Buyers’ Market: Fashionable Comfort

Over the past several years, the once-basics-driven comfort market has worked hard to earn its fashion stripes. But with the dismal economy forcing consumers to cut back on spending, vendors and retailers are faced with the tough question of whether to play it safe with proven product or attempt to spark buying with more fashionable styles.

According to industry sources, a challenging economy is the perfect time to take risks and gamble on trend-driven looks. Exciting product, they say, is certain to get reluctant shoppers to open their wallets.

“Comfort brands would be foolish to rely on commodity product right now,” said Rick Paterno, president of wholesale better brands for White Plains, N.Y.-based Nine West Group, which produces the Easy Spirit line.

Ami Bar-Nahor, president of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Beautifeel, agreed. “If [women] spend money, they want something fantastic,” he said. “We need to give the customer a reason to buy. She already has the old black pump. If she sees [another], she’ll just say, ‘OK, I don’t need it. I’ll wait another year.’”

Retailer Phil Aved, CEO of Napa, Calif.-based Shoes on First, said a tough economy calls for bolder buying. “Just because it’s depressing out there doesn’t mean the store should be devoid of all color and excitement,” he said. Buying something fresh and fun, he suggested, is a great way for people to lift their spirits. “You’ve got to have some presentation of fashion even though you’re a comfort store. In a downturn, [you shouldn’t] ignore trends.”

With cash-strapped consumers becoming ever more discerning in their footwear purchases, comfort brand Oh Shoes is pushing trendier styles to grab women’s attentions. In fact, only about 20 percent of the Portland, Ore.-based label’s fall ’09 collection will include basics such as pumps, according to CEO Greg Van Gasse. “[Retailers] need product that can hold full price and that’s unique,” he said. “The customer demands newness every season, no matter what.”

Boston-based Aravon is also putting the brakes on basics. “Basics will always be there, but to capture consumers’ attentions, you need something compelling — it can even be a twist on a classic or just a new color,” said brand manager Gretchen Weimer. “You need to be progressive. You can’t just sit around and hope basics will drive your business in a climate like this.” For fall, Weimer said, about 70 percent of Aravon’s assortment will be more trend-driven styles.

To satisfy women’s fashion cravings, Aravon created a small line of casuals under the Traversa name. “It’s more casual — and also more contemporary — than anything we’ve done in the past,” Weimer said.

Dansko, meanwhile, is focused on “making the familiar new, and the new familiar,” with updated materials and details on its familiar clog, according to Mandy Cabot, CEO of the West Grove, Pa.-based brand. “Retailers and consumers need to experience newness on the shelves,” she said. Another key goal is to make the product versatile, she explained. “In these difficult times, consumers want the most bang for their buck.”

Dansko’s classic Professional style in leopard patent has been a top seller for The Clog Shop in Great Neck, N.Y., according to owner Jeff Levine. “The item is a basic, but done in a trendy print,” he said. “I’m aggressively pursuing proven styles in new colors and prints.”

But it’s not just women’s brands that are emphasizing fashion. Eastland, based in Freeport, Maine, is offering more directional looks for men. “We’re definitely more trend conscious for fall ’09,” said men’s line builder Jordan Klein. “With so much competition in men’s and with consumers having less disposable income, we have to push the envelope and offer fresh and compelling product.”

Though Eastland continues to focus on casuals, it is now giving them a more rugged, handcrafted look. Still, Klein emphasized, the company is careful that any fashion newness stays within its brand identity. “We’re still building product that’s recognizable as Eastland.”

Although these comfort vendors are taking a strong stand on fashion, they are not ignoring the core side of the business entirely. “Retailers still need basics — basics still run their business,” said Beautifeel’s Bar-Nahor. But even basics need freshness, he explained, citing the brand’s new fall City Shoes series, a collection of updated tailored looks that will be offered for less than $200 — a new price point for Beautifeel.

Clarks N.A. is making a similar move, with the fall introduction of basic career styles under the Artisan Everyday label. “You have to balance core product and pushing the envelope a little bit,” said Margaret Newville, VP of marketing for the Newton Upper Falls, Mass.-based company. To help anxious retailers, Clarks is taking a strong stock position with Artisan Everyday. “We’re anticipating [retailers’] needs and carrying a little extra in-season core inventory so they don’t have to have as many dollars tied up in inventory,” said Newville.

Bottom line, when it comes to determining whether to go basic or focus on fashion, Andrew Feshbach, president of Big Dog Holdings, parent of The Walking Company, said the decision can be a double-edged sword. “In a down market, consumers will turn to practicality. But you can’t sell them the same thing as last year,” he said. “They’ll be even more disappointed. They want to feel good about their purchase.”

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