Major markdowns, massive bailouts and government stimulus checks failed to jump-start the economy. Could celebrities be the ones to save it?
Probably not. But a few footwear players are banking on some big names to at least give a small lift to sluggish retail sales.
Brown Shoe Co.’s Fergie and lower-price Fergalicious lines will debut this season. As will shoes from trendsetters Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, who are beefing up their Elizabeth & James brand through a partnership with Steven Madden.
“It’s an added advantage in today’s [retail] environment to have celebrity lines in footwear, unlike in other categories,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y. “They can give a new launch the ability to get an extra set of eyes, from the media, from retailers and from consumers. If [a non-celebrity] brand comes into the crowded market now, it might not get noticed.”
Yet brands would be hard pressed to choose a tougher time to launch high-profile, glamour-driven lines. The economic downturn has forced businesses to lay off employees, created spendthrift shoppers and dragged down overall consumer confidence. In January, for instance, the confidence level fell to an historic low due to worries about further job losses and eroding home values.
What’s more, in axing their own staffs, retailers are losing the sales help that once championed celebrity product. At the same time, they are more reluctant to gamble on unproven lines.
Then why is the industry so excited for the latest wave of shoes from celebrities?
Retailers said celebrity ventures could be the bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape. For starters, they have the ability to draw in consumers. Store owners also said lines backed by stars offer people an escape from their economic hardships. And many consumers, despite having far fewer discretionary dollars, still aspire to emulate the fashions of their favorite stars.
“Celebrity names, without question, help bring customers into the shoe department and help sell the brand,” said Jessica Ulrich, juniors’ and athletic shoe buyer for the 24-store Davenport, Iowa-based Von Maur chain, which carries the Jessica Simpson line and this month will add the Fergie collection.
No wonder, then, that retailers are rolling out the red carpet.
Pop-songstress Fergie’s offering of stilettos, gladiators and sneakers, priced from $89 to $129, is one of the more hotly anticipated lines to debut. And her lower-price Fergalicious line, retailing for $39 to $69, is aimed at the juniors’ market. Company officials said it would reach about 2,000 points of distribution, from independents to big boxes.
“We are so excited about the potential of the Fergie line,” said Rachel Funk, buyer and merchandiser at Shoemall.com. “We know it will be successful because of all the individual successes she’s had, from the Black Eyed Peas to her solo career to her movies.”
Shoemall.com bought 40 different styles, including dress shoes, sandals and athleisure looks.
“Consumers relate to Fergie,” said Gary Rich, president of Brown Shoe’s wholesale group. “They will continue to do so through her art, and she’s constantly on magazine covers and at runway shows.”
But Rich was quick to note that the success of celebrity lines is not just based on elevated exposure. He said it’s most important for the company producing them to be equipped for building a strong brand.
“It’s about product differentiation, conveying the celebrity’s DNA, understanding the target audience and understanding how that works with value and price,” Rich said, pointing to the success of Carlos Santana’s women’s line, which was launched by Brown Shoe nine years ago.
As easy as that sounds, it’s not.
For one, the latest batch of celebrities are competing against a number of notable names, whose shoes already are being sold with varying degrees of success. And so-called “celebrity fatigue” becomes likely as more star-studded product tie-ins are introduced. Ultimately, that can shorten the life span of the products.
So far, though, sales haven’t taken a huge hit, according to executives at a few vendors.
“There is no bad economy when you have good product,” said Joe Ouaknine, CEO of Titan Industries. “Despite all that’s going on in the world, you still have people with money, and they will buy if the product is outstanding.”
Ouaknine should know. The executive’s partnership with Gwen Stefani, the fashion force behind the L.A.M.B. and Harajuku Lovers collections, continues to pay big dividends.
“It is good, clean product with aggressive designs,” said Ouaknine, who added that he doesn’t consider Stefani’s shoes a celebrity line because her name never appears on the product.
Titan could get a further boost this spring, when Ouaknine launches Harajuku Lovers shoes. The collection debuts this month and will retail for less than $100.
Likewise, executives at Ryka said the tanking economy hasn’t triggered a major drop in business for their Kelly Ripa line. They attribute that, in part, to lower prices ($69 to $100) and a strong celebrity connection with women.
“Our numbers show that women want both fashion and performance, not only when they hit the gym but all day long,” said Aiyana Holm, brand manager for Ryka. “Our product offerings, which debuted last fall, encompass her whole lifestyle.”
Ryka also has another advantage: Ripa serves as the brand’s spokesperson and stars in all print ad campaigns and online programs, as well as in in-store promotional materials. And when the host of “Live with Regis and Kelly” does on-air fitness segments, she wears the sneakers.
“Kelly embodies our core consumer,” said Holm. “She is relatable and approachable.”
But that’s not the case for all celebrities. In fact, several retailers warned about stocking up on a star that then falls out of public favor — be it from legal run-ins, sex scandals, drug use or outrageous remarks.
Case in point: Paris Hilton. Many industry observers said that since the socialite-turned-reality-TV-star was freed from prison, she’s kept such a low profile that her buzz factor hardly exists — and few young women seek out her line of shoes.
“Her lines are struggling right now because of where she is in her celebrity status,” said Funk. “She is down-trending. We are picky about who we bring in. We want to generate the same buzz that the celebrity is generating.”
No one understands the ups and downs of celebrity lines better than Fraser Ross, owner of the Los Angeles haunt Kitson.
Ross has bought heavily into designer lines from famous faces, but he said there are more pitfalls with them than payouts.
For instance, last year Ross shelled out $100,000 for Victoria Beckham’s dVb denim line. He soon was down on the label when the former Spice Girl refused to make an in-store appearance.
“If celebrities are not behind the line and don’t want to promote it, there isn’t going to be any selling,” he said. “The shoes and clothes won’t sell themselves. [Celebrities] have to get themselves in front of everyone, whether they’re promoting an album, movie or TV show. It’s the same for shoes. … Too many celebrities are too busy wearing — and then talking about — their Christian Louboutins at events rather than wearing their own brands.”
To that end, Brown Shoe has a comprehensive marketing plan in place to keep Fergie’s sales on track. The company will use a two-pronged approach to its online advertising, in-store signage and events.
For the Fergalicious line, it has created promotional materials depicting the singer as a rock ’n’ roll icon. The campaign for the higher-price line, meanwhile, shows Fergie in a more sophisticated, stylized way. And Brown Shoe also is working on arranging personal appearances for the entertainer.
“But ultimately, the consumer sees the celebrity through their art,” said Rich. “For Fergie, whether she’s on a world tour with the Black Eyed Peas or in the upcoming movie ‘Nine,’ that’s much more powerful than anything. That’s the presence consumers will respond to most.”