As a footwear manufacturer for well over a century, Western Chief has created a legacy based heavily upon its signature rubber boots that are designed to withstand the unforgiving elements of the Pacific Northwest. While the brand first got its start in 1891 by focusing on leather boots to be worn during the Alaska Gold Rush, it later expanded into those recognizable rubber Wellies that have become its hallmark.
And while the family-owned and operated company is still fond of saying “Rain is in our DNA,” it’s not just the rain boots keeping the brand a mainstay for so many years. Instead, by expanding into footwear addressing all seasons—lifestyle boots and casuals, snow boots, sandals, play-friendly shoes and even slippers—the brand has maintained year-round relevance thanks to its nimbleness and adaptability.
Chief among this strategy has been its successful marketing to families, including the expansion into play-friendly footwear for children with easy-on-and-off designs and fun prints across all of its styles. These natural brand extensions, said Karl Moehring, CEO of Western Chief parent Washington Shoe Company, has enabled the company to forge an all-seasons connection with consumers.
Moehring talked with Sourcing Journal about the company’s ability to stay successful by remaining nimble and adaptable for nearly 130 years in a market evolving more rapidly than ever.
Sourcing Journal: You’ve always catered to children—how are the needs of this market changing?
Karl Moehring: Today there are unfortunately fewer shoe stores that cater specifically to children. The market continues to shift to encompass footwear for the entire family, and there are endless direct-to-consumer options.
Price and value remain very important to our customer, who is primarily a mother shopping for her family on a budget.
SJ: What are the challenges of balancing quickly shifting trends with performance needs?
KM: Whenever you enter a new category of footwear, there are lessons learned from the first season or two. It’s a challenge to try and anticipate what to watch for and ensure a smooth launch of the product.
Often the development of samples to reach the level of confirmation takes longer than anticipated. We build in longer lead times for new categories, in anticipation that a surprise will arise.
SJ: What are some technologies you’ve been able to include in your footwear to address comfort, fit and durability?
KM: Our rain boots feature memory foam and they’re also lined. Some of our boot styles have faux fur and fleece lining. Also, the quality rubber compound provides the durability that’s essential for this type of footwear.
SJ: Does warmer weather footwear mean light weights overall? If so, what innovations are you employing to provide the desired weight?
KM: Yes, light weight is great, but materials play a big part in keeping items functional. Using mesh, neoprene, knits, EVA and other materials allows us to make functional hybrid sandals that are outdoor-friendly for men, women and kids.
SJ: How have consumer expectations around returns shifted in the last five or so years, and how have you adjusted accordingly?
KM: As consumers continue to make more purchases online, this pushes up the return rate for things like fit. Luckily for us, rain boots tend to be more forgiving in fit.
SJ: How do you address sustainability in the footwear market? How can retailers better support brands’ efforts to become more eco-conscious?
KM: Small efforts go a long way. We moved to natural cardboard shoeboxes across all our brands because it was a small, immediate edit that could make an impact. Retailers can encourage these types of changes and request less packaging overall.
Beyond packaging and shipping, we’ve taken a look at what we can do to source more eco-friendly materials and have begun incorporating sustainable materials and accessories into our footwear across all our brands.
SJ: With potential tariffs in the pipeline, how are you preparing to avoid passing off costs to your customers?
KM: We are leveraging our long relationships with our factories to reduce the burden on the consumers. The Chinese yuan continues to weaken in the face of the trade war, which has alone reduced the tariff impact by about 50 percent. We are doing everything we can to absorb any cost increase without raising the consumer’s costs. We’re also looking into other sourcing markets to spread out the risks.
Click to learn more about Western Chief.