NEW YORK — Footwear retailers and vendors are increasingly turning to the Web to sell their wares, and the new initiatives couldn’t come at a better time. A recent spate of Website upgrades — or, in some cases, launches into ecommerce for the first time — have peppered the market during the past six months, including DSW.com, Nikestore. com, CharlesDavid.com, NeimanMarcus. com, KeenFootwear.com, SportChalet.com, Rockport.com, Macys. com and JCP.com, as well as the upcoming relaunch of ToryBurch.com, among others.
These forays are well timed because, in addition to taking advantage of the holiday selling season, consumers of all ages are getting increasingly comfortable with the Internet as a shopping medium.
Meanwhile, as the economy remains challenging, shoppers are more often turning to the Web as a research tool to find the best prices. And for some footwear firms, online sites are among their most profitable and fastest-growing divisions.
“Everyone is reevaluating their business,” Christa DePoe, GM of outdoor brand Keen’s online division, told Footwear News. “Even three years ago, the Internet consumer was still limited, but now we have our parents and even grandparents shopping online. If you’re a retailer, if you don’t have a presence online, you’re going to get lost in the dust.”
Gerald Barnes, EVP at Neiman Marcus Direct, agreed. “People have realized that online shopping is here to stay, and it’s not going to replace brick-and-mortar because it’s a totally different experience. It doesn’t steal from it. It can enhance it,” he said. Kelly O’Neil, director of product marketing at ATG — a firm that helps vendors and retailers, including DSW and Tory Burch, build and run e-commerce Websites — noted that retailers are closing brick-and-mortar stores, but the Web has become the place to reinvest those dollars. “The strength and reach of the 24/7 [capability] of the Web means people are looking at the Internet differently,” she said.
“The Web has optimized the convenience of shopping.”
Indeed, it’s a common misconception that people only shop online for the price advantage, noted Nachi Lolla, research director for commerce at Nielsen Online.
“Our surveys show the No. 1 reason is convenience. The lifestyle of the American consumer really facilitates [the Web] for a convenient shopping experience.
Combine that with the economic situation, the [high] gas prices throughout the year, and it’s convenience as the one-stop shop,” he said.
The proof is in the numbers. According to Forrester Research, among the U.S. population, 88 percent of consumers who use the Internet have made a purchase online. Total online sales are expected to hit $335 billion by 2012, which would be an increase of more than 90 percent from 2007, when it was $175 billion. Though footwear sales are not specifically broken out, online sales of apparel, accessories and footwear combined are forecast to hit $26.6 billion in 2008 — versus $22.7 billion in 2007 — and rise to $41.8 billion by 2012, Forrester said.
Realizing the potential, several footwear and department store chains are now better poised to take advantage of this shopping movement. Adding cutting-edge technological features — including videos, improved site search and customer reviews — are the main reasons firms are now choosing to update their Websites, a recent Shop.org survey found. Neiman- Marcus.com, for example, upgraded its 9-year-old Website in mid-September, adding a consolidated area called NMInsite for all the site’s videos, blogs and special features. Previously, videos lived in specific online boutiques. Now, Barnes said, the videos are easier to find, and customer response has been favorable.
Other NeimanMarcus.com updates included a “widening” of the site to a higher resolution to better show off product images; an improvement of the “You May Also Like” feature to display additional product similar to the item being viewed; and the addition of online versions of the retailer’s catalogs.
As for footwear, Barnes said the retailer’s updated site highlights shoes that complement the shopper’s chosen products. “If you’re looking at flats, you get to see more flats. If you’re looking at pumps, you get to see more pumps. Even if you’re looking at one [shoe], you get exposed to a bigger assortment,” he said.
At Keen, the brand launched on Nov. 12 what it calls Hybrid Shop at KeenFootwear. com, its first U.S. direct-to-consumer push (the 5-year-old brand has only one retail store in Prague). The driving force behind the initiative was to take the brand’s motto of “making it easy to do business with Keen” to the Web.
Said DePoe: “When we stepped back and asked … ‘What do we want to be,’ we realized [the Web] is a customer service [tool], to be able to offer your product on the Internet. It’s so commonplace — people want to see what a brand has to offer; they want to see and learn about the brand.”
The desire to display its entire brand lineup and create a community for Keen devotees is so strong that the Website even reroutes shoppers to online retail partners where they can also buy product, which could mean Keen itself misses out on sales. That doesn’t bother DePoe, though. “We really owe our business to our retailers,” she said.
