Stars in a Supporting Role

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When the topic of stellar service at retail comes up, most often the focus is on the service that retailers offer customers. But for retailers, service also comes in the form of the relationships they have with their vendor and brand partners. Over the past several months, as brands and retailers alike have had their businesses turned upside down by COVID’s impact on the economy, brand and retailer relationships have been tested like never before. What types of service are brands offering retailers?  We recently conducted a survey among our 2019 Gold Medal Service Award winning independent retailers, and asked those retailers to tell us which brands gave them unwavering support during these unprecedented times. Then we asked execs at these “supportive brands” to tell us why the independent channel is so important to them, and what types of things they’ve done to work together with retailers over these past several challenging months. Spotlighted on the following pages are the brands that retailers told us have been unwavering in their support of the independent channel.


Feetures • Joe Gaither, VP Marketing

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“It is critical for our brand. Not only does specialty retail make up a majority of our revenue, but they are also key to our strategy for continued growth. They are the ultimate influencers for our brand. In the fitting process, they take the time to educate consumers, and with a category like socks sometimes there is an education process with consumers to help them understand the value. Our brand really needs to be explained or felt and worn to really understand. A key thing specialty retailers do in the fitting process is put people in a pair of socks as part of their fitting process as the consumer tries on shoes. They do that with consumers on a daily basis which is invaluable to us.”

Specialty retailers are the ultimate influencers for our brand. They take the time to educate consumers.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“When COVID hit, everybody was uncertain. The first thing we did was extend terms so retailers weren’t worried about having to write a check in 30 days. And we extended a discount program so retailers could have a little extra margin and be a little creative in offering discounts.

With the number of new runners during COVID, a lot of our retailers are seeing more new customers than ever and that bodes well for them and for us.

Specialty retail is so important to us and we always try to be super supportive. This period showed how we are in it together with retailers — it is authentic to our brand strategy and it’s a true partnership we have with retailers.”


Arcopedico • Sydney Simas, VP, Sales & Marketing

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retailers have always been the backbone of our business. When my family began distributing Arcopedico in the United States in the early 1980s, we launched the brand through independent retailers. We relied on them to get the shoes on customers’ feet, and we still rely on them to this day. It is a mutually beneficial partnership that we do not take for granted, and supporting them is just the right thing to do.”

Overall, we want our retailers to know we are here for them and always can come up with a solution that works for us both. Without the retailers supporting our brand, we would be out of business.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We have done everything in our power to help alleviate the burden placed on so many of our retailers. This could be extended dating, taking shoes back, or just offering moral support. Overall, we want our retailers to know we are here for them and always can come up with a solution that works for us both.

Without the retailers supporting our brand, we would be out of business. We are motivated to work together to survive this crisis, and our partnerships are the key to surviving.”


Revere • Craig Truscott, Co-Founder & Director

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Before moving to the U.S. in 2016, my wife and I owned six comfort footwear stores in Australia. Our business model was based on offering our customers the best brands, with the best customer service in a fun and friendly environment. When we launched Revere, we knew our brand story would be best suited to independent footwear stores with a similar focus on customer service and fitting expertise. We love the history and passion of generational businesses here in the U.S., and believe we can add genuine value through our product mix, our unique fitting story and commitment to the ongoing success of independent retail.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“I think the strength and resilience of any relationship is how you manage things when times get tough, and I can’t think of a more difficult time in my life than what we have been experiencing since March. No one really saw this coming. In fact we were feeling so excited about 2020 with SS orders at an all-time high and a number of key initiatives in place to drive sell-through for our retail partners.

When stores were forced to close and teams were being furloughed across the country, we simply listened for ways we could contribute and add support. We extended terms, accepted returns, created an affiliate program so stores that did not have an e-commerce site could generate revenue through our website from their customer data base, offered free drop ship programs, but most importantly, we continued to let our customers know we were there for them and we would work through this together.”


OS1st • Josh Higgins, President, ING Source

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“OS1st made a decision early on in our launch, that we wanted to work exclusively in the independent channel. We are a family company and knew that we wanted to grow with accounts that would be loyal, consistent and share the same values that we do. The independents are the backbone of this category. They have a purpose and that purpose isn’t to just make money, it’s to help people and make connections with their community and build vendor partnerships that they can be proud of. We at OS1st want the same. So, to answer your question…The independents are important to us because they are who we are, what we believe in and our only channel.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We knew this would be a tough time for retailers and for us. Mid-March hit and the retail world came to a screeching halt. It was scary. We were very fortunate to be in a good position and wanted to become more aggressive in supporting our retail partners. Whether that was through extended terms, drop shipping, marketing campaigns or donations, we made sure they knew we were here for them then because we wanted to be there for them after.

As an independent retailer vendor, we have to continue to challenge ourselves to develop products and create marketing avenues that help drive traffic to the retailer. Our success comes from consumers walking through their doors.”


FINN COMFORT • Justin Orrell-Jones, President, CEO

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Successful Finn Comfort retailers have spent years cultivating a loyal Finn Comfort consumer. That loyalty has been earned by delivering an excellent shopping experience, and this has become a unique attribute of the independent retailer. Because Finn Comfort is generally a higher price point it requires a certain skill set, knowledge, and confidence to introduce our products to a consumer. The independent retailer is investing in professional salespeople who are trained to do just that.”

We try to listen to each retailers’ specific needs and situation as a unique one. The challenges we have all faced may have the same root causes, but the effects are not all the same.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We have continued to invest in a robust stock program. We have tried to be as flexible as we can with product deliveries. This includes allowing our retailers to take deliveries as they see demand pick up. We try to listen to each retailers’ specific needs and situation as a unique one. The challenges we have all faced may have the same root causes, but the effects are not all the same. We have offered extended payment terms, beyond what we could normally offer.”


