WSA Preview: Buyers Hunt for Fresh Ideas

LOS ANGELES — While footwear retailers fret over soaring gas prices, a battered housing market and an unsteady economy, fashion might prove to be the industry’s biggest challenge in the months ahead.

“The marketplace is really bereft of new fashion ideas,” said Matt Powell, owner of Princeton Retail Analysis in Princeton, N.J. “You need new brands, new looks, something to excite the customer. That doesn’t mean you’re spending more. You’re just spending judiciously.”

Perhaps even more than in recent seasons, retailers told Footwear News they’ll be seeking out new vendors at the upcoming show to add freshness to their shelves, which many said is vital to surviving the coming months.

Ed Habre, president of Portland, Ore.-based Shoe Mill, a seven-store comfort footwear chain, and chairman of the National Shoe Retailers Association, said he will be on the hunt for more “products that have punch to them.” Responding to customer hesitation over buying unnecessary items, he plans to scale back on whimsical strappy sandals, which have a shorter selling season in the Pacific Northwest, and focus on semi-closed footwear in metallic colors with new material combinations.

That’s a strategy that is already playing out this season at the 94-store, Ontario, Calif.-based Shiekh Shoes chain. “Silver is on fire, especially in dress shoes,” said owner Shiekh Ellahi.

Ellahi said high heels, between 3.5 inches and 4 inches, are selling well. But flats, too, are still in high demand, he said. “It’s funny that we’re seeing interest in either really flat or really high shoes, but nothing in between,” he said.

At WSA, Ellahi said he’ll be shopping for gladiator sandals, which are currently top sellers at his stores, along with pricier flip-flops, with more blinged-out styles and American Indian influences. “It’s getting to be more accepted that you can sell [flip-flops] at higher points if they’re nicely done,” he said.

In his sneaker assortment, Ellahi said for spring he’ll seek out styles with unusual textures and embellishments — a trend he said is just catching on. Creative Recreation’s low-rise silhouettes with Velcro bands and patchwork colors and Ed Hardy’s laceless canvas slips-ons with metallic skull tattoo prints also are gaining momentum in about half his stores, he said.

“These smaller brands with limited distribution create excitement and stand out in the marketplace,” said Ellahi, who plans to boost his buying budget by more than 10 percent at WSA.

At Val Surf, a chain of five surf and skate stores based in North Hollywood, Calif., footwear buyer Nate Kaufman said that while the $50-to-$60 price point is the consumer sweet spot, demand is increasing for Nike trainers in the $100 range. “That’s a surprise to me,” he said. “The Nike customer is different. They’re not the kids coming in every day for skateboards. It’s more of a shoe collector or person into streetwear.”

For spring, Kaufman plans to stock up on sandals to meet an ever-growing demand. In closed-toe styles, Kaufman said the success of Sanuk’s Sidewalk Surfer — a shoe/sandal hybrid — has led to other successful imitations, including styles from Vans with a lightweight canvas upper and thin sole.

At Sole Mates in Bainbridge Island, Wash., Keen sport sandals and other comfort-oriented outdoor lifestyle products continue to be in high demand. However, GM Diana Escamilla said she’ll be searching the upcoming show for comfort shoes with a fashion edge. “There still aren’t too many lines of stylish shoes that provide support and comfort, so we can always use another one,” she said, noting that slip-ons, Mary Jane styles and sandals are key items for spring.

One brand Escamilla said she’s after is Ugg, which she has pursued for the past four years. “They weren’t opening new doors in the Northwest at the February show, but we’ll keep trying,” she said. “If it doesn’t work out, we may go with a knock-off.”

Ugg’s tight distribution strategy has helped boost nationwide demand for the company’s signature sheepskin boot, as well as its evolving lineup of products. “[We] could easily have sold far more than we had on hand,” said Shoe Mill’s Habre.

Indeed, several retailers pointed to Ugg as being one of the few bright spots in their product mix that has continued to fuel sales.

“It’s great to see that they have an eye toward making Ugg a year-round brand,” said Dawn Spilman, owner of Calabasas, Calif.-based Leap Shoe Lounge. “They’re doing a great job with the new shoes and accessories. This fall, I picked up shearling scarves and hats. I’m interested in seeing what they do with texture and style for spring.”

Aside from Ugg, Spilman said Børn’s driving moc slip-ons and Toms’ lightweight, canvas slippers in vibrant fabrics, including stripes and houndstooth, are consistent sellers.

Sole Mates’ Escamilla said she also plans to spend her time at the show looking for more green products, following her success with the Simple brand, which uses hemp, organic cotton, bamboo and cork in its sneakers and sandals, and Earth, known for its vegan line.

Pegasus Shoes CEO Len Sapiro also said earth-friendly products are on his spring shopping list. He noted that J-41’s slip-on styles, made with 100 percent recycled packaging, had been the “surprise of the season, doing well in stores and online.”

Val Surf’s Kaufman agreed that green products, despite sometimes carrying a higher price, are resonating with consumers. “It’s something that everybody can get behind, and sell-throughs haven’t been an issue,” he said, adding that sandals made with hemp straps and cork sock liners by Ocean Minded, which was acquired by Crocs Inc. last year, are currently popular with customers.

Product aside, retailers said they are also working to endear themselves to consumers this season, in the hopes of building loyalty. To maintain sell-through momentum, store owners are trying to turn on the charm as a way to keep customers in good stead. Even in the affluent area of Calabasas, home to celebrities and professionals, Leap Shoe Lounge is hosting more launch events and seasonally-themed parties to reach out to patrons.

Shoe Mill employees “are sending out more thank-you cards these days to massage relationships,” Habre said. “We want to make sure there’s top-of-mind awareness so that the next time they think of footwear, they’ll think about our stores.”

Merchants also are thinking strategically by adding more non-footwear products to the retail mix. Leap Shoe Lounge has stocked more accessories to boost sales, such as travel bags, clutches, lingerie and hats.

“Thankfully, our area is pretty consistent, and it’s not so dead that it’s scary … but I wanted to add to the store to bolster sales,” Spilman said. “They might check out a pair of shoes, then buy a cute makeup bag — it all adds up.”

Still, there’s no question that retailers will be challenged in the months ahead. “Retailers will remain pretty cautious throughout the remainder of the year,” said Powell.


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