NEW YORK — Retailers spent most of The WSA Show balancing high hopes for an economic rebound with the sober reality that consumers could continue their penny-pinching for many more months.
Several buyers told Footwear News at the show, held in Las Vegas July 31-Aug. 2, they were optimistic that shoppers would return to healthier levels of spending by next spring, but many merchants had already dramatically altered their buying strategies to adapt to weakened consumer demand.
Some retailers said they planned to buy less than in prior seasons. Others would dip into lower price points.
Tamara Vladic, owner of Deliciouz in Walnut Creek, Calif., said she was being pickier about ordering brands for her store. “I’m being smart about how I buy,” she said. “I’m doing different styles from designers that work for me instead of taking risks on a new name, unless I really, really believe in it. I’m not going to try things out the way I used to.”
What’s more, Vladic, who carries brands such as Chie Mihara, Calleen Cordero and Jean Michel Cazabat, said she also is bringing in slightly lower-priced footwear lines, including Corso Como and Pour La Victoire.
Serena Robb, owner of the two-store chain Shoe, in Reno, Nev., and Lake Tahoe, Calif., also fine-tuned her approach to shopping the show for spring.
“I’m buying less from the more expensive [segments] and more from the middle,” said Robb, who focuses on mainly bridge-priced women’s shoes. But, she noted, she is not decreasing the number of styles. “I need to keep my stores full.”
Jeff Jacobsen, women’s footwear buyer for Hall’s, a two-store specialty chain in Kansas City, Mo., said he, too, is cautious about spring and planned to buy less than he did last year.
Despite the reined-in approach to buying, many retailers reported seeing signs of an improved economy, including fewer large-scale corporate layoffs, increased durable goods orders, a rallying stock market and a slight rise in home sales.
“The economy is turning,” Vladic said. “But it’s going to be a slow recovery. My customers are coming back. They aren’t spending like they used to, but they want to see new product.”
Steven Vianest, operations manager of The Shoe Box in Boca Raton, Fla., said he also is optimistic about spring and believes other store owners — and consumers — are counting on a better season at retail. “It’s been a bad time,” he said. “And people want to put those times behind them. I definitely think it’s more positive out there now.”
Still, Vianest’s colleague, Sean Kirschenbaum, VP of The Shoe Box, which has seven New York locations and one in Boca Raton, said he is not sure what to expect for business in spring ’10. Although, he is hopeful things will improve — or at least not get any worse. “You certainly want the sales increase, but if you’re flat, you’re OK,” said Kirschenbaum, who was buying mostly fall product during WSA.
To keep sales strong, online retailer Andy Shriner, of Clearwater, Fla.-based Whatapair.com, said he would venture into new areas of women’s fashion. “We are looking for less glitz and embellishment,” he said. “We want hand-tooled footwear with soft leather uppers — more of a 1970s look.”
Shriner said that to take on large e-tailers such as Zappos.com, he tries to source new brands at WSA and is even looking to add higher price points to his primarily mid-tier merchandise. “We want to be first with new brands and styles. That’s how we compete with those ‘big boxes’ online,” he said.
One category that is gaining traction with Shriner’s customers is health and wellness footwear. He said the Shape-Ups line from Skechers has been a strong performer. “We sold through 100 percent of our stock in 10 days,” Shriner said. “I haven’t seen a sell-through like that since the 1980s.”
Tip Top Shoes owner Danny Wasserman keyed in on another trend: shoe bottoms.
He predicted cork and natural wood bottoms are going to be a standout trend for spring ’10. “Bottoms will be a huge factor in the fashion world for the next year,” he said.
Shara Movahedi McIntyre, buyer and manager for fashion-comfort store Hedi’s, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., said vendors were showing fresh, colorful product at the trade show. “There are new textures and colors,” said McIntyre, who expects her business for next spring to rise about 15 percent year-over-year. “[Brands] are stretching their designer legs [and not playing it safe in the ailing economy]. [Vendors] are coming out with something new. Consumers will be excited about the product.”
One retailer looking to spice up its product mix was Office, the popular U.K. footwear retailer. Branded buyer Helen Povey and chief executive Brian McCluskey said they were hunting for lines not available in England.
Other retailers said they weren’t impressed with the spring offerings, noting that there is no must-have product in the marketplace.
Jeff Greenberg, owner of Lloyd’s Shoes in Carmel, Calif., was among them. “Some of the good brands have some good items, but I haven’t seen anything ‘wow,’” he said. “In the [women’s] business, you have to be willing to update your mix at any time.”
Greenberg noted that there is a gap in the market for ladies’ footwear in the $100-to-$160 range. “Brazil is making shoes in the $40-to-$69 space, and China is doing the same thing,” he said.
Mark Goldstein, owner of the Madison and Diavolina boutiques in Los Angeles, was also unimpressed with WSA. He said his team gathered details on several collections, but didn’t place any orders.
“We need to see more,” he said. “If there’s something we need, we’ll buy it, but right now, we’ve got a lot of boots coming in and the season is just starting. There wasn’t a lot of great inspirational spring stuff.”
Still, a large question loomed over retailers: How promotional will next spring be?
Wasserman said he does not expect promotions to be as prominent for the season and instead believes retailers will work on shorter margins and not rely on sales that slash prices by as much as 70 percent.
Meanwhile, Deliciouz’ Vladic anticipates another round of markdowns, particularly when the larger department stores cut early and deep.
Yet others want to remain promotional, but not on price. For Hedi’s, that means more trunk shows.
“They can get consumers excited,” said McIntyre. “Promotions are whatever brings people into the store.”