Italy’s small and medium sized footwear companies accelerated their digital strategies during the pandemic — and those efforts are beginning to pay off, especially in key markets like China.
Exhibitors at Micam’s spring ’22 footwear trade show at Milan’s Rho Fairgrounds — which wrapped today — said first half sales were salvaged by buoyant performance of digital sales in the absence of tourist shopping and an overall spending slowdown.
“Major markets like China are balancing themselves. We’re seeing a shift. They used to travel and now they want to buy at home. And despite the pandemic, sales generated from China were up 106.4% compared to the first half of 2020,” said Tommaso Cancellara, Micam’s CEO.
After a 12-month hiatus from the physical fairs, exhibitors were eager to return to face-to-face meetings. Some 652 brands, of which 262 were from overseas, exhibited at the show. Morale was higher, though the number of exhibitors still pales in comparison to pre-Covid norms of 1300 exhibitors and 2000 collections.
Spanish sandals brand Alohas, which took part in Micam’s emerging designer showcase last year, books about 80% of its sales online and 20% through its wholesale channel. Its Instagram marketing and the success of its unique on-demand fashion model driven by its monthly drop collections has boosted sales in markets like the U.S., which represents 40% of its sales.
“Our wholesale business is also growing fast, and to create a deep relationship with clients, we need to get to know them in person,” said Alejandro Porras, Aloha’s founder and business developer, who underscored the importance of physical fairs over digital ones.
Last year, Micam, launched a B2B digital platform to enhance its exhibitors’ digital capabilities by partnering with California-based tech firm NuOrder.
“Buyers can get to that last step of ordering,” said Cancellara. He added, however, that high-end buyers will always need to “touch the leather.”
Across the board, the Italian footwear industry is in the midst of a hard-earned recovery. But “pre-pandemic levels remain out of grasp,” according to Italian footwear consortium Assocalzaturifici.
In the first half of 2021, production rose by 13% and revenues rose 22% compared with 2020, according to a report compiled by Italian business association Confindustria. Compared to 2019, however, sales and production are still 5% and 15% lower respectively. The industry has shed 5,000 footwear and components industry workers since the start of the year.
In terms of exports, volume rose 24.8% between the months of January and May, while in value terms, exports surged 31.5% versus the same period a year earlier.
Exports of small and medium sized companies have also been helped by tech startups like Italian Artisan, which has built a sustainable ecosystem by linking premium brands worldwide with Italian factories and artisans in just a few clicks.
“Minds have changed as the sector continues to digitize and small and medium sized companies embrace a phygital format,” said Italian Artisan founder David Clementoni. He noted that the organization doubled its sales in 2021 compared to its 2020 levels.
Other digital-tech players distinguished themselves for innovative personalized services that resonate on a global level. For example, the customization project launched in 2020 by Seriplanet, an Italian-based screen and digital printing company, takes personalization to another level and also helps brands resurrect deadstock from previous seasons into something completely original.
“We want to offer this opportunity to buyers, a service that was once reserved solely for big groups,” said sales director Lorenzo del Biondo, explaining that the goal is to put the consumer in direct contact with stylists. “We want to revolutionize the process by employing a drop shipping method — print in one day and send it off.”
Imanol Martínez Gomez, marketing and international business development director for FICE, the Spanish footwear industry federation said that like Italian businesses, Spanish players had to move quickly to amp up their digital capabilities.
“We had a four year plan, that was condensed into 12 months,” Gomez said. “The focus going forward is digital, establishing more efficient pricing, working closely with retailers and leaner management and production methods,” Gomez continued, noting that Spanish brands, like footwear players globally, have been hit with an increase in raw materials, up about 30% from a year ago. Italian brands echoed this, noting steep hikes in calf hide prices and a four-fold increase in shipping prices due to restrictions and shipping bottlenecks from China and in the Suez Canal.
“Our strategy going forward is to select retailers carefully and try to support them with credit lines, while planning marketing events and physical trunk shows in the US,” said Karl Schlecht, owner of Parabiago Collection, which owns Theirry Rabotin.
The usual space dedicated to Micam’s emerging designers showcased items from 12 creative designers, including Italy’s Alessandra Balbi, Oakland, CA-native Marcus Thomas of Marcus Alexander, Brazil’s Ammabile, Spain’s Momoc, O.T.A. Paris, Sri Lanka’s Thread, Skua Studio from the Netherlands, Umoja from Guinea and Congo, Nigeria’s Titi Adesa, Pakistan’s Meher Kakalia, Syria’s Daniel Essa and India’s Jerelyn Creado.
Meanwhile, Furla made its Miam debut as part of a renewed focus on its footwear category as a part its core business.
“Omnichannel, technology and innovation are the best ways to reach our customers… and the new generations who have a more digital approach to buying new products. The online facet of our business will need to represent 30% of our sales by 2025,” said Mauro Sabatini, Furla’s CEO, noting that the company’s relaunched footwear collection was motivated by forecasts of ample growth potential of the sector into 2025.
In terms of trends, Uberta Zambeletti, owner of iconic Milanese concept store Wait and See, noted a rise in chunky platforms and square toes in both sandals and closed-toed shoes.
“I was happy to see bright pastels and metallics and very juicy sorbets in the neon range,” mused Zambeletti, who launched her digital platform in March 2020, last year, investing heavily in Facebook and Instagram marketing. “Digital saved us, with 45% of our sales generated from Instagram worldwide. We closed 2020 with a mere 19% drop compared to 2019, our peak year. I am delighted to say that the US market is growing, and is now our second market — after Italy.”