From product design to retail strategy, comfort footwear has always marched to the beat of its own drum.
The comfort market has traditionally focused on providing functional staples instead of fast fashion trends. But in an increasingly crowded retail landscape where consumers expect both choice and convenience, the stakes are higher than ever before.
From exploring new styles to diversifying sales channels, comfort stalwarts are attempting to reform the category’s staid image and prevent staleness from creeping in.
At the FN Platform trade show in Las Vegas last week, Sourcing Journal caught up with comfort brands to understand how trends, an evolving retail climate and the rise of online commerce will impact their businesses in 2020 and beyond.
“We’re trying to do a version of modern comfort, not dumbed-down comfort-casual,” said Rob Seehusen, vice president of sales at Bay Area-based Vionic.
The brand’s increasingly trend-forward designs have morphed from clunky, Velcro-laden sandals to pointed-toe kitten heels and block heeled boots in recent seasons.
“It’s about how it translates to the ready-to-wear garments that she wants to wear,” he explained. “Everything from our perspective still needs to be athleisure-friendly. Women are wearing those styles from day to night,” he said, pointing to a large selection of cupsoles, slip-ons and retro-inspired casual sneakers made to be worn with joggers or printed leggings.
Seehusen said that some of the brand’s more fashion forward styles are garnering attention from younger consumers.
“That being said, we’re not Steve Madden and we’re not appealing to 18-year-olds,” he said. “We know who we are—we’re working for the 35 to 65-year-old consumer who wants to communicate and express herself in terms of trend.”
Those sentiments became a familiar refrain across the comfort section of the showroom floor.
“We’re trying to elevate the style and the fashion, and open up new product categories,” Renee Newman, vice president of sales for Aetrex, told Sourcing Journal.
The brand debuted its first heeled styles at the February show, showcasing a range of boots suited to work and weekend wear. Newman also said that a minimalist ballet flat style was selling in favorably.
“Our business has two parts,” Newman said. “There are a lot of women who want basic styles, but some want more fashion elements.”
“You have to know what direction you want your brand to go in, and not be swayed by trends,” she said, adding, “At the same time, we’re opening up into new categories to see where that takes us.”
For some brands, further penetrating an existing market of loyal customers is the primary objective.
“Our focus is really clear. We know who our girl is,” said Craig Truscott, co-founder and director of Revere Shoes.
While the brand takes its cues from trends in the broader fashion landscape, Revere is focused on maintaining the comfort features that put it on the map with a specific subset of consumers.
“When we look at something that might be trending or a category that might not fit into the traditional idea of comfort, we try to inject our own DNA into it,” said Anne Truscott, co-founder and creative director. “We can add fit features and width options, but still make the shoe look like something she wants to wear.”
The brand launched with a selection of sandals in 2016, and has spent the past three fall seasons building out an offering of ankle boots, casual loafers and most recently, sneakers.
“From an overall category perspective, being involved in the athleisure lifestyle sneaker category is important, rather than just sticking to ‘brown shoes,’” said Craig Truscott.
Consumers are increasingly demanding functional footwear for the winter season, Seehusen said. Vionic will release a line of seam-sealed, fully weather-resistant styles for fall.
“There are so many people in colder climates that need that protection,” he said. “The consumer wants to be fashionable, but she’s tromping through snow or puddles on the streets of New York City. She needs to make sure that the boots will stand up to the weather during the colder months.”
Vionic’s styles ranged from mid-calf lace-up combat boots to knee-high, shearling-lined varieties.
Aetrex’s Newman said that her company’s new line of “comfy, cozy” winter boots also offered waterproofing, slip-resistance and insulation against the elements.
Pointing to a pair of lace-up hiker boots with a thick, rugged rubber sole, she said, “They’re ultra-functional and seam-sealed. All of our boots are water resistant, and she definitely expects to see that.”
Bread and butter? Brick and mortar.
“We have no anxieties about running a brick-and-mortar focused business,” said Revere’s Craig Truscott. “At the same time, you have to know your customer, and you have to provide a great shopping experience.”
That means providing a degree of service that they can’t find online, he said.
Even with the growth of e-commerce, in-store strategy remains an integral part of selling comfort footwear. The category’s consumers skew older, and many still prefer to be fitted and assisted by associates, rather than scrolling through product on a smartphone.
“Shelf space is at a premium for retailers, and we have to make sure we’re giving our partners the best opportunity for sell-through,” Truscott added.
The company curates assortments based on a retailer’s particular consumer demographics and regional needs, rather than heeding trends in the overall footwear market.
Tailoring smaller selections to specific stores helps shoppers zero in on the products they actually want to buy—the opposite of the “endless aisle” strategy being employed online to court young consumers.
“We work with some phenomenal independent retailers, and that channel is really important for us,” echoed Seehusen. Despite Vionic’s massive growth over the past five years, which has resulted in fruitful partnerships with national department stores like Dillard’s, mom-and-pop comfort retailers remain integral to the brand’s retail strategy.
“Retailers understand that it’s getting more and more challenging. The days of just opening your doors and hoping people walk in are over,” Seehusen said.
Savvy stores have are using tactics like experiential marketing, a heightened social media presence, and price-matching, he said. “If shoppers look at their phones and see that the same product is priced better elsewhere, they’re going to feel that a retailer is not being genuine with them.”
Aetrex’s account list is full of mom-and-pop shops, Newman told Sourcing Journal, though the brand is also courting more department stores in an attempt to cast a wider net. Currently, the brand sells in Dillard’s, Von Maur, and on Nordstrom.com.
It’s also important for the brand’s comfort technology to be seen, felt and explained, she said. “From arch support to alignment, you want to feel those things in person.”
The online frontier
“I would think that direct-to-consumer brands have eaten into our customer base,” mused Revere’s Craig Truscott, speaking of the new class of digitally native upstarts, like Rothy’s and AllBirds, that have captured consumers’ attentions through strategic social marketing.
Despite the proven success of online-focused business models, the brand has put its own DTC strategy on the back burner in favor of expanding its network of retailers. “We encourage our independents who have their own websites to prioritize online,” he said.
Truscott is also focused on managing the brand’s presence on Amazon. While the online giant has an unrivaled capacity to move product, many brands are wary of the undercutting and illicit selling that runs rampant on the platform.
“We don’t sell directly to them—we have four partners who represent us there, and they ensure that our pricing is upheld,” Truscott said. “We’re going to be tight on that, and it’s not something we’re going to roll out to every single account.”
Vionic is working to build up its direct-to-consumer channel through social media marketing that directs shoppers to the brand’s website, Seehusen said. “Our DTC business is still a priority.”
Vionic has also passed up the opportunity to sell its goods on Amazon, citing similar concerns about losing control of product. Those frustrations drove footwear brands like Birkenstock and Nike from selling directly on the site in recent years.
“We don’t sell to Amazon directly, but we do have third party independents on there,” Seehusen said. “We want to sell on the site in an intelligent way, that’s complimentary to our brand, that protects our pricing and our integrity.”