Germany-based women’s comfort brand Ara has emerged with a fresh design direction that’s attracting younger consumers. And with a new executive joining its leadership team, the North American division is taking steps to capitalize on the moment.
In late June, industry veteran Bruce Kaplan joined Ara as EVP. He told FN he was lured into the job by Sam Spears, president of Ara North America, during a casual Saturday phone call. The two had previously worked together at Ecco and Ariat and now plan to use their strong relationship and unique skillsets to expand the brand’s merchandising and distribution.
“I was looking for a leader to strengthen our current North American team,” said Spears. “Bruce is very much about process and analytics, and he’s bringing that to us already, especially on the analytics. We’ve had a fabulous reporting system that no one’s ever had the time to dig into. And Bruce, within a matter of a week to 10 days, already had it running.”
Kaplan joins at a time when Ara is exploring a new look.
Spears said that the brand had developed a not-entirely-favorable reputation for being just “black dress shoes and Gore-Tex boots.” But over the past year, Ara pivoted to introduce more color and fun, and focus on sportier looks. “We call ourselves now a ‘fashion comfort brand’ rather than just a ‘comfort brand,’” he said, “because our offering really does service a woman’s needs for every aspect of her life, from casual to athletic to formal.”
Retailers say the new collections are catching on. “It’s a brand that’s reemerging as they’ve gotten products that are younger, more athleisure-inspired,” said Robert Goldberg, owner of Harrys Shoes in New York. “They’re closer to what the current trends are in the market and they’re reaping the rewards. They’re getting a younger consumer than who they were getting prior to the design shift.”
Spears said the brand’s next mission is develop product that could appeal to a wider range of customers and provide access to new retail channels. Ara shoes currently average around $179 retail, so new capsule collections will be offered at a more commercial price point.
Kaplan has been tasked with leading the sales expansion. “We do have a list of customers within each channel that we will be targeting to begin our process of opening up our channels of distribution and how we market the product,” he said.
At the same time, Ara is not moving away from the mom-and-pop shoe stores that have been a foundation of its business in North America.
“If it weren’t for the independent retailer, we wouldn’t be here, so we have to do what we can to support them,” said Spears. He noted that for the spring ’21 season, his team spent over $22,000 on airfreight to ensure reorders made it to stores in the U.S. and Canada, amid the global slowdown in shipping.
And while the brand finally made the leap into online sales in November 2020 by launching its own full-price e-commerce site for North America, Ara is ensuring that its retail partners still benefit. Active participating clients receive a commission for every sale on the Ara website that occurs within 25 miles of their stores.
Dave Levy, owner of Hawley Lane Shoes in Connecticut, said he appreciates the brand took that extra step. “Everyone has got an e-commerce site now. Ara held off longer than most,” he said. “But they have a good site. There’s a store locator at the top of the homepage. And if they’re getting our customer that we’ve cultivated, at least we’re getting a commission for it.”
Spears said the brand delayed launching e-commerce to avoid competing with retailers. “But we finally had to do a direct-to-consumer site because we didn’t know what the future was going to look like,” he said.
So far in 2021, the brand is exceeding its year-over-year sales, but has not yet matched 2019 totals — though it expects to outpace those numbers by year-end. Spears pointed out that the parent company has been challenged by store closures in Europe, and while the brand is shipping out more orders, they tend to be smaller quantities.
“We had a lot of wind in our sails at the beginning of 2020, and now the wind’s picking right back up,” said Spears. “We have some momentum, and with Bruce as the linchpin in our leadership team, we’re just getting started.”