How Merrell Will Leverage New Retail Partnerships to Attract Younger Consumers and Women

The outdoor boom presented an opportunity for market leaders to connect with a new, engaged consumer, and Merrell was one of several to capitalize. But the Wolverine Worldwide-backed brand is still finding more room to grow.

Jessica Adler, who was tapped to fill Merrell’s VP of U.S. sales role in January, believes the brand is positioned well to evolve, while still catering to its longtime consumer. That evolution, Adler explained, includes winning over both younger consumers and women.

Below, Adler reveals to FN the brand’s plans to reach new customers and offers a look at the dynamic internally.

What made you want to join Merrell?

“I’ve always had an affinity for the brand and I see so much potential. I also think we have a stellar leadership team. There’s a core, established customer, but we’re on to something and I’m now confident after being here for months that we’re doing all the right things to truly be inclusive and go after that younger customer, that female customer. I think there’s something special about the trend of where we’re going, and there’s a special sweet spot that we have just started to tap into — this younger customer, this female customer, somebody who cares about an active lifestyle. There’s head-to-toe potential.”

Merrell VP of U.S. sales Jessica Adler
Merrell VP of U.S. sales Jessica Adler.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Merrell

What is the internal dynamic between Chris Hufnagel, roup president for Active Brands, and the rest of the leadership team?

“It’s extremely collaborative. I come from a lot of different environments where it’s not. It’s a healthy, open dialogue — and transparent. The leadership team is strong [and is] what attracted me to come here, from our chief marketing officer Janice [Tennant], who is fantastic, to Chris. I hadn’t worked with [Wolverine Worldwide president and CEO] Brendan [Hoffman] in the past, but I’ve heard really great things about him. It’s been a very positive experience overall.”

Are there any retail partners you’re particularly excited to team up with?

“We’re already in Urban Outfitters, but I would say partners like Urban Outfitters and others that are capturing that 18-to-24-year-old customer. We’re relaunching at Nordstrom for fall ’23. And then for spring ’24, we have some exciting new partners that we’ve never worked with before, which is awesome for a 41-year-old brand. There are three or four new, critical customers that I think will get some nice attention.”

What does Merrell do particularly well? And what needs to be improved upon the most?

“We’re true to who we are as a brand, and we do comfort unbelievably well. There’s not a pair of shoes that I put on that I’m not like, ‘These feel amazing.’ There’s a lifestyle piece that we can continue to develop, this gorpcore way of being. How do we style it? How do we carry the product differently? It’s not that we don’t have the product, it’s more about how do we present it? Overall as a company, we’re working on our agility, which is important. Lead times in footwear in general are just longer than apparel, which is a quicker return. That’s something we’re working on.”

Merrell women's Bravada 2 Thermo Demi Waterproof Jordan Ann Craig
The Merrell women’s Bravada 2 Thermo Demi Waterproof collaboration with Jordan Ann Craig.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Merrell

What role has the outdoors played in your personal life?

“I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors. I like to joke about the ‘city trek.’ I live in New York — now in the suburbs, but I was in the city for about 14 years. My hike every day was walking to work for 30 blocks. And when I’m on vacation with my family, we love to hike. We love going to Joshua Tree National Park, the last one we were in Palm Springs. The outdoor world has always been a passion of mine on a personal level. But I have not worked in the outdoor space until now.”

How did your relationship with the outdoors influence your decision to join Merrell?

“I feel like the pandemic three years ago opened my eyes to [the fact that] we all need to take a pause. To me, Merrell is about the outdoors, taking a breath and living a more stress-free life. Even with my kids, it’s like: Put your shoes on and let’s walk around the neighborhood or, if it’s been a long day, go ride your bike. It doesn’t always have to be a trail run type of experience. I think that’s the coolest part about what we’re doing. Some of the partners we’re speaking with for spring ’24 are sneaker accounts that are not traditional outdoor retailers. That’s where we have so much opportunity, at the boutique level and even with some of the specialty chains.”

What are your goals in both the short and the long term?

“To connect the consumer to our brand. We’re doing something special, and what we’ve traditionally been known for is evolving. It’s like a reset moment. We have fantastic relationships with REI, with Dick’s Sporting Goods, with Public Lands, with Scheels. The traditional sporting goods and outdoor spaces, which are important to us, we will continue to evolve there, continue to grow there and lock in how this brand can show up in a different way. And then it’s about tapping into that lifestyle space. With Nordstrom and some of these other partners, there’s something special there. Short-term, I’m excited about these new partnerships, excited about this team and building the future of this brand together to hit our billion-dollar target in the next few years.”

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