Matt Priest, president and CEO of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, opened the 2019 FDRA Executive Summit, held April 4 in Washington, D.C., with a tribute to Fila’s Jon Epstein, who died in February.
The remembrance was fitting, according to Priest, because Epstein knew how to transform his company — a theme for the event.
Several speakers addressed the importance of offering consumers something different as well as making sure brands have a unique point of view.
Case in point: Diane Sullivan, CEO, president and chairman of Caleres Inc., said her company had a successful rebranding because it revisited its history and rediscovered its point of differentiation. Similarly, Columbia Sportswear president and CEO Tim Boyle emphasized how his brand had been rewarded for effectively conveying its unique qualities to consumers.
“Nobody needs another brand of footwear or apparel; there are plenty of companies, plenty of brands,” said Boyle. “But if we’re going to be in that business, we have to offer something different that is recognizable by consumers and by retailers.”
Communicating and connecting with the customer has always been a crucial part of retail strategy, but never as much as right now.
With more product choices and increasingly noncommittal millennial shoppers, many executives spoke about leveraging customer data to make decisions with mitigated risk.
First Insight president and CEO Greg Petro explained the importance of using data to be proactive rather than reactive; Greg Tunney, president of Hush Puppies, reinforced this by talking about the value of data when entering new markets.
But connecting with consumers also means building a brand that they can form an emotional attachment to.
Birkenstock was used as a case study in embracing a brand’s DNA and core customers. CEO David Kahan said he focuses on retaining his niche customer demographic and described the Soho outpost in New York City as a “brand home” rather than a store.
Carren Morris, founder of brand development firm LaunchPad Services, echoed the need for personal connection.
“As a brand and a retailer, you need to work out what the passion points are for the consumer and for the community,” said Morris. “It’s about moving away from experiential retail and getting into emotional retail; you can have an experience that doesn’t bind you to the retailer.”
Transforming the way a business interacts with its customers looks different at each company, but many are turning to technology to make it happen.
Mitch Harvey, 3-D innovation manager at Deckers, spoke of the work his firm does with Sketchfab to integrate 3-D and VR technology into each stage of business.
And at 1Huddle, the priority is keeping employees up to date on skills and brand knowledge using gamified training so they can provide a better retail experience.
“The priority has to be making it as easy and fast and convenient as possible for the customer to get what they want from our stores,” said Ed Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO at Steve Madden and outgoing FDRA chairman.
The uncertainty of the political landscape was an underlying topic of the summit, but there was a unanimous belief that this is a time of opportunity for the footwear industry. Michael Froman, vice chairman and president of strategic growth at Mastercard, spoke about the difficulty of removing tariffs but also suggested that the Trump administration might be able to produce a bipartisan consensus on trade by garnering support for USMCA.
Meanwhile, Nike VP and chief intellectual property officer Margo Fowler called for all brands and retailers to come together to fight the issue of counterfeiting.
“Especially with the executive order this week, I think this is a moment in time that we can seize,” said Fowler. “This isn’t a competitive issue; the more people who can join together, the more successful we will be. I feel optimistic right now that there is momentum and that we can get something done.”
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