As the coronavirus continues to surge across the United States, causing a recession and record-breaking unemployment, industries across the board are faced with upheaval. Particularly in fashion and footwear, companies are working overtime to respond to the challenges, including major disruptions to the supply chain.
From shipping delays to factory shutdowns, shoe brands have had to contend with a number of production issues this year. And as a result, domestic manufacturing has become top of mind once more.
“If there is a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s that it has forced the industry and society to stop and rethink supply chain issues that too many people were too busy — or even just willfully ignorant — to stop and address,” said Tim Gibb, co-founder of flip-flop brand Tidal New York, which makes its product in a low-waste factory in New Rochelle, N.Y. “COVID-19 has brought into stark relief how out of touch the industry and consumers had become to our supply chain and the vulnerabilities that came along with that. What we are seeing is just how unstable an economy bereft of local manufacturing truly is.”
What’s more, recent reports suggest the coronavirus pandemic has caused a shift in consumer behavior, with more shoppers purchasing locally. According to a survey by financial tech company Sezzle, more than 65% of consumers said they are more likely to buy American-made products during COVID-19. And some brands are seeing the impact firsthand.
“We are absolutely seeing a shift in mindset amongst consumers,” said Gibb. “However, we feel that this evolution can’t be entirely attributed to COVID-19. If anything, the pandemic accelerated socially conscious trends that were already well underway. The general understanding of local production has moved from a spirit of nationalism to one of very much having a stake in environmentalism and ethical business practices.”
Sara Irvani, CEO of Okabashi — which manufactures its sandals in Buford, Ga. — said she believes transparency is what is now attracting consumers to made-in-America brands. “People want to support companies that are helping their communities,” she said. “This appreciation of made-in-the-USA, I think it’s going to stay, just as I think that this appreciation of community and support for smaller, family operated, value-led businesses is going to continue.”
Despite overall industry challenges, Irvani said Okabashi has seen double-digit growth year to date. She credits that to being able to manufacture on demand, plus its USA factor and the fact that the shoes are machine-washable.
Southern California-based Rainbow Sandals said its made-in-America products have always resonated with shoppers, and the demand hasn’t slowed due to COVID.
In fact, VP of marketing Pat Huber said that during the shutdowns, the brand’s online orders increased beyond the team’s capacity to fulfill them. “All of our wholesale accounts canceled their orders, so once sandal season started, we noticed that our customers still needed our product and could only find them online,” said Huber. “I, personally, have spent the past three months working in the warehouse seven days a week working on fulfilling these orders. [Now, furloughed workers] are back and accounts have been placing orders, so we’re finally getting a chance to catch up.”
Similarly, Chaco, which makes sandals in Michigan, also reported that site traffic and engagement are up significantly year over year, though director of marketing Josh Weichhand credits much of that to the brand’s newest collection, the Chillos Slides, which were marketed for at-home wear. Weichhand said that nearly 80% of Chillos purchasers are new customers.
“We intentionally positioned Chillos — an ergonomic athletic slide — for lounging, working from home, or as recovery footwear. That message absolutely connected while most consumers were staying home, and we’ve been able to capitalize as a result,” he said.
Weichhand added that consumers also have connected to Chaco’s commitments to support local communities and first responders with personal protective gear. In March, Chaco’s factory pivoted and turned its sandal production to mask production. Customers responded in support by preordering 8,000 pairs of custom footwear and accessories, he added.