Hoka One One • Lee Cox, Global VP of Marketing and Sales

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“One of our top priorities at Hoka is the experience of the athletes buying and using our shoes. That includes the access point where they first learn about and experience our products, the experience of purchasing them, and the experience of wearing them.  

We believe Independent retail provides the best-in store and local community experiences in the industry. They’re also crucial because our products look and feel unique, and independent retailers are crucial to helping us tell our story and aid in bringing consumers to our brand. Independent retailers are tremendously influential and staffed by experts who can work closely with our Field Experience and sales teams to learn about Hoka inside and out; they are the experts whom many customers trust to get them in the right shoe.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“When COVID-19 hit and forced a large-scale shutdown of retail doors, we knew it would be crucial for us to work closely with all of our partners to manage inventory and orders and ensure they were able to mitigate their losses. As stores began opening again, we promoted our Locally tool, which enables consumers to find a Hoka dealer near them, on our website and in e-mails, encouraging people to shop local if they were able. Throughout, our teams in the field have continued to stay in contact with stores, providing sell-ins and clinics, albeit largely through virtual means like video chat. As our partners have had to adapt quickly to the drastic acceleration of changes in the retail landscape, we have made every attempt to meet them there and adapt with them.”


Aetrex • Larry Schwartz, CEO

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“The independent retail channel has high standards. We know if our brand is successful with an independent retailer that it will translate well to other areas of distribution. Also, our technology business is very service oriented. The software guides retailers and customers to the right fitting footwear and orthotics for that customer. The independent channel values customer service and takes pride in the level of service they can provide, so it’s a great match.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“The pandemic has affected different regions throughout the country in different ways. We did our best to address each partnership region by region to help with supply and demand issues. We developed tools and strategies to help set our partners up for success within our ‘new normal.’

On the technology side of the business, we understood fitting and interacting with customers on the retail selling floor would look very different. Our Aetrex Technology foot scanners provide a physical distance alternative to traditional foot measuring in-store. And, we now offer an option for a touch-free remote app for operating the screen.

On the footwear side of the business, we anticipated retailers may have inventory issues due to store closures given the pandemic. So, we designed a line for Spring/Summer 2021 that would merchandise well with our Spring/Summer 2020 line and would tell a cohesive story. Our objective was to keep the new collection tight and to offer just the right amount of newness.”


Naot • Ayelet Lax Levy, President of U.S. Operations

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Every channel of the business is unique and has its own importance, however we need each other to survive. The independent retail channel is the one that historically has introduced most brands to the market, and we are no different. The independents are where our brand started. We, like many of them, are family owned and operated, and we share many of the same values.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We are very lucky that we have great relationships with most of our retailers. We tried to provide ideas that could help their overall store, not just with our brand but for their business. We worked with each retailer personally to help them get through their individual situations and catered to their specific needs, while maintaining brand integrity and value.

Vendors are also struggling and this has been a very difficult period for us worldwide. We need to continue to work with our retailers to ensure that we are both standing on the other side together.

We have always been loyal to the independent retail channel, allowing independents to sell direct to consumer on our website, protecting the retailers geographically, and being protective when it comes to our online MAP pricing. Our vision of letting us be your warehouse, drop shipping, and same day shipments to stores has always aligned with the independent retailer.

I believe that the retailers we worked through this storm with will come out stronger, as will our relationships and our friendships.”


Sockwell • Jim Markley, Partner

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Without independent retailers, we wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple. They believed in us and gave us our start 12 years ago, and they remain our best supporters and our best way to get our socks on customers’ feet. When we launched back in 2008, we knew as soon as someone actually put on our socks and felt what makes Sockwell special, we had a customer for life. So our focus when we launched our brand was independent retailers. It still is, and it’ll continue to be.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We are completely committed to our independent retailers and will continue to work with them in every way we can to show our unwavering support throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Although Sockwell also experienced challenges during these unprecedented times, we decided to extend payment terms, accept any cancellations and/or adjustments, and move preseason orders back a few months. Anything our retailers needed from Sockwell, we did. We also wanted to make future line presentations seamless while keeping each employee’s health a priority. Sockwell produced a professional video detailing our Spring 2021 Collection as well as a clinic video.

We didn’t make these decisions because it was the easiest thing to do but because it was the right thing to do. Our retailers are like family to us, and it was important to encourage them during the unexpected economic shutdown. We want them to survive and thrive once our economy begins to open back up.”


Darn Tough Vermont • Brooke Kaplan, Director of Marketing

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Their partnership is crucial to the success of the Darn Tough Vermont brand. This channel is where we started as a brand and not only do we feel a responsibility to help ensure the success of these retailers, that sentiment goes both ways. Independent retail shops allow our customers to touch and feel the socks while speaking with an educated employee about our brand and what sets our socks apart. Without their constant and valued interaction and input of what is working and not working, we would be nowhere near as good at what we do.”

This channel is where we started as a brand. We feel a responsibility to help ensure their success. That sentiment goes both ways.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“Like most retail partners in this channel, we too are family owned and all that that represents. We immediately extended our dating across the board on outstanding invoices; Our AR team set up extended working hours to better serve our retailers’ needs and set up specific programs; We immediately went to weekly (now bi-monthly) meetings with our rep force so we were better informed as to ever-changing territorial retail challenges.

From the product side, we took action to cull the S21 line and put the primary emphasis on core styles. Digitally, we’ve focused on how we can assist retailers with getting set up on Locally (our store locator integration), our B2B site, and utilize our digital asset bank as many of them began expanding their digital capabilities.”


Ara • Sam Spears, President

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retailers are the backbone of every community across the USA. The owner/operators are entrepreneurs who do not shrink from a challenge and do not turn their backs of their neighbors but rather they support their communities and neighbors even when they themselves may be struggling. We are a family-owned brand. We know where we came from and we know how important small business is to a community.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“The first and most important thing has been one-on-one talks with our retailers.

