A year at home encouraged consumers all over the world to adjust their priorities and put their comfort first. Now, even as the country reopens, comfort remains a critical component when making a footwear purchase — especially for women, who have taken on more than ever. In response to this demand, brands and retailers are reassessing their selections and figuring out how to better serve both their female customers and female employees.
On Thursday, May 27, FN gathered four leading women executives from the footwear space to virtually discuss “Comfort + Women: Why Both Are Leading the Way.” The roundtable was moderated by FN deputy managing editor Jennie Bell and featured stories both personal and professional about navigating the last year, building out female empowerment programs and designing a more supportive future.
Joining Bell was Molly Hartney, chief marketing officer at Rack Room Shoes; Susan Itzkowitz, president of Marc Fisher Footwear; Allison Giorgio, VP of marketing at Puma; and Janice Tennant, chief marketing officer at Merrell.
Highlights of their conversation are shared below:
On Redefining Comfort
Susan Itzkowitz: “I think women had a particularly heavy burden during the pandemic, managing family, managing work, their children, managing finances — the pandemic certainly took its toll on all of us and created an unprecedented threat that made all of us re-evaluate what was truly important to us. Comfort to me now is not a temporary deviation; comfort now is a necessity and no longer a luxury. And I think we all need to create an encouraging space that fuels our body, our mind and our souls. Interestingly, during the pandemic, I think people really started thinking about foot health and realized that foot health has actually a really big impact on health and wellness. When you feel comfortable on your feet, your body will feel good.”
Allison Giorgio: “When we think about comfort as women, that takes on so many definitions. Personally, you can think of it through the lens of: I feel comfortable with who I am, I feel comfortable in the choices that I’m making, I feel comfortable as a mom, as an executive, as a friend. So I think, this past year, our personal definitions of comfort have been looked at differently and that’s been an interesting year for all of us as females and within the industry. But personally, it’s feeling good about who I am, the choices that I’m making, the role that I’m playing as a step-mom, a grandmother, someone in a company, and also just trying to be comfortable with also growing and challenging myself and others around me.”
The Importance of Transparent Communications
Janice Tennant: “During the pandemic, exactly one year ago with the news of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives movement, as a woman of color I had another layer to the stress of the pandemic: I had to process for myself as a black woman, for my two boys in how they navigate this world and I had to process for a lot of my extended family around the country. And so it was a time where I realized the importance of transparency and communication. It was a time of a lot of conversations, a lot of tears, a lot of fears were expressed about how are we going to navigate this? And so transparency became a real thing. And as women, sometimes I feel like we sort of suck it up and charge on, move on, especially in the work environment. And so I had to have a lot of transparent conversations with my leader because there were some days I just was not good. And to his credit, he was really open to hearing the things that I was processing emotionally and mentally to give me the space and the bandwidth to process that.”
A True Team Effort
Molly Hartney: “We want to be there for her, our female customer, so we have to be passionate about what we’re doing. We have programs within the company, we actually just started a new one with cross-functional leaders, which is great. We started this mentorship program, so it is a ‘women in leadership’ group. We’ve just started it, so we’re on the ground floor, but the idea is that we will help women in the workplace and we will help understand where there are barriers that we can help them overcome so they can do their best work — and not only do their best work inside the office, but how can we also help them outside the office. And then in the stores, we get a lot of feedback from our customers, given that we are part of their daily lives, we are on their feet and they are on the go. It’s important that we make sure we listen to trends and understand the [customers]. It’s nice to connect the people and passion inside the office with the people and the passion outside the office that are actually purchasing the goods that we put in store.”
AG: “One of the beauties of working [at Puma] is it’s been a brand that has always strived to be an industry leader when it comes to the women’s space. We’ve always had a heritage of that. When we look internally, I feel fortunate to work for a place that 50% of the company is represented by females, and that’s across all levels of the organization globally and regionally. So we have a good mix and a good presence as females and a good working relationship with our counterparts in gender. So that’s a positive. And over the past four years, I’ve been able to be part of programs and start programs. We have mentorship programs and we have trainings and we have courses on how men and women could be great allies together. Personally, I’m also proud that I got to help establish our first women’s employee resource group just about a month ago. That’s been a long time coming, a personal goal of mine and a great, great group of women from the organization have all banded together.”
On Supporting Working Families
SJ: “Our company is probably a little smaller and we are about 76% women. We are, always have been and always will be a flexible, family-oriented culture. We always provide for work-life balance. We always think about our priorities as our people and that families are always first. How we empower people is really simple: We listen to our people. We take their suggestions, their challenges, we listen to them and we act on them. We regularly amplify our employees’ voices, especially for our female staff. We celebrate the strengths of our people and we encourage them to be who they are because who they are is what makes our company as great as it is. We encourage everybody to be their best all the time — but we also recognize the fact that none of us are 100% all the time and that’s OK. And most importantly, we make sure our employees know that they’re supported, they’re heard and that we’re listening. And very important, based off the fact that we’ve had 12 births this year so far, we offer extremely generous paid leave packages.”
Connecting with the Female Consumer
MH: “At Rack Room, we wholeheartedly believe in real people, real shoes. Pretty simple. We want to make sure that our customer understands that we are here for them and we do that by establishing who is our customer … so anything from surveys to groups in the store. We do generally pulse the area looking at trends and we are talking to her. When I say our associates are kind of our bread and butter, they truly are because they are on the front lines talking to our customers today. And they understand that our customers want frictionless fashion, meaning they want the ease of coming in, they want to be able to shop but we know that if you don’t have a lot of time, we’re going to be there for you. We’re going to allow you to check out quickly, we’re going to give you multiple options, whether that’s buy online, pickup in store or we’ll ship it to you free to your home. We want to make sure there are those value-adds that stand out to her and make her frictionless shopping and her fashion easy.”
JT: “We have access to tools that make it so much easier for us to connect with women, to hear their stories. During this time of COVID-19, it’s one of the things that I’m glad we went through, because it taught us new ways of how to use technology to our advantage. What I’m alluding to is from a research perspective, we were able to do some really interesting mobile ethnographies where we were literally in the living rooms of our female consumers around the globe, from the U.K. to Chile to the U.S. and Canada, and having conversations with them about what they like about outdoor spaces. What don’t they like? What do they like about Merrell as a brand and what don’t they like? Hearing from them first-hand, there is something that is a little bit raw but real and it helps you solidify an action plan and a strategy. Behind the scenes, giving our team exposure to that was a great thing — because things were virtual, we could bring in the product team, sales team, the marketing team to be a part of these conversations. What it’s done is it has elevated the importance of thinking differently about our women’s pipeline, our women’s strategy as it relates to marketing.”
The Future of Comfort
SJ: “Comfort, as we’ve all talked about in the course of this discussion, is what we’re all looking for. It’s what we all need to normalize. And, you know, once upon a time, it was a dirty word. It’s no longer a dirty word. Does that mean that dress is gone for good? Absolutely not. However, women now know they can have both: They can be comfortable, they can wear dress shoes. They can do what they want to do. They deserve it.”
JT: “I’m with Susan, I don’t think it’s going away. When you look at all the other categories in our lives, when we have added a bubble of convenience and a level of comfort, we’ve never gone back. And so I think that this is one of the things that is going to be here for us for a very long time. I think it’s going to be a merging of two different things, a merging of comfort and style. That is going to be the criteria now because people realize that you can have those two things. And that’s what it’s going to take for us to migrate out of this space of functional-only to a place where function really meets the style and fashion of footwear.”