Fresh Product — Not Playing it Safe — Is How Shoe Brands Will Boost Spring ’21 Sales

The shoe industry may be in the throes of navigating its way through the COVID-19 crisis, but spring ’21 is already in the air. While some retailers may be tightening their open-to-buys due to leftover merchandise and an uncertain economy, many vendors are nonetheless moving forward with full-blown collections in order lure customers back into stores.

“Great product always finds open to buy,” said David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock Americas, about increased consumer demand, especially for iconic looks, during uncertain times. “We’re able to take a powerful, iconic silhouette and bring innovative detailing to it so the consumer can update their wardrobe and still purchase something timeless.”

For fashion-comfort brand Sergio Tomani, it will also be business as usual when it comes to its spring offerings. “I already have sketches,” said Charles Glick, sales manager for the Colombia-based collection. “It will be every bit as strong as in the past. The company is not cutting back in the least.”

Like Sergio Tomani, Ecco is moving into spring ’21 with a strong product line-up reducing its SKU count by only 10%. According to Felix Zahn, product director for Ecco USA, while some accounts have decided to delay previewing the spring ’21 collection, “Some department stores and e-commerce players were hungry and eager to look at new product,” he said.

John Casper, president of Optimum Footwear Group, which distributes a trio of Euro-comfort labels in the U.S., agrees now isn’t the time to be cautious when it comes to introducing new product — although he’s seeing mixed strategies across brands. According to Casper, while El Naturalista and Art are planning to offer their usual spring assortments, Camper is taking a more conservative approach and cutting back on SKUs.

“It’s polar opposites on how they’re interpreting the situation,” he said, skeptical of brands that are attempting to play it safe.  “You need freshness and innovation in order to grow.”

Although size-and-width brand Walking Cradles is not scaling back on product creativity, it’s shaving its product offerings slightly in anticipation of spring ’20 inventory issues. According to Lisa Schmitz, director of marketing and creative development, “We’ve created prototypes as we always do, but undoubtedly more will be cut this year due to overstock from spring ’20.” However, she noted the company expects the issue to have greater impact on brick-and-mortar than online retailers with access to a larger consumer base.

Like Walking Cradles, Consolidated Shoe Co. is heading into spring ’21 more conservatively. “We’ve taken this time to focus on the direction and future of the business,” said Cam Knight, COO and head of product. “The impact of the virus on the economy will take some time to recover. That being said, we’re only developing focused assortments necessary to drive the sales we expect for spring ’21.”

As brands reevaluate their product investments for spring ’21, Frank Cammarata, president and principal of Camtrade Footwear, said the company had already been in the process of fine-tuning its offering prior to COVID-19. “We’ve been doing a lot of R&D and learned a lot in the past two to four years,” he said, about cutting back on the styles in its Secret Celebrity and Soft Comfort lines targeted at big-box stores, as well as the Enjoiya collection aimed at better independents.

“Our need to provide hundreds of SKUs to [determine] who we are and where we want to go isn’t there anymore,” he said. “Our identity has been established more proficiently over the last few years. There are less SKUs that are more meaningful and powerful. We will focus our efforts on new, youthful constructions.”

For high-end comfort brand Mephisto, less may be more as it looks ahead to spring. “We’re in a pretty good position because we’re not trying to reinvent ourselves every season or chase the new fashion trend,” said Rusty Hall, president of Mephisto USA, noting its business is typically evenly divided between new launches and core offerings. However, for spring ’21, the company is reducing the mix to 30% new product.

“There are some retailers out there that are going to pull back to their roots and sell what they know they can sell, [others] need some freshness,” said Hall. “Even on core items, they’ll want a new color.”

Laura Fish, merchandising manager for Spring Footwear, which balances its business with new seasonal styles and in-stock items, agrees brands can’t play it too safe if they want to move forward. “We get new colors in our core looks and even tweak a basic item,” she said, about continually updating its tried-and-true styles.

Added Rachel Carmi, co-owner and head designer for Bernie Mev, “We’re always offering new product, that’s our job. We must have something new and exciting for consumers.” However, she added. “We’re lucky to have a great core collection of styles that people keep buying. It’s [our] bread and butter.”

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