We know that no two businesses are identical and each retailer is facing challenges specifically to them. We did not produce a cookie cutter approach but rather tailored a solution for each specific retailer.

We continue to have a fully stocked warehouse ready to service single pair at-once orders. We intentionally did not cancel one Fall ’20 production order with Germany. We have built our reputation on service and we remain committed to providing in-season, at-once service.

We know how difficult things are right now. We are struggling too. We have had to make the very, very difficult decisions to reduce staff, salaries and work hours just like our customers have had to do. It’s not easy and it’s not pretty but we are not cutting our sales representatives.  We are in a human business. We believe it needs a personal touch and we will continue to provide old-school service touches: In-stock, at-once inventory, best-in-class customer service and the best sales staff to go to stores to help create solutions with the retailer.”


Cadence Insoles • John Hinds, PT, Founder, Owner

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?  

“The independent channel is important because they are often a trusted source for the consumer and if the retailer has the confidence to sell Cadence then the customer will most likely trust Cadence that much more… And when a product does well for the retailer it creates a tremendous positive feedback/sales loop for the customer and retailer and brand.”

When a product does well for the retailer it creates a tremendous positive feedback/sales loop for the customer and retailer and brand.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“In an effort to help reduce some stress and otherwise help in any way we could we did things such as: Extended payment dating to meet their needs; Provided free shipping through June, in addition to drop ship deliveries and also provided fee-free drop shipping; As I personally received emails or calls from customers looking to purchase Cadence, I would connect them with the nearest retailer; And I passed on info about and encouraged retailers to look into the Two Ten Footwear Foundation. This foundation specifically benefits employers and employees in the footwear industry and offer resources at the community and national levels.  

Independent retailers are the backbone of our economy and I want to do anything I can to support them. Four of my six models are sold in-store only and are not available online. I do this in an effort to support brick-and-mortar.”


SAS • Nancy Richardson, CEO

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Since the very beginning of SAS in 1976 the independent channel has been a foundation of the brand. The independent retailers are sophisticated, experienced buyers who appreciate a quality product, which can provide more value to the consumer than just the cheapest price.

Independent retailers are typically family businesses and represent the best of what the U.S. is. They are the individuals who show up early and stay late to service their customers. They put their customers and their employees before themselves and are vital to the economy and to all brands. When they are hurting, all of us are hurting.”

Independent retailers are sophisticated, experienced buyers who appreciate a quality product, which can provide more value to the consumer than just the cheapest price.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“2020 certainly has been uniquely challenging for all of us. For the independent retailer, the ability to replenish inventory quickly as needed is crucial. Since SAS has its factories in the U.S. we have been able to maintain our production and our development of new product throughout 2020. SAS stocks all SKUs in our warehouse and does not require a minimum amount of pairs to place an order so the independent retailer has the flexibility to purchase only what is needed in his store today and come back tomorrow with another order if he needs to. The SAS team has been here to ship inventory every day during 2020 and are currently shipping new product for the fall/winter season.”


ALEGRIA • Scott Cates, President of Sales

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Alegria is able to be what it is today because the independent retailers took the risk and brought the brand into the marketplace. They are believers in our product — what it does and what it can offer, especially to those with foot ailments. The Alegria & now TRAQ brands are best understood and appreciated when physically shared with the consumers. Independent retailers took the time to learn our product, and took it upon themselves to educate their customers about the benefits of our shoes. Our relationships have flourished over the years and we’ve come to rely on each other with the common love of the quality of our footwear. It is hard to replicate the personalized advice, professionalism and specific foot health education that a consumer can get inside a brick-and-mortar specialty retail store.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We gave approximately 6500 pairs of Alegria and TRAQ by Alegria footwear product to several accounts to donate on our behalf to their local hospitals or first responders. We also allow our reps the flexibility to offer gratis product in the market to our retailers for contests, etc.

For the first time ever, we offered a Manufacturer’s coupon to be used in-store only to help support brick and mortar stores that were struggling. We sent email blasts to our subscribers announcing domestic store re-openings in support of local retailers with the manufacturer’s coupon. And we posted to our social media outlets announcing the store re-openings.”


SORBOTHANE • David Church, President

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Since the introduction of Sorbothane insoles we have believed that the independent retailer is the perfect partner for us. They treat every customer like family and take great care to provide personal attention to everyone that visits their storefront. Sorbothane itself is a family owned independent company. The Sorbothane team is proud to produce our entire line of premium insoles in the U.S. at our facility in Kent, Ohio.

It takes time and effort to provide
each customer with the perfect combination of performance and comfort. The right shoe, matched with the perfect insole, meeting the individual needs of the customer. Independent retailers are the backbone of our communities… We need to support our neighborhood retailers now more than ever.”

The independent retailer is the perfect partner for us. They treat every customer like family and take great care to provide personal attention to everyone that visits their storefront.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We reached out in partnership to our independent retailers, as they worked through the challenges created by the pandemic and subsequent shut down. We developed a three-fold program. Offering special pricing, extended payment terms and free shipping of Sorbothane Insoles through the end of the year.

I encourage our retail partners to give me a call directly with any request, we will work with you.”


Dansko, Kitty Bolinger, EVP of Sales

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retailers are at the foundation of Dansko’s success. They adopted our brand first and have been ambassadors as we were able to transform from a clog company to a comprehensive comfort footwear brand. Their ability to connect with their customers and communicate Dansko’s features, benefits and quality contributes significantly to our strength as a brand.

The relationships that independent retailers develop with their customers last for generations and the loyalty that they engender means that customers will leave the comfort of their homes with the express purpose of visiting that specific retailer. The customers trust that they will get the attention and service that they need.”

