World Footwear Congress Examines What It Takes to Run a Successful Footwear Business Today

The most recent edition of the World Footwear Congress wrapped up on Friday in Naples.

Held in Italy for the first time since its debut in 2003, this event put the focus on “Digitalization for a Sustainable Footwear Industry.”

It aimed to address what Cleto Sagripanti, the outgoing president of CEC, the European confederation of footwear manufacturers, described as “serious topics, pivotal to our companies’ survival and their continuous growth.”

The event, which ran April 3 to 5, attracted 300 industry heavyweights hailing from 15 international countries, including the U.S., China, Brazil, Spain and Italy, among other regions.

A series of roundtables and keynotes spotlighted the issues the industry is facing, including sustainability — seen as a business opportunity — and the digital revolution.

As Diego Rossetti, general director at Italian label Fratelli Rossetti, put it: “A company is really digitalized when it doesn’t have a digital department anymore.”

Here are the three key takeaways from the congress.

Always Be Ahead of the Curve

Dietmar Dahmen, who has worked as chief creative for advertising companies such as Ogilvy and BBDO, and is now a consultant, described today’s scenario as the survival of the fastest. “It’s just a matter of speed,” he said.

“At the end of the day you need to be in constant movement to sell better, to do better, yet you don’t have to lose your identity, [because] the customer will identify that,” echoed Pablo Badía, general director at Madrid-based fashion label Delpozo.

Andrea Carpineti, founder of Design Italian Shoes, a web-native company selling personalized footwear to 42 countries worldwide, said the brands offering the most innovation will emerge at the top. “Our mission is based on a rapid service, as we are able to deliver a customized shoe in just 10 days, and we’re working to bring it down to just three days,” Carpineti explained.

Being ahead of the curve also means handpicking the right team. “Choose your partners carefully; there’s no business with bad people,” deadpanned Fernando Porto, co-founder and chief creative officer of Brazilian eco-friendly shoe brand Cariuma.

Organizers of Milan footwear trade fair Micam, the main sponsor of the 2019 World Footwear Congress, also understand the importance of anticipating the market’s needs. “The trade show on its own is useless these days,” said Tommaso Cancellara, Micam’s CEO. “Being a physical space with physical products, trade fairs often lack in technology.”

How can events become more digitally savvy? “We can use our assets to match offer and demand, even before manufacturers and buyers hit the fairgrounds,” Cancellara said. He noted the trade show format is compelled by today’s challenges to embrace a “Netflix-like mindset.”

Data Decodes Customers, and Storytelling Arouses Them

Knowing your customers by age, gender and spending power is already key to the footwear industry. But companies must also engage them with stories they want to listen to.

“Having the data is nothing, but using the data is everything,” Dahmen said, noting companies should enhance their ability to listen. “Your business is the customer, not the product,” he said.

Chinese luxury e-commerce platform Secoo is already thinking in those terms, according to Maria Amelia Odetti, the company’s head of business development. “What differentiates Secoo from other [luxury e-commerce] players is that it’s Chinese, meaning it speaks to Chinese consumers in a way others don’t. We do a lot for the brands we partner with, in terms of collecting data of our customer base.”

Nicola Antonelli, web project manager at Florence, Italy-based e-commerce company LuisaViaRoma, said the team develops an idea in English, and then it is translated according to the language and cultural mindset of the other countries the retailer targets. He added the same strategy applies to social media, particularly in China, where the company opened its Weibo and WeChat accounts in 2014.

Social media plays an important role across regions and segments of the market. “Through social media in the last 10 years, we were able to keep in touch and produce content [in collaboration] with our customers. It was cheaper than if we had created it by ourselves,” Antonelli explained.

The emotional ingredient of a luxury purchase is core to Kiton’s approach. Antonio Paone, the company’s shoe division general manager, said, “Everybody buys products online today, but there are some items that still require the direct physical contact.”

Sustainable Products Are Good, but Good Products Are Better

As the millenials and Gen Z customers demand sustainable products, speakers at the conference underscored that an eco-friendly approach is not enough to drive sales. 

Today, the topic is becoming stronger in the food and automotive industries, but when it comes to footwear and fashion, there’s a misunderstanding on how much sustainability can pay back. Customers need to buy shoes that are attractive designwise. In my opinion, some members of the sustainable fashion world are becoming a little bit too extremist,” noted Juan De la Peña, founder of green footwear brand El Naturalista. He noted that in the U.S. in particular, customers are price-sensitive.

Ana Maria Vasconcelos, CEO of the Belcinto green footwear company, said companies must give as much information about their products to consumers as possible.

“[Marketers] scratch the surface of the topic but not the whole story, so customers don’t know what that really means,” Vasconcelos said.

To this end, De la Peña said footwear players in the sustainability game must be authentic. “If a company is going green for marketing purposes only, in the long term, the consumers are going to punish them,” he said.

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