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Footwear Stores Go Beyond Sit & Fit to Woo Shoppers

The well-worn narrative in retail goes, with the growth of Amazon and other e-commerce retailers, traditional retailers have been forced to cost-cut and close underperforming physical retail spaces.

Yet, there are those retailers adapting to change the market, and in doing so, doubling down on their in-store experiences, specifically in footwear.

Data compiled by the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America shows that in-store will remain an important aspect of retailers’ profitability, despite the gained traction in online shopping. While more consumers intend to shop online for shoes this year than last, an FDRA survey published in June shows in-store sales still represent the majority of transactions at 66 percent (versus 77 percent in 2017). And of those shopping in-store, 53 percent said they’d shop at footwear stores near them, like Famous Footwear, Shoe Carnival, DSW, or Rack Room. This compares to the 44 percent who said so in 2017.

Over the last year, footwear retailers and department stores alike have branched out from the traditional shopping experience to integrate everything from spa services to climbing walls in their retail spaces.

Allbirds installed a human hamster wheel in its New York Soho location. A newly opened Nike pop-up in Los Angeles is offering gym equipment for in-store shopper trials, styling services, and curb-side pick-up for a city that spends more time in traffic jams than anywhere else in the country.

Meanwhile, DSW executives announced in May that the company plans to expand its successful “lab store” concept, which offers shoppers in-store shoe repair, and at one store, a Nail Bar for pedicures. Chief executive Roger Rawlins said in the company’s first quarter 2018 earnings call that he’s “pleased with customer response to shoe repair,” which the company has since expanded into two more locations. The redesigns, he said, are skewed toward millennial customers.

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At Nordstrom, the first Nordstrom Local outpost in West Hollywood, Calif., which opened one year ago, forgoes product in favor of services like manicures and tailoring services.

A Nordstrom spokesperson declined to speak specifically about the footwear department, but said services like buy online, pick up in store and personal stylists, are the company’s way to “reimagine” the shopping experience.

“This approach allows us to better engage customers and ultimately increase market share by giving customers what they have told us they want: better and more convenient services and access to more products,” the Nordstrom spokesperson said.

In April, Nordstrom opened its first flagship location in New York City, which is the company’s first stand-alone men’s store. In addition to offering round-the-clock express services and cell phone charging stations, the company said it provides an onsite alterations and tailoring center, complimentary personal stylists, and a shoeshine station that offers services for $3.

While pampering shoppers may seem like an effective strategy, sustaining customer loyalty at physical retail locations comes down to executing the basics of the in-store experience, said Paco Underhill, consumer shopping expert at Envirosell. “In our work in shoe sections, having a variety of seating heights for people to choose from trying on shoes makes complete sense. If a seat is too low, it’s a struggle to get down, and many people a struggle to get up,” he said.

Underhill noted that, in its quest to penetrate the shoe market, Under Armour has put thrones in some of its stores to make the trying-on experience more comfortable. Another seemingly obvious but imperative part of the in-store experience, Underhill said, comes down to plain and simple shoe mirrors.

Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear and accessories analyst at the NPD Group, noted that customization and personalization options in-store—“the ability to create a shoe, bag, jersey that is unique to a particular customer”—are becoming more readily available and have proven successful with consumers.

As the new school year approaches, the back-to-school season presents another opportunity for in-store retail to shine. Deloitte data published on FDRA found more than half of parents surveyed plan to shop in-store for shoes, versus roughly one quarter who plan on doing their back-to-school shopping online.

Goldstein said for physical stores to retain their edge, they’ll have to excel at the basics.

“I think that retailers can only be successful here if the product is compelling—product is always first,” Goldstein said. “And the focus should be on the overall store experience—product, service, merchandising, engagement, etc.—and not just one specific aspect. Having a coffee bar or doing pedicures alone isn’t going to cut it if the product isn’t compelling or the overall shopping experience isn’t pleasant.”