The needs of each retail partner are unique so we did not approach this challenge with a one size fits all solution.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“Dansko has focused on long-term sustainability for our retail partners and our company. The needs of each retail partner are unique so we did not approach this challenge with a one size fits all solution. Instead we listened to each individual situation and worked to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution. Fortunately our retailers are true partners and recognized that Dansko would stretch as far as we were able.

As many of our partners said to us over the past six months, ‘Dansko is really important to our future so let’s figure this out together.’”


On Running • Britt Olsen, GM of North America

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“There is no closer connection to community than that of the independent channel. If you prioritize authenticity and credibility and want to get to know your customer, then the independent channel is where you can build a long lasting brand. On has kept a very clean view on distribution in order to keep independents prioritized and performance running at our core.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“The needs of every retailer differ and that is where On has been able to be a strong partner. We’ve got a full field team, and growing, that is available to support curb side pick-ups, deliveries, queue control, staff engagement, etc.

Being able to offer bespoke solutions has proven to be very beneficial. In the earliest days of lockdown, we worked to develop the RAN (retailer affiliate network) program to turn our own dotcom traffic into conversions for stores. We did this without capturing any customer data so that the retailer still had full ownership of the transaction.

We’ve also rolled out innovations around apparel merchandising and buying that support a more touch-free try-on environment, and the early results are strong. Flexibility with orders and payment terms has also been a must.

Solutions aren’t one size fits all and require a great deal of history and mutual respect. Thankfully, we feel we have that with this channel. Going through 2020 together has only made us stronger and more resilient. It’s one powerful community.”


Powerstep • Jay Cain, Senior Marketing Manager

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Now more than ever, brands offer an experience, an aesthetic, or a sense of belonging that consumers have come to expect. PowerStep continues to invest in independent retail because of the relational, customer-centric environment that has fueled our organic growth for years. Independent retail is the essential link between our brand’s values and the consumer experience we want to offer.”

Brands are eager to work on a deeper level with independent retailers, so retailers should not be afraid to ask reps for help that’s out of the ordinary.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“Our primary concern has been to stay in touch with our retail partners and ask them what we can do to help. That’s led to sharing inventive ideas across retailers, developing new co-op marketing strategies and streamlining product offerings. We’ve introduced new, regular promotions as well to help our partners restock, add new items, and reach new customers.

Brands are eager to work on a deeper level with independent retailers, so retailers should not be afraid to ask reps for help that’s out of the ordinary. Thousands of budgeted co-op dollars go unused every year, despite a brand’s constant prodding and deadlines. It’s free money, so retailers should carve out some time and develop a co-op strategy to maximize their marketing potential.”


Kneed Footwear • Jonathan Koops, Co-founder

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“It mandates everything we do. Independent dealers are vital to the health of every community... When you consider all the benefits the independent channel provides, and the risks of not having a vibrant independent channel, it was obvious to us that we needed to be fully committed to the channel.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?  

“When we all went into the initial shutdown, we embraced the ‘we are all in this together’ mantra. We had a robust B2B website, a dedicated web design team, and an exceptional distribution partner that was able to remain open. We were in a position to help. We came up with what we referred to as our “This Is A Last Resort” web store. We opened our Kneed web store for the first time, but in way where the proceeds of the revenue generated are shared with our local dealer partners. When an online shopper orders from our website, there is an option for the shopper to indicate the independent dealer they would like to support. If they don’t indicate that dealer then we find the dealer that is close to them. The dealer indicated by either method is the one we share the proceeds with.

We also continued with some policies that we always had in place: We don’t have minimums so dealers can order what they need when they need it and we ship orders immediately. When stores were closed our dealer locator indicated which dealers were providing delivery or curbside pickup for local shoppers. We prohibit other third party online channels such as Amazon so that independent dealers would be the only channel that realizes revenue from Kneed.”


New Balance • Keith Kelly, Brand Manager, Performance Running

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retail has always been core to the New Balance business and has helped build some of our quintessential franchise models. Our heritage has been built around incredible shoes in a breadth of widths that offer a solution for every runner and walker, and it’s through the independent retailer that we’ve been able to ensure the consumer gets exactly what they need.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We listened to our retail partners, heard their concerns, and acted in a positive manner to help support them. We ensured that every retail partner was given extended dating and margin assistance. In many cases we offered bespoke programs to retail partners given the circumstances were not equal throughout the country.

The period has been difficult with delays in shipping, issues with product availability, and reduced staff. Our goal was to work hard and over-communicate so that we could eliminate surprises and make sure that our retail partners could focus on their business. We were inspired by the work ethic of our retail partners. And I was proud of how New Balance led with empathy and positivity. We continue to work with our retail partners through our Sales and Trackster teams driving consumers to their stores.

The millions of new runners and walkers that have risen out of the pandemic present a great opportunity for independent retail. NB has been working with independent retailers to help support their enhanced selling capabilities. We want to leverage all of our expertise and learnings to support independent retail and watch the rising tide lift all boats.”


Birkenstock • David Kahan, CEO, Birkenstock Americas

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent footwear retailers are the heart and soul of the industry. Many of our relationships go back almost 50 years to our USA founder. We value the true sit-and-fit experience and the one-on-one service that the best retailers provide.”

When COVID hit we immediately reached out to all our partners to ensure whatever support was needed, to the best of our ability, we could partner with them. Most importantly, we maintained our brand equity. Unlike many others, we did not discount our shoes during this period.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“When COVID hit we immediately reached out to all our partners to ensure whatever support was needed, to the best of our ability, we could partner [with them]. Most importantly, we maintained our brand equity. Unlike many others, we did not discount our shoes during this period so that our valued partners would maintain the best return on investment in the industry.

Maintaining brand equity is the most important element, along with managing distribution. We have seen many brands become highly discounted and that math just doesn’t work if you want independent retailers to succeed.”

