1. Since being named to your leadership role in February, what have been your main objectives?
I want to develop a stronger relationship with our key independents. I like to spend time in the field, building relationships and engaging people in conversation about product and how we can [improve]. I plan to develop a program whereby Ara can [connect] with consumers through our retailers. It’s about direct engagement.
2. As a Germany-based brand, how does Ara compete on this side of the pond?
The North American consumer is looking for dress and casual comfort product she can wear to the office and evening out. So the collection is becoming more contemporary, resulting in our business being up more than 53 percent year-to-date. And there’s new management [driving the changes]. Ralf Schlachter now heads design, and his impact and vision have sparked the design team to play with cutting-edge materials that we haven’t seen before.
3. What has been Ara’s biggest challenge in the U.S. market?
We allowed ourselves to become known for a specific type of product that was functional and basic such as black flats and Gore-Tex boots. Now, we’re pushing the boundaries, especially for spring ’17. We want to become more balanced and [increase] our spring business over the next five years. It will require a leap of faith from retailers. It means we have to do our homework and get the styling right. Due to [the updates], we’ve opened seven new sit-and-fit retailers on the West Coast.
4. How does e-commerce fit into your selling strategy?
Ara is not your typical Euro-comfort brand due to all the lasts and constructions we have. While we embrace the Internet, our challenge is how to convey the fit of our product to consumers online. Our eggs are in the basket of the independent, but many of those stores are closing, leaving strong markets without a footwear source. In parts of Tulsa, Okla., and the Midwest, you can’t find a comfort store. While we’re not a direct-to-consumer business, we have e-commerce partners that are able to service those consumers.
5. With a history that dates back to 1949, what have been some of Ara’s biggest hits?
There’s the Rachel, a kiltie slip-on introduced about 15 years ago and sold exclusively in the U.S. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it look that pays the rent. Some customers have it in three, four or even five material and color mixes. We also have the Bel ballet style on a low heel and the Bella ballet flat on a sport bottom. They’re different looks and our customers [own] both.