Cadence provides, our person-to-person relationship is often more fun than selling them insoles!”
Respect, honesty, kindness, and ethics, are all important to Hinds in his retail-brand relationships. “That said,” he adds, “a brand has to provide a quality product, back it up with a satisfaction guarantee, and make every effort to provide a friction-free transaction. A successful partnership must also include communication, action, and trust. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do. And be flexible. Do what you can to help the other out, be human, and understand most people have similar needs and goals.”
“Independents are crucial to introducing new consumers to the brand while retaining our core customer,” says Nancy Richardson, CEO, SAS. “Many shoppers still crave the traditional ‘sit and fit’ experience, which allows them to learn more about the product, and see it, touch it and feel it before making a purchasing decision. This is still vitally important for consumers today. At a time when some brands are walking away from this channel, SAS is reaffirming its commitment to supporting the independents with quality in-stock product.”
Richardson points out that just as the past year has been challenging for all retailers, SAS, which also operates as a retailer, understands the hurdles independents have faced. “Throughout this time, the SAS team worked with our retail partners with a consistent supply of product along with increased flexibility in business operations,” she says. “SAS has and will continue to prioritize its retail partners over our own brand stores while managing any supply chain issues.”
For many consumers, their only “interaction” with the brand might come through its presence at independent retail, says Richardson, making the independents key to understanding and sharing the unique value of the brand. “The brand must support store teams with the highest quality product, timely deliveries, and thorough product education for long lasting successful partnerships,” she says.
“Since the introduction of Sorbothane Insoles we have believed that the independent retailer is the perfect partner for us,” says David Church, president, Sorbothane, Inc. “They take great care to provide personal attention to everyone that visits their storefront or website. Sorbothane, as a family owned independent company shares many quality values with our retailers. It takes time and effort to provide each customer with individual attention. And Sorbothane strives to provide our retail partners with the same individual attention. The independent retailer takes a personal approach to match the right shoe, with the perfect insole, to meet the individual needs of the customer.”
Church notes that next year Sorbothane will celebrate the 40th anniversary of being introduced to U.S. consumers.
While 2020 and 2021 have presented some unique challenges, Church says the time period has seen a strengthening of the relationships Sorbothane has with its retail partners. “We reached out in partnership to our independent retailers, as they worked through the issues created by the pandemic, and the need to develop new business practices,” he says. “Sorbothane Insoles are made in Kent, Ohio and we were able to produce and deliver our insoles without interruption. I encourage our retail partners to give me a call directly with any question or special request. We will work with you.”
For a brand and retail relationship to succeed, communication is key, believes Church. “Two-way communication,” he clarifies. “As a brand, we need to foster an open dialogue with the retailer. Encouraging them to feel comfortable sharing their ideas. And we need to listen to the needs and thoughts of our independent retailers. Not just what they require from a business standpoint, but the products and innovations they need from a customer service standpoint. As an example, the development of the Sorbothane Ultra PLUS was a partnership between the Sorbothane team, the retailer and their customer. All three came together to create a superior replacement insole. We need to support our neighborhood retailers now more than ever.”
“In many regions across the country the smaller retailer is still where many consumers feel they get the best service and knowledge on the items they are looking to purchase so it behooves us all to partner with these independent retailers as much as possible to keep their business thriving,” says Jackie Kirkwood, channel manager – golf, ECCO. “The independent retailer still plays a vital role in the grassroots level of developing our business and getting great brand exposure to a targeted consumer. We try to support independent stores in any way we can to drive business through their doors.”
ECCO execs say it has been a collaborative effort to maintain good relationships with retailers in the past 18 months, with the brand demonstrating a show of faith in the independent channel. “We were very proactive about how we dealt with cancellations at the beginning of the crisis; our Credit Department did a great job of working with retailers on a way forward with the brand,” says Matt Thibeau, channel manager – independent channel, ECCO. “Certainly, supply chain issues are a challenge, but, they are industry-wide. We have been impacted, but, less than most. I think that the recent booking season has demonstrated to us that we have weathered the storm better than most and with our most important relationships intact. We are very bullish about the future of the independent channel and ECCO.”
The two biggest factors for the brand in its retail relationships are transparency and communication, says Thomas Dixon, national sales/product manager, outdoor, ECCO. “That is how we have, and continue, to develop great partnerships in the independent channel. Obviously with what is happening now with supply chain it’s even more important. However that philosophy has always been there for us since we get great feedback and insight from our partners on products, go-to-market plans, programs, etc. It’s an extremely important channel for us in outdoor because it helps us build our brand and credibility. We see the outdoor independent shops as corner stones for customers searching for the best gear.”
