The Rockport Group might have new owners, but it’s staying true to its roots as an innovator in the comfort space.
The company, which owns Rockport, Dunham, Aravon and Cobb Hill, was acquired by Charles Bank Capital Partners in August 2018. Now, helping to move the firm forward is Javan Bunch, who was named president last November following the appointment of Gregg Ribatt as CEO.
Today, the flagship brand’s business is divided between independents, department stores, family chains and e-tailers in the U.S. — and more than 3,000 international points of sale mainly in Asia and Europe. “Our consumers around the world are consistent in their desire for footwear that’s technology-based and relevant in styling, while there are unique nuances geographically,” said Bunch.
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To better understand shopping patterns, Bunch relies on Rockport’s retailers. “Our partners on the ground at the grassroots level tell us every day how the customer is living and what they want,” said Bunch. “It’s our biggest challenge but also makes the job so much fun. No one here lives in a vacuum, nor do we want to. We have to have a relevant impact on a large customer base.”
At Schuler Shoes, CEO Alan Schuler said he is optimistic about Rockport’s new leadership, noting positive changes such as expanded inventory in sizes and widths. “They have been a great partner and willing to work out problems and we appreciate that part of our relationship,” he said.
Here, Bunch talks about the importance of technology, the shift to casual dressing and appealing to younger consumers.
FN: Consumers of all ages are putting comfort at the top of the list. Is this shift helping you attract younger shoppers?
Javan Bunch: “Believe it or not, 50% of our customers are under 50. One of our large investments is consumer research — understanding who the consumer is, what they want and how they’re thinking. Today we have a lots of ways we can listen to them, including by [interacting with them personally] and through more high-tech customer relationship management tools on our website, which gives us rich data.”
How does Rockport balance its domestic and foreign businesses?
JB: “International business is a little less than half of our overall business, with the largest [portion] coming through company-owned subsidiaries in Japan, Korea and the Iberians, in addition to a network of 30 distributors. While our consumers around the world are consistent in their desire for relevantly styled, technology-based comfort footwear, there are unique nuances geographically. [Consumers] might lean toward dress in Korea versus the United States, and a slight lean toward more black shoes than colored shoes in Japan.”
More and more brands are touting comfort. Who is Rockport’s competition today?
JB: “Our research shows 70% of customers who try on a pair of our shoes buy them. I believe our investment in technology is critical to our competitive positioning. We stake everything on the repeat purchase. However, when it comes to competitors, I look at the entire market. They’re also [considered] collaborators, because we’re all delivering this wonderful product.”
With a history in the dress-comfort category, how is Rockport addressing the growing athleisure movement?
JB: “Dress has been a heritage part of our collection. Our partners have really identified Rockport with dress. Even if it’s a smaller [business], they’re doing it with us. However, more than 50% of our business today is non-dress, and it’s growing every quarter. How we address it may not be through performance athletic shoes, but instead dress-casual, casual-dress, call it what you will. It has technology [built in] and is the next step from the dress-casuals we invented 40 or 50 years ago.”
How connected are the Rockport, Cobb Hill, Dunham and Aravon brands?
JB: “Cobb Hill was established as a standalone brand. It has a loyal customer base in terms of independents and end-use consumers. It has a more artisan look and its own development and sales teams. Aravon and Dunham also have their own brand propositions. While Aravon offers foot wellness, Dunham is a 100-year-old boot business started in Vermont. While our wholesale partners realize they’re all part of the Rockport family and that a larger organization provides stability and [gives them] confidence, I don’t think the end consumer knows [the connection].”
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