Letter From the Editor: Lasting Love

Women have always had a special relationship with shoes. But over the past decade, the bond has strengthened as designers, retailers and manufacturers have demystified what makes the union so special.

Fueled by the ascent of the big-name designer, the high-gloss exposure of “Sex and the City” and other fashion-conscious media — as well as a rising tide of younger, more fashion-focused shoppers — the love affair has taken on a life of its own.

Last year, the marriage proved to be a lifesaver. 

While the ardor may have been dampened temporarily by the economic turmoil, the numbers prove that it takes a lot to get between a woman and her soles. And that incredible passion has helped the shoe industry move through one of the most difficult and challenging periods in recent memory.

When a French TV crew interviewed me last week for a documentary on the unique relationship between women and their shoes, the questions ran the gamut from fashion to fetishism, impulse buying to shopping addiction. Over the past month, the director had filmed a number of designers and shoppers. She was stunned by the complex relationships that were revealed — so much so that she considered turning the documentary into a series!

Many of us in the industry tend to underestimate the dynamics at work here. Unlike apparel, shoes provide a low-anxiety high on contact. While body image plays a huge role in clothing purchases, it has little or no impact on shoe sales. A woman’s foot will stay much the same size throughout her life, regardless of weight swings and other issues. More important, shoes add power, instant sex appeal and can transform the most basic look into something extraordinary.

That, combined with the industry’s current offering of the most creative and diverse trends, virtually assures that every woman will find a variety of attractive styles. From flats to towering stilettos, running shoes to boots, the options allow a woman to pick shoes that reflect her mood, her taste and her personality. And, particularly at the high end, many women view luxury footwear as fine art that should be collected and preserved.

So how can the industry fan the flames of this intense love affair? And how can retailers tap into the powerful relationship between product and passion?

Let’s start at the top. The influential designers seem to know the real secret to both a woman’s heart and her checkbook. Yes, beautiful designs, lavish press coverage and personal appearances all crank up the excitement level. The industry’s most glamorous names — Giuseppe, Manolo, Nicholas, Christian, Bruno, Pierre, Brian and Tamara — know that image is everything. These high-voltage personalities manage to be just accessible enough to put an elegant face on their brands and also keep their devoted following wanting more.

But for many of the labels that fall below this rarefied air, the connection is more challenging. Moderate brands must work harder to get close to their customers. Social media, clever print and online marketing, celebrity placements and runway exposure are all key elements to keep the glam factor and demand at a high level.

Retailers big and small also need to keep pushing the passion. Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman have relied on shoes during the recent retail dry spell. To varying degrees, they have had success experimenting with new sales and marketing models that include private shoe parties, charity benefits and customer events. They have learned that desire can be stoked through flash promotions, smart personal shoppers, attention-getting e-mail blasts and chic trunk shows.

E-tailers have their own set of challenges with females. Too many offer the same environment for both men and women. While others, including Net-a-porter and Gilt Groupe, have found a large following by employing very different tactics. Gilt’s limited-access sales strategy and Net-a-porter’s elegant editorial context represent two solid points of connection for women shoppers in today’s marketplace.

But too many selling floors and online sites fail to embrace a female aesthetic. Often designed by men, they miss many opportunities to engage women with the right mix of presentation, information, selling technique and marketing.

It’s time to address those needs across the entire retail spectrum. The industry as a whole would be wise to listen more carefully to the biggest and most devoted legion of shoppers.

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