Will a Cool Blast Boost Fall?

NEW YORK — It’s a wait-and-see sort of fall.

Retailers told Footwear News their expectations are modest for the rest of the season and largely will count on cooler temperatures to drive sales. “The mindset hit that ‘fall is here and [I need] to get my fall wardrobe.’ When the weather was still hot, it really didn’t matter,” said Justin Siegel, president of Pittsburgh-based Littles Shoes. “But when fall weather broke three or four weeks ago, business started to take off.”

John Vavalo, owner of J. Michael Shoes in Syracuse, N.Y., agreed, adding that he is optimistic about the opportunity to move winter boots left over from last year.

“If the cold weather hits, people will be more desperate for product because they didn’t buy any boots last year,” he said. “I have a fairly good feeling. We’re going to have winter sooner or later, and that’ll be a shot in the arm for sales.”

Retailers also are trying to entice consumers by offering merchandise early in the season.

Carol Harvey, co-owner of Hansel & Gretel in Wilmington, Del., said, “I’m not expecting business to pick up until the holiday season, but we’re putting all product out earlier than before. If they’re not buying, they’re at least already looking.”

Over at Sound Feet Shoes, which has six doors across North Carolina, owner Benny Hopkins noted that October sales on boots are picking up after a slow September. To preempt the holiday season, he plans to put more boots on display earlier and may consider selling them at a reduced price, as 20 percent of his boot inventory went unsold last season.

“People will be ready to spend the money they saved [last year] on coats and things like that,” he said.

As far as boots are concerned, hot brands are Ugg Australia, Sorel, Steve Madden, Vince Camuto, Frye and Hunter, retailers told FN. Casual brands Toms Shoes and Vans also have a lot of traction.

Meanwhile, Dr. Martens, Jeffrey Campbell and Minnetonka Moccasin are flying off the shelves at Lorin, on Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., where owner Zeke Vurgec was one of the most confident retailers FN spoke to, saying he’s “in the midst of the best fall selling season in the store’s history,” thanks to tourists who are driving the bulk of sales this time of year.

“We have tourists from Japan to Saudi Arabia, and when they come here they want to buy as many Ugg boots or Toms shoes as they can,” he said.

Larger retailers such as Lord & Taylor also are optimistic. Liz Rodbell, EVP and chief merchant for parent firm Hudson’s Bay Co., noted that while boots continue to be a major driver for the department store in the fourth quarter — and will continue to be the hot item — “what’s a lot of fun is the ballet slipper and smoking slipper, with lots of studding creating tons of excitement.”

For their part, analysts appear uncertain about whether the season will ultimately bring cheer or gloom.

Susquehanna Financial analyst Christopher Svezia noted, “We had a great back-to-school season, which was above expectations for most, but things have slowed somewhat since then. Whether it’s the timing of product launches or hangover post-BTS, or political, macro or weather [issues], I can’t put a finger on it. But October is generally one of the slowest months of the year, and a cold snap will help.”

Deborah Weinswig, an analyst at Citi Investment Research who issues weekly sales reports based on data from Weather Trends International, said, “Note the very cold temperatures this week, [which should be] great for fall merchandise sales. Next week may be another story though.”

For the month of October, WTI expects weather conditions to be slightly warmer and drier than last year and have a mixed impact on retail sales.

One thing’s for certain, though: Fewer sales promotions are expected this year over last.

“As long as business is going well, we don’t plan to put anything on [sale],” said Little’s Shoes’ Siegel. “We go to Europe and try to find things that no one else in the area has, which keeps us away from that price-conscious consumer.”

Sound Feet’s Hopkins noted he’s “trying to be optimistic and wait until the elections are over. In the back of people’s minds there’s uncertainty about who will be president, and that always has an impact on shopping patterns.”

Kate McShane, analyst at Citi Investment Research, also predicted lower year-over-year promotional levels overall, which bodes especially well for athletic specialty retailers’ margins.

She singled out Steve Madden as being “trend-right, with strong offerings in boots and booties and consistent traffic trends.”

Svezia concluded, “Most retailers are keeping inventory pretty clean. No one got heavy on cold product. However, if it’s 70 degrees through all of October, it could change things. It’s still very early in the season.”

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