E-commerce has been a core sales channel for the footwear industry for over three decades (since Zappos.com launched in 1999 and proved people would buy shoes without trying them on first).
For new footwear brands just starting out, the Internet offers an easy way to get established, through direct-to-consumer (DTC) e-commerce platforms like Shopify and Squarespace or crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter.
But in terms of the retail business overall, physical brick-and-mortar is still king here in the U.S., according to Matt Priest, president and CEO of the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America. “We do consumer surveys around brick-and-mortar and how important it is for our for customers. They still value it for several reasons that might surprise you,” says Priest in the FN x FIT Footwear Business Foundations online course, a comprehensive educational program that provides the skills needed to build a brand from the ground up.
The five-part series covers a range of topics, such as industry history and leadership lessons, product design and development, branding and marketing. Module 5 in the course covers retail strategies, including how to make the leap from online to in-store.
Below are some helpful insights from the featured industry experts and insiders on what to know about your retailing options.
Why Brick & Mortar Matters for Startups
For shoe brands, physical retail offers the opportunity to interact directly with customers to conduct instant market research. Veteran footwear designer Gregg Woodcock, an adjunct professor at FIT, recalls that when he was creating footwear for the Sean Jean brand, he spent a day working the floor of a store in New York. “I’d been [designing] for years, but that was an invaluable experience,” he says. “I understood right then and there, just based on how the store was merchandised, 80% of the people just want bread and butter. I learned a lot.”
Brick-and-mortar also can be a vital marketing asset. For decades, storied designers like Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Stuart Weitzman have used in-store appearances as a way to create buzz and develop deeper ties to their core customers.
Getting Into Wholesale
Selling product to established retailers can take a new business to the next level not only from a revenue standpoint, but in terms of marketing as well. Land the right partnership and it lends extra cachet to your brand and helps to extend your reach to new customers.
But securing wholesale deals can be very challenging for new labels. Designer Jessica Rich notes that when starting out she struggled to connect with the right contacts. “It’s very difficult to find the buyers in some of these stores,” she says.
PR outreach can help. Rich says one of her big breaks came after a buyer saw press about her on Footwearnews.com.
But success also requires a willingness to take chances. When wholesale orders do come through, they often come with a financial risks. For instance, when Rich landed a pop-up at a Macy’s in Detroit, it was on a consignment basis. “I had to put my own money up for the product,” she says. “But if you didn’t try you wouldn’t know if it was going to work.”
Opening Your Own Stores
Sarah Flint, who founded her eponymous footwear label in 2013, waited until 2019 to begin testing out her own pop-up locations. And she advises other startups to take their time as well. “If you are wanting to try in-person retail and you’re at that point, a good way to do it at first is through trunk shows or by partnering with a existing brand that has a synergistic customer base, maybe they’ll let you pop in to their store for a little while,” she says. “But I would highly advise the pop-up strategy over permanent retail to start with and saddling yourself with a long lease.”
Chris Weichert, co-founder of the Koio luxury sneaker label, offers a cautionary tale of moving too fast too soon into physical retail. Early on, the brand rented a pop-up space in New York in the middle of a snow storm to celebrate the debut of a new style. “We had the craziest expectations of how many people would come,” he says. “Our imagination was triggered by reading about some overhyped sneakers from Nike and Adidas, where people just go nuts. But [we lost sight] that we would be a completely new brand that first had to build credibility and build a name for ourselves.”
As one might expect, the pop-up didn’t perform. But Koio later found more success by setting up temporary displays in other high-street retail shops. And it now has two permanent flagships in New York and Los Angeles.