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Footwear brands side-step troubled times

Wandler 2 jpeg

Despite this being a challenging time for the footwear industry, there are opportunities to excel in the spring 20 buying season.

The footwear market, like the rest of fashion sector, has not been immune to the ongoing challenges facing the retail industry. Unexpected weather patterns, the looming threat of Brexit, political uncertainty and dips in consumer confidence are just some factors that have had negative effects. The UK footwear market remained flat between 2017 and 2018, at £10.8bn, reports market research agency Mintel.

“The UK footwear sector is facing huge pressures,” says CEO of the British Footwear Association Lucy Reece-Raybould. “All of our members, regardless of size or sector, are continuously confronted with the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit. Retail consumer confidence is damaged, curtailed by the prolonged and very public dispute with the UK’s biggest customer, the EU.”

Mintel retail analyst Chana Baram agrees: “Footwear has been plagued by many of the same issues affecting the retail market as a whole. There has been a decline in footfall across the high street, and the struggle faced by department stores has had a knock-on effect. The unpredictable weather has remained an issue, with many retailers putting winter styles on Sale far too early. Additionally, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit is causing shoppers to be cautious with their spending.”

However, Mintel forecasts 2% growth within the footwear market for 2019, and while the tough conditions show little sign of letting up, opportunities remain for the spring 20 buying season. The trainer market is buoyant, and at the other end of the spectrum, affordable high-end smarter brands are gaining interest among both male and female consumers. 

Trainer tales

The most readily apparent opportunities lie in the sneaker sector, which continues to grow. A Mintel survey of 2,000 internet users aged 16 and over found that 34% of respondents bought women’s trainers and 36% bought men’s trainers in the 12 months to February 2019.

Cat intruder (12)

Cat Intruder

“Trainers continue to drive growth in the market as a result of new styles and innovations, as well as the fact that trainers are more trans-seasonal,” comments Baram.

The “ugly” sneaker phenomenon – oversized, chunky styles with a retro, 1990s look – has enabled brands such as Sketchers, Fila and Cat Footwear to bring back product and capitalise on the current resurgence.

At Cat, this has meant “repowering” old styles for a new generation of customers. The focus is on what marketing and product director EMEA Phil Borthwick calls an “intimate understanding of [the brand’s] consumer and how to leverage [Cat’s] unique point of view to meet their needs”.

It began with the “Repowered” project that reintroduced the chunky-sole Intruder style, which drew new stockists such as Asos, Urban Outfitters, Footasylum and Schuh. The style went on to break all sales records within the company.

There is less middle ground for footwear brands. The consumer is either into it or not.

Ben Shelton, Rolling People

“Our Repowered collection [attracted a] new generation of consumers and has created incremental business,” he says. “We’re also seeing growth through our core categories, driven from a programme of re-invention and progressive development.”

This has included the rollout of more styles from the archive, as well as reworkings and a constant flow of new colourways. For spring 20, for example, chunky trainers have taken on a hiking look as this style becomes a trend to watch.

Veja

Veja spring 20

The power of product

However, even when successfully channelling trends, today’s market is tougher than ever. In these times, the best product wins.

“There is less middle ground for footwear brands. It’s either a 90% sell-through or a 20%. The consumer is either into it or not,” says Ben Shelton, co-founder of sales agency Rolling People, which represents footwear brands such as Veja and Arizona Love. “Because of this, buyers are very focused and decisive. If something is working, they aren’t scared to back it with big numbers. The other side is that they are more ruthless with brands that aren’t performing.”

French sustainable sneaker brand Veja is one brand that is proving popular for Rolling People. It has 72 UK and Ireland stockists and growth “well over 100% from one season to the next”,  says Shelton. Alongside its transparent, sustainable credentials, which Shelton believes consumers care more and more about, he says Veja’s popularity comes down to its balance of high-quality core product and innovative styles.

“I think Veja has a good understanding of how important it is to not change a good thing,” he says. “There are five shoes in a core program that hasn’t changed since we started working with the brand more than four years ago. Those five shoes are still the best-performing styles, and retailers have confidence in setting up a continuity program despite the five-month lead time.”

These core styles are balanced with fresh colourways and new models every season – such as vegan leather shoes made from agricultural waste for spring 19, and a new running line for autumn 19 – keeping loyal customers interested with newness.

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Wandler spring 19

Looking outside of the sneaker trend, the women’s contemporary market – high in style credentials but pitched at more affordable prices than luxury brands – is also taking off. A follow-on from the contemporary bag boom, accessories brands such as Staud and Manu Atelier have piggybacked footwear launches on to their sell-out bags, and used distinctive handwriting to give themselves a point of difference and their stockists something fresh.

Dutch accessories business Wandler, which launched just three seasons ago and has 155 stockists for its handbags, is the latest to debut footwear. Launched in April with five styles, the footwear epitomises the beginnings of a move away from casual sneakers.

“With the first collection, I wanted to stick to a handful of five styles. All heels,” says the brand’s founder, Elza Wandler. “Perhaps because I was dealing with being surrounded with a sneaker overkill at that time. I want my designs to be able sit next to the big luxury names from an aesthetic point of view as well as the handmade quality.” Wandler shoes retail from £375.

If you’re telling the right story and pushing the right product, customers will pay

Archie Hewlett, Duke & Dexter

For smart British men’s footwear brand Duke & Dexter, which won Premium Footwear Brand of the Year at the Drapers Footwear Awards in June, storytelling has been key to tackling today’s challenging environment.

“My honest view is that it’s a really tough market,” says the brand’s founder Archie Hewlett. “Even when brands don’t need to, they are going into Sale, because they feel forced to. A lot of businesses are conforming to Sale rather than trying to do something different.”

This has led Duke & Dexter to experiment with collaborations in pursuit of individuality and exclusivity. A collection with American rapper Snoop Dogg, limited to 1,000 pieces, launched in June.

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Duke & Dexter Snoop “Dogg Pack” collection

“We’ve seen the Snoop Dogg product outperform our Sale product,” says Hewlett. “Customers were buying the Snoop Dogg product at full price over the reduced styles. We’ve been cutting through the noise, and that’s reflected in the sales. This highlighted that if you’re telling the right story and pushing the right product, with meaning and relevance, customers will pay.”

Although product will always be key, Mintel research shows that service remains an important factor in footwear purchases, with good customer service ranked as the third most important factor for a footwear retailer, and 29% of people saying that good customer service would make them choose one footwear retailer over another.

Caroline French is managing director of Southampton’s WJ French & Son, which won Independent Footwear Retailer of the Year at the Drapers Footwear Awards 2019. She believes that service is key to giving her business a competitive edge: “Our USP is giving a traditional shoe shop experience, focusing on customer service, fitting and a large choice of quality shoes that are a bit different from what can be found in the high street.

“It’s important to hang on to personal service, which is becoming harder to do with a fleeting Amazon delivery man and an increase self-checkout machines appearing. This makes us a destination store that people want to come to.”

Whether it is focusing on current trends, such as evolving the chunky sneaker, pursuing a point of difference via unique products or going back to basics with outstanding customer service, for brands and retailers new and established, the upcoming season is the time to tackle the industry’s challenges and capitalise on its opportunities.

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