As shoppers continue to tighten their belts, those brands that keep an open dialogue with customers will undoubtedly have a competitive advantage. Whether it’s by inviting feedback on their Websites, conducting focus groups or simply chatting with friends over dinner, it’s never too late for the industry to start talking.
I recently spoke with a group of baby boomer consumers, the core of the comfort market. It was my friend Debbie’s birthday, and a bunch of us threw her a surprise party at Louie’s, a Long Island, N.Y., eatery with a perfect view of the Long Island Sound. After lots of hugs, kisses and good wishes, I took some time out to conduct an impromptu focus group.
With notebook in hand, I spoke with partygoers about their thoughts on the comfort market, from pricing issues to their favorite shoe haunts. Most important, were they satisfied with the product available? Eager to have their voices heard by industry insiders, they divulged a lot.
Among the crowd were several die-hard comfort consumers who require the counsel of certified pedorthists due to conditions ranging from ankle sprains to heel spurs. While they shop at stores with a therapeutic offering, such as Eneslow in New York and Turnpike Comfort in Flushing, N.Y., the majority said they pick up comfortable shoes wherever they can find them, including stores such as Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor and Marshalls.
Whether these professional women seek footwear to accommodate their orthotics or simply to wear over the weekend, all agreed their biggest challenge remains finding shoes that look as good as they feel. Liane, an attorney, summed it up best: “I don’t want to look like I’m going to an AARP convention in my comfort shoes.”
As more mainstream fashion brands continue to pump up their comfort features, it’s more important than ever for core comfort vendors to raise the style bar. That will allow them to keep their customers. Remember, even the most loyal consumers can’t live on arch supports and metatarsal guards alone.
For industry insiders who want to get better acquainted with their target audience, the party starts here.
Barbara, 51, a marketing manager, admitted that getting older takes a toll on her feet. “My feet have [changed] as I’ve aged,” she said, noting issues such as bunions. “I never used to think about my shoes. I bought whatever looked good. Now I have to be more conscious of comfort than style.” While Barbara said finding the right blend of fit and fashion takes work, she gave kudos to Naturalizer and Easy Spirit. “They’re smart enough to realize people want to be comfortable and stylish as they get older.”
Michele, a 49-year-old teacher, said recent knee problems have put limitations on her shoe choices. “I can’t wear a high heel, but I don’t want to look like an old lady, either,” she said. Michele regularly searches for feminine low-heel sandals and pumps.
For my 50-year-old sister, Leslie, an accountant, comfort has been a concern since her teenage years, due to her need for a wide width. However, she’s found a solution in clogs, her go-to comfort look. “I’ve been wearing them since I was 13, when they first came into style,” she said. Having developed a heel spur along the way, she’s also found comfort in Original Dr. Scholl’s styles designed with a gel pad for added cushioning.
After a recent foot injury, Liane, 50, was forced to toss out her existing shoe wardrobe in favor of comfort looks from Mephisto, Kumfs and Munro. “Since I sprained my foot, I require shoes with lots of support. I now need orthotics. Shoes with removable footbeds are a requirement.” Her favorite pair? A Kumfs Mary Jane style. “They’re amazing shoes,” she said. “They may be a little cloddy, but I don’t care. They’re so comfortable.”
Though Liane is new to the comfort world, 51-year-old Debbie, a longtime orthotics wearer, isn’t. “I need something soft, flexible and that can accommodate orthotics,” she said. While she has found shoes that fill her comfort needs, she said that “many are less attractive than I can handle.” Her key comfort requirement is styles with roomy toe boxes, a look she often finds from Ara and Ecco. Since she’s a stay-at-home mom and dresses casually, she opts for New Balance’s 900 series. “I can wear them with orthotics, and they have a roll bar for added comfort.”
Nancy, 47, who also requires orthotics, has just about given up when it comes to finding trend-right shoes that can fit them. Since she works from home, she instead slips into a pair of flip-flops or sneakers. “I’d like to find a nice, high-heel shoe to fit my orthotics,” she said.
While more mainstream comfort customers, like Barbara, Michele and Leslie, prefer to keep spending under $100, those with special foot needs, such as Liane and Debbie, know comfort doesn’t come cheap. The good news is that they’re willing to pay the price. “I need to spend a lot of money on shoes because I’m looking for quality,” said Liane. “Before my injury, I had 40 pairs, all under $80. I just bought six pairs of removable footbed styles that cost a total of $1,000.”
Debbie, who needed a pair of dress shoes for her daughter’s bat mitzvah several years ago, said she was all too willing to pay $250 for a pump she’d wear only once.
That sort of devotion to comfort product is exactly what vendors can take advantage of if they take the time to listen to the real experts.