Buy Now, Wear Now Is Gaining Traction During the Pandemic

The shoe industry might finally be embracing buy-now, wear-now in a more serious way.

Fueled by the recent pandemic, which forced many retailers to postpone their fall orders, in-season selling could become the new norm.

This retail approach, agree industry insiders, curtails the need to put goods on sale early in the season when there’s still plenty of wearing time. And many cash-strapped consumers continue to take a wait-and-see approach to buying.

“Well before the pandemic smashed the pause button on the shoe business, we had longed for bringing in goods closer to season,“ said Dan Ungar, owner of Mar-Lou Shoes in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s abundantly clear that shoppers are more inclined to buy as they need more so than when they want. The virus is making this consumer behavior more ingrained.”

The veteran retailer noted Mother Nature has also been a player in the story, as seasons get pushed back. “Warm weather seems to be lasting longer into fall and cold weather is lasting into March,” continued Ungar. “Global warming or not, the cycle of buying habits is different; seasons are starting later. If we continue to receive goods weeks before the consumer is ready to buy them, then we’re creating our own markdowns unnecessarily so.”

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While brands offering trend-driven or seasonal product are on a tighter selling schedule, casual and comfort brands offering more basic styling afford retailers more selling leeway.

According to Justin Orrell-Jones, president and CEO of Finn Comfort USA, core items such as the brand’s sandals, which sell year-round, are available in-stock, allowing stores to order on an as-need basis. “If we decide to have some seasonal stock, we’ll buy it accordingly and it will sit on our shelves until needed,” he said. “We also work with stores regionally, bringing in product much earlier for accounts such as Happy Feet, a Florida chain we work with on deliveries.”

While independents are more likely to delay the delivery of goods to avoid early sales or promotions, a business model typical of department and chain stores, Orrell-Jones said these retailers still need to compete with e-tailers that are known to get goods in front of consumers early in the season. “No one wants to get left behind,” he said. “If an independent has a customer walk into their store and say, ‘I’ve seen this,” they don’t want to lose that customer. We try to communicate with [these] customers the style is going to be out there. However, we’re very strict about our MAP pricing.”

Like Finn Comfort, Spring Footwear puts retailers in the driver’s seat due to its in-stock position. “Retailers are also very conservative and scared of inventory and don’t want to take big positions,” said CEO David Ben-Zikry, about the company’s ability to ship goods on a dime.

Bob Napoleone, owner of Sole Mates in Rochester, N.Y., is navigating his way through the buy-now, wear-now approach by working with vendors that are flexible regarding delivery times. If companies offer to ship goods earlier than agreed upon, yet hold payment until the original delivery date, Napoleone’s on board. “Getting a shoe earlier does two things,” he said. “My [staff], who are all [trained] fitters, have a chance to work the shoe and do some pre-season selling which is a good thing,” he said. “We can also make decisions about the fit, color, and whether people are buying it.”

On the flip side, he noted, “If you took in everything too early and didn’t cycle goods, your customer can get bored. Some of my vendors look at me like I have three heads. There’s no way they can ship me all at once since we’re only half a million people here. I have regular customers stop in and they like to see what’s new and nice to rotate something up front.”

While women may want to snag a hot item early on, men typically buy in season, according to John Florsheim, president and COO of Weyco Group, makers of the Florsheim brand. “The reality is that, especially in the men’s business, consumers buy in real time,” he said. “They’re in market for sandals maybe in May, probably in June, and definitely in July, and frequently the season extends into September. In the past, large retailers took markdowns early, which forced the entire retail market to discount by mid-June.”

This year, however, with the shutdown, Florsheim noted sandals are just getting to retail and the brand is seeing strong sales throughout the market at pretty good AUR’s (average unit retail). “We’re hoping that the learning that is currently taking place about when and how we can sell sandals will help shift the calendar to a bit later and longer season,” he noted. “There’s no need to take deep markdowns before the key weeks where the consumer is really interested in buying occur.  We’re all for moving the promotional calendar to be more in line with when the consumer is actually in market buying seasonally appropriate footwear.”

Shifting seasons, however, will take a village. “It will take bold moves by retailers my size to push back markdown periods and receipt of new goods,” said Mar-Lou Shoes’ Ungar. “If vendors flow their goods according to new season realities, I believe independent retailers will stand to profit and the vendors will as well.”

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