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When the topic of stellar service at retail comes up, most often the focus is on the service that retailers offer customers. But for retailers, service also comes in the form of the relationships they have with their vendor and brand partners. Over the past several months, as brands and retailers alike have had their businesses turned upside down by COVID’s impact on the economy, brand and retailer relationships have been tested like never before. What types of service are brands offering retailers?  We recently conducted a survey among our 2019 Gold Medal Service Award winning independent retailers, and asked those retailers to tell us which brands gave them unwavering support during these unprecedented times. Then we asked execs at these “supportive brands” to tell us why the independent channel is so important to them, and what types of things they’ve done to work together with retailers over these past several challenging months. Spotlighted on the following pages are the brands that retailers told us have been unwavering in their support of the independent channel.


Feetures • Joe Gaither, VP Marketing

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“It is critical for our brand. Not only does specialty retail make up a majority of our revenue, but they are also key to our strategy for continued growth. They are the ultimate influencers for our brand. In the fitting process, they take the time to educate consumers, and with a category like socks sometimes there is an education process with consumers to help them understand the value. Our brand really needs to be explained or felt and worn to really understand. A key thing specialty retailers do in the fitting process is put people in a pair of socks as part of their fitting process as the consumer tries on shoes. They do that with consumers on a daily basis which is invaluable to us.”

Specialty retailers are the ultimate influencers for our brand. They take the time to educate consumers.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“When COVID hit, everybody was uncertain. The first thing we did was extend terms so retailers weren’t worried about having to write a check in 30 days. And we extended a discount program so retailers could have a little extra margin and be a little creative in offering discounts.

With the number of new runners during COVID, a lot of our retailers are seeing more new customers than ever and that bodes well for them and for us.

Specialty retail is so important to us and we always try to be super supportive. This period showed how we are in it together with retailers — it is authentic to our brand strategy and it’s a true partnership we have with retailers.”


Arcopedico • Sydney Simas, VP, Sales & Marketing

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retailers have always been the backbone of our business. When my family began distributing Arcopedico in the United States in the early 1980s, we launched the brand through independent retailers. We relied on them to get the shoes on customers’ feet, and we still rely on them to this day. It is a mutually beneficial partnership that we do not take for granted, and supporting them is just the right thing to do.”

Overall, we want our retailers to know we are here for them and always can come up with a solution that works for us both. Without the retailers supporting our brand, we would be out of business.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We have done everything in our power to help alleviate the burden placed on so many of our retailers. This could be extended dating, taking shoes back, or just offering moral support. Overall, we want our retailers to know we are here for them and always can come up with a solution that works for us both.

Without the retailers supporting our brand, we would be out of business. We are motivated to work together to survive this crisis, and our partnerships are the key to surviving.”


Revere • Craig Truscott, Co-Founder & Director

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Before moving to the U.S. in 2016, my wife and I owned six comfort footwear stores in Australia. Our business model was based on offering our customers the best brands, with the best customer service in a fun and friendly environment. When we launched Revere, we knew our brand story would be best suited to independent footwear stores with a similar focus on customer service and fitting expertise. We love the history and passion of generational businesses here in the U.S., and believe we can add genuine value through our product mix, our unique fitting story and commitment to the ongoing success of independent retail.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“I think the strength and resilience of any relationship is how you manage things when times get tough, and I can’t think of a more difficult time in my life than what we have been experiencing since March. No one really saw this coming. In fact we were feeling so excited about 2020 with SS orders at an all-time high and a number of key initiatives in place to drive sell-through for our retail partners.

When stores were forced to close and teams were being furloughed across the country, we simply listened for ways we could contribute and add support. We extended terms, accepted returns, created an affiliate program so stores that did not have an e-commerce site could generate revenue through our website from their customer data base, offered free drop ship programs, but most importantly, we continued to let our customers know we were there for them and we would work through this together.”


OS1st • Josh Higgins, President, ING Source

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“OS1st made a decision early on in our launch, that we wanted to work exclusively in the independent channel. We are a family company and knew that we wanted to grow with accounts that would be loyal, consistent and share the same values that we do. The independents are the backbone of this category. They have a purpose and that purpose isn’t to just make money, it’s to help people and make connections with their community and build vendor partnerships that they can be proud of. We at OS1st want the same. So, to answer your question…The independents are important to us because they are who we are, what we believe in and our only channel.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We knew this would be a tough time for retailers and for us. Mid-March hit and the retail world came to a screeching halt. It was scary. We were very fortunate to be in a good position and wanted to become more aggressive in supporting our retail partners. Whether that was through extended terms, drop shipping, marketing campaigns or donations, we made sure they knew we were here for them then because we wanted to be there for them after.

As an independent retailer vendor, we have to continue to challenge ourselves to develop products and create marketing avenues that help drive traffic to the retailer. Our success comes from consumers walking through their doors.”


FINN COMFORT • Justin Orrell-Jones, President, CEO

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Successful Finn Comfort retailers have spent years cultivating a loyal Finn Comfort consumer. That loyalty has been earned by delivering an excellent shopping experience, and this has become a unique attribute of the independent retailer. Because Finn Comfort is generally a higher price point it requires a certain skill set, knowledge, and confidence to introduce our products to a consumer. The independent retailer is investing in professional salespeople who are trained to do just that.”

We try to listen to each retailers’ specific needs and situation as a unique one. The challenges we have all faced may have the same root causes, but the effects are not all the same.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We have continued to invest in a robust stock program. We have tried to be as flexible as we can with product deliveries. This includes allowing our retailers to take deliveries as they see demand pick up. We try to listen to each retailers’ specific needs and situation as a unique one. The challenges we have all faced may have the same root causes, but the effects are not all the same. We have offered extended payment terms, beyond what we could normally offer.”


