Retailers Are Banking On Spring To Boost Sales

Will the new season finally bring retailers some relief?

After a tough winter season, stores across the country are reporting a strong start to spring, boosted by an early Easter and unseasonably warm weather in many regions. “If early indications are anything to go by, we expect a great season,” said Audrey Aguilar, owner of the Old Greenwich, Conn.-based women’s boutique Lily. “There seems to be a lot of pent-up demand, and our customers are looking forward to leaving heavy winter shoes — and moods — behind.”

In a quarterly earnings call earlier this month, Debbie Ferrée, vice chairman and chief merchandising officer for DSW Inc., touched on the newness that’s re-energizing the market. “The products that are doing well haven’t been in the customer’s closet before,” Ferrée said. “[There is] a lot of newness in the flats category, which had been stale for a while.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the dominance of athletic. “The athletic trend is still very strong, [as is] our sandal business,” said Rick Ausick, division president of Famous Footwear. “[There has been a] nice lift in sports sandals, athletic-branded sandals, as well as some of the footbed sandals — Birkenstock and the like.”

Athletic styles also continue to fuel sales for Rack Room Shoes. “We are pleased to see all our traditional athletic partners benefitting from this [trend], with Nike, Vans, Converse and Skechers driving the largest increases,” said president and CEO Mark Lardie, citing the chain’s recent launch of a dedicated in-store concept, The Athletic Shop. “We also are seeing a large seasonable business increase, with sandals and canvas [shoes] projected to have a [strong] year.”

At Atlanta-based children’s store Sprong, owner Stephanie Teichner is feeling equally optimistic. “Based on business so far, we’re off to a fantastic start,” she said. “The weather has helped — this time last year, it was still cold. And Easter being so early has had a positive impact.

Sprong recently relocated to a busier, higher-visibility shopping center, which has resulted in new customers. Teichner said she’s selling sandals and flip-flops from Reef, Rainbow and Sanuk, as well as Mini Melissa jelly shoes, Cienta canvas Mary Jane styles and Plae sneakers. Italian-leather driving mocs by Atlanta Moccasin, a new brand for Sprong, have been popular as well.

“The winter inventory issue is finally subsiding, albeit with remnant cautious buying posture by retailers that are licking their wounds,” said Jeff Van Sinderen, an analyst with B. Riley & Co. LLC. “Although there is still some merchandise left to be cleared, much has been moved through and the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.”

Sales have been brisk for Sole Desire Shoes, a women’s fashion-comfort chain with 17 stores in California. “Customers are buying multiple pairs of new spring shoes. Gillies and cork footbed styles are flying off the shelves,” said director Phil Aved, citing popular labels such as Cobb Hill, Birkenstock and Sabrinas. “We are definitely counting on a bigger spring than last year. Business is already ahead of plan, our selection is better, and we have six new stores opening, which will add dollars.”

Alex Rudolph, owner of Towson Bootery in Towson, Md., also anticipates a healthy season. “We think we’ll be ahead of last year. The weather has been warmer earlier, and we have a fabulous product assortment,” he said. In the store’s adult category, best-selling brands include Dansko, Naot, OluKai, Born and Birkenstock — particularly styles that are “comfortable, reliable and good for travel,” Rudolph noted. Top brands for kids include Pediped, See Kai Run and Plae, with an emphasis on water-friendly and machine-washable product.

Farther south, in the Carolinas, where temperatures this month have soared into the mid-80s, retailer Freddie Rodgers said her three Tootsies Children’s Shoes locations — in Charlotte, N.C., and Columbia and Greenville, S.C. — have skipped right over spring. “We’ve moved straight into summer product,” she said. “We’re selling sandals and outdoor styles from Keen, Teva, Chaco and Salt Water. Washable canvas shoes also have been popular. For the preteens, Nina and Ugg have some great wedges.”

While the weather’s been on their side, retailers said they are also bullish about spring’s stepped-up product offerings and some exciting new trends emerging after several seasons of sameness.

“We already have a strong read on some sandals, slip-ons, flip-flops and fashion sneakers,” said Margot Wasserman of New York-based Tip Top Shoes. “We’re super excited about Birkenstock, Nike looks really fresh, and Skechers is huge for us right now.”

At Sole Food in Seattle, some styles are already selling out. “Customers seem really excited about our selection — and it’s encouraging them to buy,” said Amie Morales, buyer and manager. “They know that if they don’t scoop it up when they see it, it will likely be gone when they come back.”

Isack Fadlon, co-owner of Sportie LA, had a cloudier outlook on spring: “We are expecting a flat season, year over year. Consumer confidence does not seem to have improved significantly.”

To drive traffic, the retailer has launched a billboard campaign in Los Angeles that celebrates its long history in the city, with the slogan “Sportie is LA.”

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