5 Questions for Gary Champion

Earth Inc. is redefining its position in the comfort universe. Once best known for its iconic 1970s negative-heel Kalso Earth Shoe, the company has since added lifestyle-driven looks aimed at satisfying an array of customers.

“We believed there was a miss in the marketplace for fashionable [comfort] shoes that give women a good supportive footbed,” Gary Champion, president of the Waltham, Mass.-based firm, said about moving beyond the Kalso wellness looks. “It’s a niche market with a loyal customer. We [couldn’t] reach a lot of people with Kalso.”

Earth Origins, a value-driven line that retails from $60 to $80, was introduced in 2008 and accounts for the lion’s share of the business.

But since Champion joined the company in 2009, following stints at Geox and Clarks, he has been broadening the assortment.

In 2011, the firm launched Earthies, a sophisticated trend-driven collection priced at $149 to $180 for spring. And in 2012, it added Earth Footwear, contemporary casuals retailing for $89 to $120.

Although each collection is meant for a different consumer segment, all are comfort based, according to Champion. “It’s the DNA that runs through [all] the brands,” he said. “It’s the heritage and roots of our business.”

The varied product assortment and price points access a wide range of retail channels. Champion noted that Earth and Earthies are targeted to full-price independents and specialty stores, while Earth Origins is focused on big-box stores. The Kalso collection, he added, has found a sweet spot in the Northwest region of the country, as well as in independents in Midwest college towns.

Aided by its string of brands, Earth Inc. saw revenue jump 23 percent in 2013 over the year prior. Sales for 2014, said Champion, are running 32 percent ahead of last year. If business remains on course, he predicted the company might introduce accessories and men’s footwear. “Earth could move into a lot of different avenues: bags, cool clothing, even organic jewelry,” Champion said.

Here, the longtime shoe exec talks about staying relevant and navigating the digital world.

As a retro label, how does Earth connect with younger consumers?
GC:
By [keeping] the Kalso name and the original box [design], we’re making a clear statement that negative heels are important to our history. However, for those women who don’t remember Kalso, it can [also be an advantage] since we’re trying to rebuild what Earth means. We do [emphasize our history] in all avenues of marketing, with social media — a fantastic platform — as well as through in-store associates training and trunk shows. All the grassroots things [encourage] word of mouth about the brand.

Lots of companies use the term “comfort” today. How does Earth demonstrate its capabilities?
GC:
It’s a confusing market out there. Through visual cues [on the product], we can pull out the technologies we put into the footbeds. You can put thicker foam in the footbeds and it will feel comfortable, but when we start building up the arch support, you can see the pillow [highlighted] by a stitch design. There’s also a [contoured] heel and padding under the forefoot. There’s always something to visually look at in our footbeds, so people [see] there’s something in that shoe.

Does customer feedback impact the way you do business?
GC:
We learn from our customers. Zappos.com is probably the best at sharing [consumer reviews]. Not all are going to be perfect. You don’t always get high marks or excellent reviews. There are [customers] with different size feet and different problems. If we get three stars or below, we’re not pleased. We’d like to see 3 1/2 to five stars. If we have a 2 1/2-star shoe out there, we call our logistics center and ask them to send up a case of them so we can see what’s going on — let’s put them on some feet. We take it very seriously. Another good place for feedback is the sit-and-fit independent retailer.

What does it take to successfully sell shoes online?
GC:
There’s a lot you can say about a shoe online and what it can deliver. Sometimes e-tailers ask us to write copy, while others do it based on our specs. [But first] you have to make sure you’re building a comfortable shoe. Either a customer [has previously worn] the brand, or they heard of it and want to try it. We [design] a shoe so customers initially will love the styling — the lines and upper pattern. The true test, however, is when they put it on their foot and it delivers what we said it would.

As a comfort veteran, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the category over the years?
GC:
There are more brands and fewer places to sell them. It’s important that independents continue to experiment with new brands since it can give them a competitive advantage. They understand how to compete in this environment. As an independent company, we have to be strategic about how we approach the market and how we’re spending money. What Earth Inc. founder Michel Meynard did very well was bank his money, driven by the cash put in the business from the beginning. We have no long-term debt and we’re self-funded.

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