Hoka One One • Lee Cox, Global VP of Marketing and Sales

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“One of our top priorities at Hoka is the experience of the athletes buying and using our shoes. That includes the access point where they first learn about and experience our products, the experience of purchasing them, and the experience of wearing them.  

We believe Independent retail provides the best-in store and local community experiences in the industry. They’re also crucial because our products look and feel unique, and independent retailers are crucial to helping us tell our story and aid in bringing consumers to our brand. Independent retailers are tremendously influential and staffed by experts who can work closely with our Field Experience and sales teams to learn about Hoka inside and out; they are the experts whom many customers trust to get them in the right shoe.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“When COVID-19 hit and forced a large-scale shutdown of retail doors, we knew it would be crucial for us to work closely with all of our partners to manage inventory and orders and ensure they were able to mitigate their losses. As stores began opening again, we promoted our Locally tool, which enables consumers to find a Hoka dealer near them, on our website and in e-mails, encouraging people to shop local if they were able. Throughout, our teams in the field have continued to stay in contact with stores, providing sell-ins and clinics, albeit largely through virtual means like video chat. As our partners have had to adapt quickly to the drastic acceleration of changes in the retail landscape, we have made every attempt to meet them there and adapt with them.”


Aetrex • Larry Schwartz, CEO

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“The independent retail channel has high standards. We know if our brand is successful with an independent retailer that it will translate well to other areas of distribution. Also, our technology business is very service oriented. The software guides retailers and customers to the right fitting footwear and orthotics for that customer. The independent channel values customer service and takes pride in the level of service they can provide, so it’s a great match.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“The pandemic has affected different regions throughout the country in different ways. We did our best to address each partnership region by region to help with supply and demand issues. We developed tools and strategies to help set our partners up for success within our ‘new normal.’

On the technology side of the business, we understood fitting and interacting with customers on the retail selling floor would look very different. Our Aetrex Technology foot scanners provide a physical distance alternative to traditional foot measuring in-store. And, we now offer an option for a touch-free remote app for operating the screen.

On the footwear side of the business, we anticipated retailers may have inventory issues due to store closures given the pandemic. So, we designed a line for Spring/Summer 2021 that would merchandise well with our Spring/Summer 2020 line and would tell a cohesive story. Our objective was to keep the new collection tight and to offer just the right amount of newness.”


Naot • Ayelet Lax Levy, President of U.S. Operations

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Every channel of the business is unique and has its own importance, however we need each other to survive. The independent retail channel is the one that historically has introduced most brands to the market, and we are no different. The independents are where our brand started. We, like many of them, are family owned and operated, and we share many of the same values.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We are very lucky that we have great relationships with most of our retailers. We tried to provide ideas that could help their overall store, not just with our brand but for their business. We worked with each retailer personally to help them get through their individual situations and catered to their specific needs, while maintaining brand integrity and value.

Vendors are also struggling and this has been a very difficult period for us worldwide. We need to continue to work with our retailers to ensure that we are both standing on the other side together.

We have always been loyal to the independent retail channel, allowing independents to sell direct to consumer on our website, protecting the retailers geographically, and being protective when it comes to our online MAP pricing. Our vision of letting us be your warehouse, drop shipping, and same day shipments to stores has always aligned with the independent retailer.

I believe that the retailers we worked through this storm with will come out stronger, as will our relationships and our friendships.”


Sockwell • Jim Markley, Partner

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Without independent retailers, we wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple. They believed in us and gave us our start 12 years ago, and they remain our best supporters and our best way to get our socks on customers’ feet. When we launched back in 2008, we knew as soon as someone actually put on our socks and felt what makes Sockwell special, we had a customer for life. So our focus when we launched our brand was independent retailers. It still is, and it’ll continue to be.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We are completely committed to our independent retailers and will continue to work with them in every way we can to show our unwavering support throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Although Sockwell also experienced challenges during these unprecedented times, we decided to extend payment terms, accept any cancellations and/or adjustments, and move preseason orders back a few months. Anything our retailers needed from Sockwell, we did. We also wanted to make future line presentations seamless while keeping each employee’s health a priority. Sockwell produced a professional video detailing our Spring 2021 Collection as well as a clinic video.

We didn’t make these decisions because it was the easiest thing to do but because it was the right thing to do. Our retailers are like family to us, and it was important to encourage them during the unexpected economic shutdown. We want them to survive and thrive once our economy begins to open back up.”


Darn Tough Vermont • Brooke Kaplan, Director of Marketing

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Their partnership is crucial to the success of the Darn Tough Vermont brand. This channel is where we started as a brand and not only do we feel a responsibility to help ensure the success of these retailers, that sentiment goes both ways. Independent retail shops allow our customers to touch and feel the socks while speaking with an educated employee about our brand and what sets our socks apart. Without their constant and valued interaction and input of what is working and not working, we would be nowhere near as good at what we do.”

This channel is where we started as a brand. We feel a responsibility to help ensure their success. That sentiment goes both ways.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“Like most retail partners in this channel, we too are family owned and all that that represents. We immediately extended our dating across the board on outstanding invoices; Our AR team set up extended working hours to better serve our retailers’ needs and set up specific programs; We immediately went to weekly (now bi-monthly) meetings with our rep force so we were better informed as to ever-changing territorial retail challenges.

From the product side, we took action to cull the S21 line and put the primary emphasis on core styles. Digitally, we’ve focused on how we can assist retailers with getting set up on Locally (our store locator integration), our B2B site, and utilize our digital asset bank as many of them began expanding their digital capabilities.”


Ara • Sam Spears, President

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retailers are the backbone of every community across the USA. The owner/operators are entrepreneurs who do not shrink from a challenge and do not turn their backs of their neighbors but rather they support their communities and neighbors even when they themselves may be struggling. We are a family-owned brand. We know where we came from and we know how important small business is to a community.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“The first and most important thing has been one-on-one talks with our retailers.

