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Coronavirus Is Forcing Shoe Sales Reps to Drastically Shift Strategy — Here’s How They’re Selling Product Now

Road warriors. The term is taking on new meaning as sales reps who canvass the country visiting accounts are rethinking their selling strategies as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

Store visits have been replaced with Zoom presentations, while trunk shows and sales associate tech sessions are being put on hold as retailers and vendors find new, safer ways to do business.

Candy Herrington, southeast and southern sales rep for Lines of Denmark, which distributes Ilse Jacobsen and Rollie, has decided to resume store visits beginning in June, traveling by plane to Texas and Florida.

“I will be playing it by ear,” she said. “The whole landscape of selling will be different. Some people will want to be seen [in store], while some will go to trade shows. We also have lots of tech materials people can access on our website in regards to product information and marketing materials.”

Since Herrington’s territory includes cities not as hard hit by the virus, travel will be less restrictive. “Most of my territory is pretty open, not like New York and Chicago, so it could be easier,” she said.

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While Herrington will be making the retail rounds, she won’t be hosting trunk shows at the present time due to social distancing issues. However, anticipating those rules will relax, she’s currently coordinating with an account to move a trunk show originally scheduled for May to December.

At Emu Australia, the company has developed an alternative to traditional trunk shows typically presented by sales reps whose travel plans may be put on hold. According to Keith Barnett, president of North America, who oversees sales, it’s created pre-packaged kits to send to stores this summer providing an opportunity to hold their own Emu kids’ events in adherence to local safety guidelines.

Stores will be able to integrate the brand’s global “Wild Things“ promotion, offering young customers the opportunity to color its Little Creature face masks and try on Little Creature boots. In addition, the kits include gift-with-purchase items such books and stuffed animals.

Social media has also proven a valuable selling tool for Emu Australia. Prior to the pandemic, sales reps had created individual wholesale Instagram accounts to help drive regional business. “We were ahead of the curve with social media,” said Barnett. “The importance and productivity of this initiative has been turbocharged due to COVID-19.”

In lieu of store visits, reps are also turning to trade shows to connect with accounts. Bill Monahan, account manager for Camtrade Footwear and president of the Northwest Shoe Travelers, said he expects the group’s August show in St. Paul to be well attended since most reps and retailers are located within a 250-mile radius and can drive to the event. However, he noted, it’s still uncertain if the convention center where the show takes place will have reopened by August.

Steve Mahoney, SVP of sales for Earth Brands, is taking a wait-and-see approach to trade shows. “We’re in a holding pattern to see how some of these regional shows develop,” he said. “On the one hand, we will rely on those even more than in the past, but it’s a very dicey situation,” noting FFANY and MICAM Americas might move their summer show dates.

For retailers still hesitant about attending large-scale events, Earth’s reps are connecting with them through the use of technology. According to Mahoney the company will be turning its New York showroom and Waltham, Mass., headquarters into virtual showrooms with reps on hand to present the spring ’21 line to customers through Zoom or Teams.

Like Mahoney, Glenn Heidkamp, president of sales for J. Renee Group, will be taking advantage of virtual selling, using its headquarters in Dallas, Texas, to present product. “We’ve already held two presentations for larger accounts,” he said, adding, they get better each time. The company is also working on introducing a virtual B2B catalog. “We have a lot of core items we run for multiple years,” he explained — although even those are tweaked each season.

According to Heidkamp, since these presentations cannot always take the place of a store visit, this week he started traveling to accounts in the southeast, including his home state of Georgia where stores have reopened. However, he emphasized, “My visits will not be to sell product. I’m going to stores I’ve known for decades to see how they’re doing since reopening.”

Also checking in with customers is Hillary Hickmann, regional manager, footwear for Aetrex, who covers the western U.S.  “Right now, I’m trying to stay connected with text and phone messages, but keeping things on the personal side,” she said.  “I don’t think my accounts would feel comfortable [seeing] someone who just got off a plane. They have enough to contend with keeping employees and their customers safe. I would not want to put one more worry up against them when they’re trying to do business in a new way.”

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