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Cole Haan Is Aggressively Expanding Into New Categories — Inside Its Strategy for the Year Ahead

As the pandemic rapidly reshapes consumer behavior and preferences, Cole Haan is aggressively expanding into new categories.

The American heritage brand late last week entered the tennis category with the ZerøGrand Winner, designed with dual-density cushioning in the midsole and a mesh upper in a silhouette that pays homage to the sport’s classics. The debut comes only a month after the company stepped into golf with the ØriginalGrand, GrandPrø and Generation ZerøGrand styles.

But the launches were in the works long before the COVID-19 health crisis pushed Americans to prioritize more active and leisure lifestyles. Cole Haan — recognized for its dress and office shoes — had already been experimenting with materials and designs to amp up its athletic and casual offerings.

“We saw the casualization of the workplace happening, and we realized that consumers wanted versatile products that were also stylish and comfortable, and they didn’t want to compromise on any of those things,” brand president David Maddocks told FN. “We hypothesized rather successfully that we could make a product that is stylish enough to wear in those 23 hours of the day and yet performs in that one hour a day exactly as you need it.”

While the expansion into golf marks more of a back-to-basics moment for Cole Haan, whose co-founder Eddie Haan patented golf shoes nearly 80 years ago, the move into tennis was made with today’s younger, urban and more on-the-go professionals in mind. The brand also entered the athletic performance footwear space back in June last year with the launch of two dual-gender styles: the ZerøGrand Outpace and ZerøGrand Overtake running shoes.

“Pandemic aside, the rules for how people wear products has completely evolved — so the idea that you could wear something on the field of play but also off has completely changed,” said chief creative officer Scott Patt. “You can still find what you’re looking for from our brand within the breadth of product that we have, whether it’s within the casualization of things or from a performance perspective.”

In the months ahead, the company intends to build out that running line, while entering new performance categories. (It declined to share more details about those categories.)

“For golf, all three styles are resonating, [plus,] one of the great successes over this pandemic has been our ZerøGrand All-Terrain shoes, which were built for an off-road environment but are very much an urban type of product,” added Patt. “And our tennis [products] are already seeing some good results, so we’re excited to see how that builds.”

According to The NPD Group, golf and tennis were two of the performance markets that saw a surge in sales over the past couple years: In the first quarter of 2021, golf equipment and footwear revenues improved a respective 86% and 64%, while the same sub-categories for tennis advanced 65% and 37% versus 2019 levels.

“One of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic is a renewed and heightened commitment on the part of the consumer to get and stay fit. We’ve seen a massive boom in sales of sports equipment during the pandemic,” said Matt Powell, senior industry advisor of sports at the market research firm. “At the same time, consumers are still trying to remain socially distant. Golf and tennis are two sports where consumers can get fit and remain relatively socially distant.”

What’s more, the brand is doubling down on its physical portfolio: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cole Haan opened more than 40 outposts around the world — including its first GrandShøp in the U.S. last March. The 940-square-foot unit, located in the heart of Silicon Valley at the Westfield Valley Fair shopping mall, ushered in a new wave of tech-enabled brick-and-mortar stores for the brand.

Nine months later and more than 5,000 miles away, Cole Haan introduced arguably its most innovative addition to the GrandShøp family: the concept store on Cat Street in Harajuku, Tokyo. The two-story location, which debuted in early December, features high-tech flourishes like a second-floor window with a transparent LED screen and QR codes found throughout the interior.

“That’s a good example of the kind of experience that we want to bring to consumers both through shopping and through product,” Maddocks said. “Every region has its appropriate model, and while we’re going very fast into global digital, we can’t ignore the fact that customers also want that tactile experience. Ultimately, the relationship is both digital and terrestrial.”

Beyond geography, Cole Haan is also looking to diversify its channels. According to the executives, while a growing number of brands are whittling down their lists of retail partners to narrow their direct-to-consumer focus, the company is still betting on wholesale. In fact, its new golf footwear recently rolled out in 120 Dick’s Sporting Goods and Golf Galaxy stores, and the brand plans to introduce its tennis offerings at more chains across the country.

“You’ll see us continue to look for authentic partners to invite in to help express to consumers our point of view as well as theirs,” Maddocks said. “You’ll see us continue to expand across commercial wholesale channels as well as our own, and you’ll see us continue to democratize the brand through partnerships like the one we have with Kohl’s.”

He added, “The Cole Haan brand is known by so many generations. It’s truly an American icon. We’re stewards of it, and we’re just modernizing the conversation so that it can go on for another 100 years.”

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