We know that no two businesses are identical and each retailer is facing challenges specifically to them. We did not produce a cookie cutter approach but rather tailored a solution for each specific retailer.

We continue to have a fully stocked warehouse ready to service single pair at-once orders. We intentionally did not cancel one Fall ’20 production order with Germany. We have built our reputation on service and we remain committed to providing in-season, at-once service.

We know how difficult things are right now. We are struggling too. We have had to make the very, very difficult decisions to reduce staff, salaries and work hours just like our customers have had to do. It’s not easy and it’s not pretty but we are not cutting our sales representatives.  We are in a human business. We believe it needs a personal touch and we will continue to provide old-school service touches: In-stock, at-once inventory, best-in-class customer service and the best sales staff to go to stores to help create solutions with the retailer.”


Cadence Insoles • John Hinds, PT, Founder, Owner

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?  

“The independent channel is important because they are often a trusted source for the consumer and if the retailer has the confidence to sell Cadence then the customer will most likely trust Cadence that much more… And when a product does well for the retailer it creates a tremendous positive feedback/sales loop for the customer and retailer and brand.”

When a product does well for the retailer it creates a tremendous positive feedback/sales loop for the customer and retailer and brand.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“In an effort to help reduce some stress and otherwise help in any way we could we did things such as: Extended payment dating to meet their needs; Provided free shipping through June, in addition to drop ship deliveries and also provided fee-free drop shipping; As I personally received emails or calls from customers looking to purchase Cadence, I would connect them with the nearest retailer; And I passed on info about and encouraged retailers to look into the Two Ten Footwear Foundation. This foundation specifically benefits employers and employees in the footwear industry and offer resources at the community and national levels.  

Independent retailers are the backbone of our economy and I want to do anything I can to support them. Four of my six models are sold in-store only and are not available online. I do this in an effort to support brick-and-mortar.”


SAS • Nancy Richardson, CEO

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Since the very beginning of SAS in 1976 the independent channel has been a foundation of the brand. The independent retailers are sophisticated, experienced buyers who appreciate a quality product, which can provide more value to the consumer than just the cheapest price.

Independent retailers are typically family businesses and represent the best of what the U.S. is. They are the individuals who show up early and stay late to service their customers. They put their customers and their employees before themselves and are vital to the economy and to all brands. When they are hurting, all of us are hurting.”

Independent retailers are sophisticated, experienced buyers who appreciate a quality product, which can provide more value to the consumer than just the cheapest price.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“2020 certainly has been uniquely challenging for all of us. For the independent retailer, the ability to replenish inventory quickly as needed is crucial. Since SAS has its factories in the U.S. we have been able to maintain our production and our development of new product throughout 2020. SAS stocks all SKUs in our warehouse and does not require a minimum amount of pairs to place an order so the independent retailer has the flexibility to purchase only what is needed in his store today and come back tomorrow with another order if he needs to. The SAS team has been here to ship inventory every day during 2020 and are currently shipping new product for the fall/winter season.”


ALEGRIA • Scott Cates, President of Sales

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Alegria is able to be what it is today because the independent retailers took the risk and brought the brand into the marketplace. They are believers in our product — what it does and what it can offer, especially to those with foot ailments. The Alegria & now TRAQ brands are best understood and appreciated when physically shared with the consumers. Independent retailers took the time to learn our product, and took it upon themselves to educate their customers about the benefits of our shoes. Our relationships have flourished over the years and we’ve come to rely on each other with the common love of the quality of our footwear. It is hard to replicate the personalized advice, professionalism and specific foot health education that a consumer can get inside a brick-and-mortar specialty retail store.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We gave approximately 6500 pairs of Alegria and TRAQ by Alegria footwear product to several accounts to donate on our behalf to their local hospitals or first responders. We also allow our reps the flexibility to offer gratis product in the market to our retailers for contests, etc.

For the first time ever, we offered a Manufacturer’s coupon to be used in-store only to help support brick and mortar stores that were struggling. We sent email blasts to our subscribers announcing domestic store re-openings in support of local retailers with the manufacturer’s coupon. And we posted to our social media outlets announcing the store re-openings.”


SORBOTHANE • David Church, President

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Since the introduction of Sorbothane insoles we have believed that the independent retailer is the perfect partner for us. They treat every customer like family and take great care to provide personal attention to everyone that visits their storefront. Sorbothane itself is a family owned independent company. The Sorbothane team is proud to produce our entire line of premium insoles in the U.S. at our facility in Kent, Ohio.

It takes time and effort to provide
each customer with the perfect combination of performance and comfort. The right shoe, matched with the perfect insole, meeting the individual needs of the customer. Independent retailers are the backbone of our communities… We need to support our neighborhood retailers now more than ever.”

The independent retailer is the perfect partner for us. They treat every customer like family and take great care to provide personal attention to everyone that visits their storefront.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We reached out in partnership to our independent retailers, as they worked through the challenges created by the pandemic and subsequent shut down. We developed a three-fold program. Offering special pricing, extended payment terms and free shipping of Sorbothane Insoles through the end of the year.

I encourage our retail partners to give me a call directly with any request, we will work with you.”


Dansko, Kitty Bolinger, EVP of Sales

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retailers are at the foundation of Dansko’s success. They adopted our brand first and have been ambassadors as we were able to transform from a clog company to a comprehensive comfort footwear brand. Their ability to connect with their customers and communicate Dansko’s features, benefits and quality contributes significantly to our strength as a brand.

The relationships that independent retailers develop with their customers last for generations and the loyalty that they engender means that customers will leave the comfort of their homes with the express purpose of visiting that specific retailer. The customers trust that they will get the attention and service that they need.”

