Sperry wants to dispel notions that it’s strictly about boat shoes and become known as a four-season brand. That’s why president Rick Blackshaw is committed to building the boot business and introducing more casual styles throughout 2017.
A few years ago, boots accounted for about 5 percent of the business, and now the category is a quarter of overall sales. “We’ve done a great job of diversifying our offering and gaining acceptance at the consumer level,” Blackshaw said. “We’ve been focused on driving our operating margins and creating excitement around the brand.”
While the move into other categories is starting to pay off, Sperry — owned by Wolverine World Wide Inc. — had a rough run in 2016. Sales were down for the brand during the first three quarters of the year.
To assert itself as a year-round force, Sperry must deliver innovative styles that are different from the rest of the outdoor pack, according to the brand’s retail partners.
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“It’s a competitive field right now, so the shoes have to offer something that you’re unable to get from another vendor,” said Lester Wasserman, GM of Tip Top Shoes in New York City. “As a retailer, we have x-amount of spaces to fill.”
Matt Powell, VP and global sports industry analyst at The NPD Group, described the current state of the overall boot market as lackluster and said Sperry has the opportunity to shake things up.
“One of the reasons the boot business is not so good right now is there’s not a lot of fresh ideas,” he said. “This is a fashion business, and being safe is not necessarily a winning position. If they came up with something fresh, the consumer might gravitate to it.”
Ahead of this week’s Outdoor Retailer show, Blackshaw talked about building the boot business in 2017, key product offerings for the year ahead and how high-profile associations with events such as the America’s Cup will bring Sperry back to prominence.
Sales were down throughout much of 2016. How does Sperry right the ship this year?
RB: It’s about how we diversify the business. We want to reinvent the boat market with our 7 Seas collection — our foray into athletic. For back-to-school, it’s about continuing to win share in the classic vulcanized space. And we’ve got an incredible foundation and growth driver in boots — particularly on the women’s side. Now how do we leverage that on the men’s side and start to put together some strong quarters going forward? It’s got to be done through high-profile associations with things like America’s Cup, [the sailing race] which has 1.2 billion eyes on it.
Boots are a newer category for the brand. How is it performing?
RB: Now that there’s actually snow in the air and cold weather, boots have been fantastic [in recent weeks]. We’ve had particular success on the women’s side with our Saltwater collection. We’ve also seen some success with some of our fashion boots and on a smaller scale with the model called the Powder Valley, which has the Vibram Arctic Grip. It’s a great technology that the consumer has jumped on.
How much emphasis and importance will Sperry place on boots this year?
RB: We are going to seek shelf space for wet weather, cold weather and fashion assortments. On the men’s side, the interesting model is called the Cutwater, the modern version of a men’s duck boot: It’s lightweight, has a siped outsole and is fashion-forward in terms of our branding, which is pretty pronounced. We’ve also got the Cutwa- ter Chukka, which is a sneaker boot that we’re excited about. On the men’s side, we’ve got all of our traditional, casual moc-toe leather boots that have always been strong performers for us.
Who is Sperry’s competition?
RB: It depends on the product category. In boat shoes and casuals, it could be a brand like Timberland or Cole Haan. If you look at some of our vulcanized offerings that college students are enamored with, then we find ourselves on the same shelf as a Converse or a Vans. In boots, it’s a pretty broad competitive set — L.L. Bean comes to mind. And then as you get to 7 Seas, the active premise of that, it spins us into some of the larger athletic players.
How has your background at Keds played into your role with Sperry, where you’ve been for the past two years?
RB: These incredibly meaningful brands both have strong emotional connections to the consumer. It’s about how you build on those connections, how you differentiate yourself from other brands in your competitive strata and how you create excitement around the brand and broaden the scope and awareness.
What has surprised you about Sperry and its perception in the market?
RB: Walking in, you might have said, “It’s a preppy boat shoe brand,” and certainly there is that attraction in terms of it’s a classic and clean silhouette. The consumer is receptive to seeing us do new things; that’s what’s most gratifying. Three quarters of the folks we talk to love or like Sperry.