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Wolverine’s Innovation VP Credits Pandemic Disruption for Fast-Forwarding the Future

With a roster of a dozen household name brands, Wolverine Worldwide’s footwear ranges from cozy to rugged and everything in between.

And in his new role as vice president of innovation, Barry McGeough must serve each brand’s needs for forward-looking solutions in digital experience and product optimization. With diverse and distinctive labels like Sperry, Saucony, Merrell, Keds, Chaco, Hush Puppies, Stride Rite, Bates, Cat Footwear, Harley-Davidson Footwear, Hytest and of course, Wolverine, under his purview, it’s a significant task.

But three months into the role, McGeough is pulling from more than a decade of experience at companies like Google, PVH Corp. and The North Face for the product development and technological expertise needed to take the company’s sport, outdoor and lifestyle brands into the 21st century.

Wolverine Worldwide made the decision some time ago to lean into advanced concepts and innovation driven by worldwide tech movements like 5G and machine learning. The company now hopes McGeough can pull new, brand-centric solutions from these macro trends.

Digital connectedness will be a theme at Wolverine Worldwide—and likely, throughout the industry—moving forward. Connecting brands’ footwear, apparel and accessories to existing Internet of Things (IoT) technologies would allow consumers to gamify, for instance, the experience of going on a hike, or tracking their progress on a run.

McGeough also wants to transform the shopper experience online, using technology to simplify processes and delight consumers in equal measure. This spring, Sperry launched a tool that allows shoppers to view products in 360 degrees. Consumers can virtually turn a top-sider or loafer to see it from multiple angles, giving them the confidence to shop for products that they can’t see and touch in person.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences will remain an area of focus as homebound consumers continue to turn to their phones or computers to shop and experience brands. “Everything has to be driven by consumer desire and real and perceived needs,” he said. “We’re going to be super tactical as we drive real solutions into the brands.”

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The pandemic landscape has only heightened the need for digitally driven solutions, McGeough said, as retail space across the country was already contracting before the shutdown. Brands and retailers were already looking to omnichannel approaches to reach an increasingly tech-savvy shopper—and now, technology driven by the world wide web represents a lifeline to the outside world.

“COVID really is an accelerant to everything that was already happening,” he added.

Innovation from McGeough’s team won’t limited to consumer experience. The group’s influence will be felt throughout the supply chain, extending from the factory level downstream to material manufacturing and even the chemical makeup of the different compounds used to make the company’s products.

“I always say we want to make our whites whiter and our brights brighter,” he said. “We’re looking at things like green chemistry, which can really improve our product demonstrably.”

Looking to other industries could yield some material leads, he said. Speaking of the automobile sector, McGeough suggested that learnings could be gleaned from advances in foam seating. “We’re doing polymer work that no one in the footwear industry is using, but we might be able to use theirs as an adjacent technology,” he said.

Wolverine Worldwide is also interested in forming more robust partnerships with universities, startups, incubators and other groups to translate existing technologies into salable innovations that can be applied to footwear.

“Half of our time is going to be spent on product transformation,” he said. “How can we get better performance materials, and how can we make sure they’re green?” McGeough’s team address the issue of sustainability alongside its advances in product tech, he said, and those tasks are going to be inextricably linked.

The fight for a more sustainable future has been underscored by consumer interest in recent years, and  shoppers have become increasingly interested in spending time outdoors throughout this period of quarantine. Brands like Chaco and Merrell have benefited from that shift, McGeough said, conjecturing that consumers have found solace in their socially distanced outdoor activities, leading to an increased appreciation for the environment.

“We’re being introduced to totally new domains of experience” through this worldwide crisis, said McGeough, who believes shifts in consumer behavior—from shopping online to getting outside—will continue long after the pandemic ends. “We believe these trends are going to be incredibly sticky.”