The needs of each retail partner are unique so we did not approach this challenge with a one size fits all solution.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“Dansko has focused on long-term sustainability for our retail partners and our company. The needs of each retail partner are unique so we did not approach this challenge with a one size fits all solution. Instead we listened to each individual situation and worked to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution. Fortunately our retailers are true partners and recognized that Dansko would stretch as far as we were able.

As many of our partners said to us over the past six months, ‘Dansko is really important to our future so let’s figure this out together.’”


On Running • Britt Olsen, GM of North America

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“There is no closer connection to community than that of the independent channel. If you prioritize authenticity and credibility and want to get to know your customer, then the independent channel is where you can build a long lasting brand. On has kept a very clean view on distribution in order to keep independents prioritized and performance running at our core.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“The needs of every retailer differ and that is where On has been able to be a strong partner. We’ve got a full field team, and growing, that is available to support curb side pick-ups, deliveries, queue control, staff engagement, etc.

Being able to offer bespoke solutions has proven to be very beneficial. In the earliest days of lockdown, we worked to develop the RAN (retailer affiliate network) program to turn our own dotcom traffic into conversions for stores. We did this without capturing any customer data so that the retailer still had full ownership of the transaction.

We’ve also rolled out innovations around apparel merchandising and buying that support a more touch-free try-on environment, and the early results are strong. Flexibility with orders and payment terms has also been a must.

Solutions aren’t one size fits all and require a great deal of history and mutual respect. Thankfully, we feel we have that with this channel. Going through 2020 together has only made us stronger and more resilient. It’s one powerful community.”


Powerstep • Jay Cain, Senior Marketing Manager

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Now more than ever, brands offer an experience, an aesthetic, or a sense of belonging that consumers have come to expect. PowerStep continues to invest in independent retail because of the relational, customer-centric environment that has fueled our organic growth for years. Independent retail is the essential link between our brand’s values and the consumer experience we want to offer.”

Brands are eager to work on a deeper level with independent retailers, so retailers should not be afraid to ask reps for help that’s out of the ordinary.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“Our primary concern has been to stay in touch with our retail partners and ask them what we can do to help. That’s led to sharing inventive ideas across retailers, developing new co-op marketing strategies and streamlining product offerings. We’ve introduced new, regular promotions as well to help our partners restock, add new items, and reach new customers.

Brands are eager to work on a deeper level with independent retailers, so retailers should not be afraid to ask reps for help that’s out of the ordinary. Thousands of budgeted co-op dollars go unused every year, despite a brand’s constant prodding and deadlines. It’s free money, so retailers should carve out some time and develop a co-op strategy to maximize their marketing potential.”


Kneed Footwear • Jonathan Koops, Co-founder

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“It mandates everything we do. Independent dealers are vital to the health of every community... When you consider all the benefits the independent channel provides, and the risks of not having a vibrant independent channel, it was obvious to us that we needed to be fully committed to the channel.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?  

“When we all went into the initial shutdown, we embraced the ‘we are all in this together’ mantra. We had a robust B2B website, a dedicated web design team, and an exceptional distribution partner that was able to remain open. We were in a position to help. We came up with what we referred to as our “This Is A Last Resort” web store. We opened our Kneed web store for the first time, but in way where the proceeds of the revenue generated are shared with our local dealer partners. When an online shopper orders from our website, there is an option for the shopper to indicate the independent dealer they would like to support. If they don’t indicate that dealer then we find the dealer that is close to them. The dealer indicated by either method is the one we share the proceeds with.

We also continued with some policies that we always had in place: We don’t have minimums so dealers can order what they need when they need it and we ship orders immediately. When stores were closed our dealer locator indicated which dealers were providing delivery or curbside pickup for local shoppers. We prohibit other third party online channels such as Amazon so that independent dealers would be the only channel that realizes revenue from Kneed.”


New Balance • Keith Kelly, Brand Manager, Performance Running

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent retail has always been core to the New Balance business and has helped build some of our quintessential franchise models. Our heritage has been built around incredible shoes in a breadth of widths that offer a solution for every runner and walker, and it’s through the independent retailer that we’ve been able to ensure the consumer gets exactly what they need.”

What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“We listened to our retail partners, heard their concerns, and acted in a positive manner to help support them. We ensured that every retail partner was given extended dating and margin assistance. In many cases we offered bespoke programs to retail partners given the circumstances were not equal throughout the country.

The period has been difficult with delays in shipping, issues with product availability, and reduced staff. Our goal was to work hard and over-communicate so that we could eliminate surprises and make sure that our retail partners could focus on their business. We were inspired by the work ethic of our retail partners. And I was proud of how New Balance led with empathy and positivity. We continue to work with our retail partners through our Sales and Trackster teams driving consumers to their stores.

The millions of new runners and walkers that have risen out of the pandemic present a great opportunity for independent retail. NB has been working with independent retailers to help support their enhanced selling capabilities. We want to leverage all of our expertise and learnings to support independent retail and watch the rising tide lift all boats.”


Birkenstock • David Kahan, CEO, Birkenstock Americas

Why is the independent channel so important to your brand?

“Independent footwear retailers are the heart and soul of the industry. Many of our relationships go back almost 50 years to our USA founder. We value the true sit-and-fit experience and the one-on-one service that the best retailers provide.”

When COVID hit we immediately reached out to all our partners to ensure whatever support was needed, to the best of our ability, we could partner with them. Most importantly, we maintained our brand equity. Unlike many others, we did not discount our shoes during this period.
What types of things has your brand done to work together with your retail partners over these past several challenging months?

“When COVID hit we immediately reached out to all our partners to ensure whatever support was needed, to the best of our ability, we could partner [with them]. Most importantly, we maintained our brand equity. Unlike many others, we did not discount our shoes during this period so that our valued partners would maintain the best return on investment in the industry.

Maintaining brand equity is the most important element, along with managing distribution. We have seen many brands become highly discounted and that math just doesn’t work if you want independent retailers to succeed.”

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