The Balancing Act Continues
Independent Retailers Weigh in on Brands, Trends, Persistent Challenges and More.
As we head into the spring season, independent shoe retailers are continuing their balancing acts: Meeting the needs of eager consumers, while also dealing with a multitude of challenges that continue to impact their businesses. Since the start of 2020, external factors, many out of their control, have made it harder for retailers to conduct their normal business of sitting, fitting, and providing outstanding customer service.
Few challenges have been — and continue to be — more frustrating, retailers tell us, then seeing consumers who are ready and eager to part with cash for their desired style, only for the retailer to be unable to fill that need. Persistent COVID-19 pandemic and global supply chain issues impacting many, if not all, footwear brands, has made it practically impossible for stores to have the exact inventory that they desire. So what’s a retailer to do? Alter their ordering patterns, for one. Wait months for key products to be delivered, for another. And often to use the art of persuasion to get customers to purchase two pairs of a desired product at a time or try a comparable style from another brand.
Add in retail staff shortages, rising inflation and higher 2022 product prices prompted by the higher freight costs being paid by vendors and you get the full picture of the challenges being faced.
Independent shoe retailers, however, are a resourceful and resilient group. We reached out to several leading independent shoe retailers — all winners of Footwear Insight’s 2021 Gold Medal Service Award for Outstanding Customer Service — to get their current takes on the issues, the business climate, and the retail road ahead in 2022.
Brand Re-evaluation & New Buying Strategies
Retailers we spoke to offered succinct assessments of trends and issues, often specifically citing brands that are working closely with them and those who are failing to deliver on-time in the current environment.
“Supply chain issues have had a big impact on our buying,” said Brian Ferguson, CFO, The Foot Performance Center, Rochester, NY. “Our regular suppliers have not been able to fill our orders, preseason or at once, forcing us to look for other sources to find products that fit our customers needs.”
“Brand re-evaluation” has also been in effect at NYC’s Eneslow Shoes & Orthotics, owner Robert Schwartz told us. “In the athletic category, we’ve added brands and increased our focus on existing brands that can deliver.”
Rick Ravel, president of Karavel Shoes in Austin, TX, and past chairperson of the National Shoe Retailers Association (NSRA), confirmed his business has shifted to 100 percent open-to-buy and dropped over 40 brands in 2021. He cites HOKA, Birkenstock, Naot and Mephisto as his best-performing vendors and gives Merrell, New Balance and Vionic poor grades due to cancelled products or for moving delivery dates out 3-6 months.
Thomas Peterson, owner of Foot Savvy in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, CO, said he is buying “slightly more than usual” during Fall/Winter 2022 pre-books to ensure product availability as he offered some perspective on his recent seasonal buying experiences.
“For Spring/Summer 2021, we bought fairly heavily but found that many stores did not, so the manufacturers did not have enough product for in-season fill-ins, so we were left short,” he remarked. This availability situation improved for Foot Savvy with most vendors for Fall/Winter 2021 — though in-demand Brooks and New Balance styles were hard to get, said Peterson. When Foot Savvy learned of Vietnam footwear factories being shut down last summer, it loaded up on its running shoe buy. And the business has “very heavily” bought Brooks’ styles for Summer 2022 delivery.
“The dynamic relationship between brands and retailers has shifted dramatically over the past decade and will continue to do so… Of course, there is also the issue of building brands on the backs of retailers before cutting the retailers’ legs out from under them by going Direct-To-Consumer.” – Thomas Peterson, owner of Foot Savvy in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, CO.
“New Balance is another matter,” Peterson added. “Very few orders are being fulfilled. I am heavily pedorthic-oriented and require shoes that have a functional aspect. So, I have shifted a lot of my buying to Xelero from New Balance. But I have not dropped any brands and am still hopeful that New Balance will start delivering product sometime in the future, especially models 1540 and 928.”
At family-owned Beck’s Shoes, forecasting, and any expansion of product buys is now being done up to 10 months in advance.
“Delays have caused us to move our open-to-buy into other vendors,” explained Adam Beck, president of the Campbell, CA-based chain. “But we have always worked in terms of ‘category’ space and not really brand name spaces, which gives us better flexibility and ensures shortages from a vendor will have a minimal impact on our volume.”
DTC & Other Concerns
Asked about what they see as the biggest industry concern currently, most pointed to ongoing relationships between independent retailers and brands.
“My biggest concern might be that some wholesalers have pulled their products out of independents in lieu of big boxes and internet only,” said Michael Jones from A Proper Fit in Reno, NV. “I hope they realize they are missing their foundation and come back.”
Foot Savvy’s Peterson concurred with Jones on the vendor-retailer relationship being the most pressing issue today.
“Lots of times this is viewed as a zero-sum game, which creates animosity between the two,” he said. “The dynamic relationship between brands and retailers has shifted dramatically over the past decade and will continue to do so… Of course, there is also the issue of building brands on the backs of retailers before cutting the retailers’ legs out from under them by going Direct-To-Consumer.”
Beck pointed to the fact that retailers need vendors to ship orders within the timeframes written. “We have flexibility, but the one thing we do not control is the weather,” said Beck. “So, being behind on seasonal items can hinder the sellthrough and potential to have cash flow tied up in items you should have had sellthrough in.”
Commented Schwartz, whose Big Apple business has been family-owned and operated since 1909, “My biggest concern right now is maintaining quality and delivery standards in the face of turmoil.”
Retailers Talk Trends
In our conversations this past month with a half dozen leading independent footwear retailers, here are some of the key trends they reported seeing in the marketplace:
Retailers tell us that dress is making a modest comeback with more interest in women’s styles than men’s. The post-pandemic surge of events, including weddings, is likely to spur the category a bit more. According to The Knot, 2022 will be a banner year for U.S. weddings at 2.6 million, some 24 percent higher than the decade average of 2.1 million between 2009 and 2019.
Walking in Comfort & Style
Stylish, comfortable walking shoes are trending up. “I am seeing this as a trend not away from the athletic category, but in addition to it,” remarked Thomas Peterson, owner of Foot Savvy. “These are shoes that function like an athletic shoe but are more stylish.”
Fun with Colors
Perhaps it is aligned with a post-pandemic consumer mindset, but women are increasingly looking for colorful options rather than basic black in their footwear, noted Rick Ravel, owner of Karavel Shoes in Austin, TX. Color and style are high on the list of characteristics being sought by consumers right now when purchasing “somewhat dressy but always comfortable” agreed Michael Jones of Reno-based retailer A Proper Fit.