One of the Hybrid Shop’s site features, called a product-to-product link, funnels shoppers directly to a retail partner if a specific size is not available at the online store. “We land them right on that size. They don’t have to scour through the partner] site [to find the right size],” DePoe said. And despite the links offsite, the Hybrid Shop is seeing “great conversion [rates] out of the shopping cart,” DePoe said, adding that so far it’s rare that consumers abandon merchandise placed in their carts.
DSW launched its first e-commerce Website in June. Powered by ATG’s Commerce Suite, it boasted 175 brands and more than 2,000 shoes.
ATG’s O’Neil noted that at DSW.com, the volume of product is one of the site’s best features. Whereas shopping in a DSW store can be overwhelming, she said, “the Website does a good job of narrowing and filtering.” Users can search by size, brand and color.
While still evolving, DSW.com has one unique feature: its luxury designer boutique section, which O’Neil said displays shoes as a collection to enhance exclusivity. “What’s unique [about the designer boutiques] is the breadth of selection,” said O’Neil, adding that the overall selection is akin to those of high-end department stores, but at DSW prices.
A combination of needs drove recent updates to Nikestore.com. An October relaunch centered around giving “consumers even better and faster ways to find customizable, exclusive, must-have product, with improved navigation and search function,” Chris Shimojima, Nike’s VP of digital commerce, told FN. Nikestore.com originally launched in 1999.
Improvements, according to Shimojima, included product zoom capability to enable shoppers to see more detail; easier checkout navigation; added customer reviews; and a video component that shows Nike athletes and designers discussing product technology. Nike said recently that Cyber Monday, the Monday following Thanksgiving, was the firm’s biggest online selling day to date, with revenues jumping more than 40 percent year-over-year.
“This not only creates an interactive experience, it allows us to engage with the consumer on a whole different level about the product,” Shimojima said. Updates on a host of other Nike Websites, such as Nikeplus.com and Nikewomen. com, are forthcoming.
At another sports-oriented fi rm, Sport Chalet Inc., two phases of a new Website rollout began Nov. 24. Phase one features a refreshed SportChalet.com displaying winter sport and holiday gift offerings available in its stores, said Craig Levra, the firm’s chairman and CEO. Online sales are not available at this time.
Then, this spring, Sport Chalet will launch its fully renovated Website, roughly 10 years after its first e-commerce site debuted. Under phase two, Levra said, “our customers will be able to interact with athletes through online interviews, access information about different sports and view instructional product materials.” E-commerce will be reintroduced and feature easier navigation, the addition of customer reviews and improved customer service.
“Technology has improved considerably over the years, with a corresponding reduction in cost. And as a result, retailers are now able to do a lot more with their Websites,” said Levra. “As more customers shop both online and in our stores, the data we are able to collect through an upgraded Website can help in understanding our customers’ purchasing decisions and also in reaching new customers.”
Charles David took a slightly different route for its first e-commerce foray, which launched on CharlesDavid.com Nov. 25, to take advantage of the holiday selling season. The brand partnered with well-known shoe retailer Zappos.com. Under the agreement, Zappos owns all the inventory and runs the site’s back end, including customer service, while Charles David handles the creative angle.
“Zappos is a service company that sells shoes. We’re a shoe company, that’s all we do. So what better match-up than with Zappos,” said Lauri Carlton, president of wholesale at Charles David, who noted the brand was one of the fi rst to sign on with Zappos.com when it launched nine years ago.
Carlton said Charles David (a wholesaler that also has 25 brick-and-mortar stores) recognized the need for an e-commerce presence because of the breadth of online shoppers these days and because of the brand’s dedicated consumer, who, despite economic woes, has not been deterred from spending upwards of $300 for a pair of shoes. In addition, as a Web savvy person herself, Carlton recognized that consumers enjoy the comfort of shopping from home.
“The Internet shopping experience has become such a phenomenon in terms of a personal experience. You’re sitting one-on-one [with your computer] in the cozy comfort of your big chair. It’s your experience,” said Carlton. “No sales person is pressuring you.”
Despite their newest online launches, these retailers and vendors acknowledge that constantly updating their Websites is paramount to success in the online world. “The technology is moving so fast,” said Keen’s DePoe. “Just when you think you’re ahead of it, someone will see it and then everyone is doing it. It’s a never-ending [combination] of creative and technology.”