“Twisted X has small-town character and operates with a small-town mentality,” says Prasad Reddy, CEO, Twisted X. “We support the community and local independent retailers because we feel those companies build the community up. If the community is successful, then their business is successful and then Twisted X is successful, and everyone benefits. We understand and acknowledge that these retailers have built our company all the way up from day one. They are the ones that made Twisted X what it is now, and we could never abandon them. We are committed to supporting and helping these key partners be successful. It is in our DNA and that’s why we continue to find ways to be there for them.”
Twisted X’s commitment to independent retail is evident from the fact that the brand does not sell Direct-To-Consumer, nor is it in Big Box stores, says Lee Lemon, VP of sales. “And our salesforce is committed to that independent base. They are out there face-to-face every day and every week,” Lemon adds, noting that Twisted X is adding to its salesforce to “make sure we’ve got the retailers needs covered.”
Despite the added challenges of this past year, Twisted X’s relationship with its retail partners has gotten stronger during this time, says Scott Sessa, SVP business development. Since the brand does not sell DTC, he explains, Twisted X has inventory available solely for retailers — “and our focus has consistently been on how we can support and have their backs during a difficult year.” This support goes beyond just providing inventory. “When the pandemic first hit, we dropped off PeraSpray to all retailers so that they could spray and sanitize shoes before and after customers tried them on to help keep everyone safe,” says Sessa.
He adds, “Our sales reps continued to go on sales calls and meet with the retailers/buyers during this time because our reps wanted to be on the front lines with the retailers and provide the support they needed. Even our management team was out travelling too. We did this safely and with the permission of the retailers, even having meetings in the parking lot to practice safe distancing.”
In his 50 years in the footwear business, Reddy says, “I’ve never seen anything like this. The last 18 months have been so unpredictable and uncertain, especially for retailers trying to survive. We knew we could increase our inventory and support them so that is what we did. We helped with marketing assets and created various programs that made them feel more self-confident - including everything from the financial side, inventory, marketing, and product development.”
The brand’s successful retail partnerships are driven by the fact that “we need them as much as they need us,” says Reddy. “That’s why our approach focuses on the idea that ‘it’s always about you,’ the retailer. That customization is so important because our mission is to innovate in any way we can to make them successful, and success could look different from one retailer to the next.”
Adds Lemon, “Trust is so important in a partnership. Our retailers trust the fact that when we say Twisted X does not sell DTC, we mean no DTC. Some people will question what would happen if that ever changed but it won’t because it’s part of our core DNA.”
Twisted X recently launched Rapid Response, a retail partner program offering direct access to the brand’s inventory with immediate order fulfillment and prioritized shipping. With Rapid Response, retailers of all sizes can directly access inventory quickly and easily so they never lose a sale, while providing their customers with expedited shipping.
“It is one more way we are trying to give an advantage to our independent base,” says Sessa. “Many of our partners are understaffed right now and struggling to get people to work. Rapid Response is one more tool for them to incorporate in their businesses model and provides the ability to save a sale by offering consumers a quick turnaround. Whether the retailer is out of stock or requires special ordering, we’ve made it simple to implement with 4 different ways to engage our entire team through Rapid Response.”
The name Rapid Response is very literal, explains Tricia Mahoney, CMO, Twisted X. “Throughout the entire pandemic, there has been one challenge after another, and our goal was to create a solution immediately that can deliver against any of those potential issues. It’s all about looking ahead and taking care of the problem before it even gets here.”
The biggest concern retailers have been expressing to the brand is what the inventory situation would look like in the fourth quarter, notes Reddy. “There were concerns that all inventory would only go to large retailers instead of smaller independents or would go directly to consumers instead. They needed the reassurance that someone would be there to help them when buyers will be buying. In addition to our ‘no DTC’ commitment and Rapid Response initiative, we are also launching Reserved Inventory, a new initiative whereby we are creating a virtual warehouse with top styles and reserving inventory for independent retailers.”
Twisted X is able to provide its Reserved Inventory program in addition to the Rapid Response support because during the pandemic the company increased its own inventory, says Mahoney. “Like many others, we too have felt the challenges of supply chain slowdown, but planning ahead provided us with inventory that is continually arriving, and a plan to distribute it so it serves all of our retailers.”
Continuing to invest in developing new products is also still a key focus, the brand team is quick to point out. “We have doubled down on bringing new products and technology to the market in order to create excitement and drive business for our retailers,” says Sessa. “Everyone is looking for something new and we’ve got it.”