Milestone: Mix Mastering

Famous Footwear’s product strategy is largely a work in progress.

Over the past 50 years, the retailer has grown its product lineup to more than 800 brands, including classic Converse All Star sneakers and caged-in, stiletto booties from Steve Madden. Now, Famous Footwear is focused on establishing itself as the top destination for family footwear by tapping into the some of the market’s biggest trends and elevating those categories in its stores.

“We shift our dollars and our buys based on where we think the customer is going, and that’s one of the advantages of our business model,” said Rick Ausick, president of the Famous Footwear division at Brown Shoe Co. “[Offering] men’s, women’s, kids’, athletic and non-athletic [product] allows us to look at all opportunities. It’s really up to us to decide how we invest [across categories].”

To that end, Famous has focused on identifying emerging categories, most recently in the wellness and toning arenas, and building an assortment of brands that are in high demand among consumers. The current mix of toning shoes, for example, includes 90 men’s and women’s styles, from Skechers, Reebok, New Balance, Avia and Brown Shoe-owned Dr. Scholl’s.

“More people are paying attention to their health and living better,” Ausick said.

While toning and wellness has emerged as one of the industry’s fastest-growing categories, the broader idea, Ausick said, has revolved around building a portfolio of labels that meets all the Famous consumer’s footwear needs. The strategy, he said, came together nine years ago as executives were looking for ways to bolster the business.

In the years since, Famous has shifted from a dominant athletic perspective to add in fashion, dress and comfort brands such as Rocket Dog, Kenneth Cole, Florsheim and Aerosoles, among others.

“They have really balanced out the assortment,” said Rocket Dog CEO Cathy Taylor. “If family shoe stores want to be competitive today, they need to be a little more fashionable. [Famous has done that], and it’s opened up so many more opportunities for them.”

Now, the store is not only able to capture a broader audience but sell more than one category to the same consumer, said Will Smith, SVP of marketing at Famous.

“We are able to service her on multiple levels,” Smith said. “When she’s [in the store] looking for fitness [styles], she might also see one of our boots, or something else for her or her family and decide to get that, too.”

Brown’s own brands — including Fergalicious, Dr. Scholl’s, Naturalizer, Libby Edelman, Franco Sarto and Famous Footwear private label Connie — make up about 18 percent of the store’s offering, but Ausick said buyers weigh all brands equally. “Obviously, it’s a benefit to our profits to [include Brown brands],” Ausick said, “[but] we wouldn’t feature them in our store if we didn’t think it was a right fit.”

While the majority of the names carried at Famous retail for $40 to $180, consumers don’t define value by price tag alone, Ausick said. Convenient and easy-to-access locations, a nationally recognized name and an expansive brand mix that caters to several footwear needs are also factored into the equation.

“All those things add value,” Ausick said. “Mom can shop for the entire family at one time.”

The chain also has weaved its product strategy into a complete lifestyle story through its signage and in-store experience.

Large, nationally recognized names such as Nike, Skechers and Naturalizer are played up in store displays to connect consumers to the brand, said Brown Shoe President and COO Diane Sullivan.

“It’s about storytelling and appealing to her and her family,” Sullivan said. “[Executives] think about where they want to place bets on trends. That can be helpful [to the consumer] as she finds what she is looking for.”

For that reason, fostering relationships with brands has become a key piece of the Famous Footwear business model, Smith said. Executives regularly meet with vendors to discuss trends, marketing strategy and how the merchandise should be displayed in stores. That commitment, vendors said, is one of the retailer’s greatest strengths.

“It’s a mindset and part of their culture, which is very refreshing,” said Jay Piccola, president and GM of Puma North America. “It is really one of the best partnerships in the industry.”

“Famous has been a great partner in growing the Vans business through … strong in-store visual execution of our brand message,” said Chuck Ponthier, director of sales at Vans. “Their early and continuing commitment to action sports has enabled them to become the national destination for Vans in the family channel.”

And while store executives and brand vendors have been pleased with sales at Famous, which has seen double-digit increases from this time last year, Ausick said he’s hardly complacent as 2011 approaches.

“The customer is fickle,” he said. “We don’t take anything for granted.”

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