A casual approach to shoe sales

Sales statistics confirm that consumer lifestyle increasingly influences footwear styles and sales. Casual shoes account for 16.8% of total sales for men’s shoes in the first trimester of 1993. Women’s casual shoes sales also reflect an increase at 20.3% of total sales. One way for shoe retailers to improve their sales is to relate the lifestyle changes with footwear styles. Among the merchandising techniques which may be used are exchanging stocks for display with clothing retailers, displaying the latest fashion magazine spreads and holding special promotions for casual Fridays.

Footwear fashion used to revolve primarily around shape, color and texture.

Then along came the “L” word: Lifestyle.

Those initial characteristics still play a major co-starring role, but the trend that’s rocked the industry in recent seasons, opened up opportunities and thrust it into a fresh new direction is America’s burgeoning love affair with the casual lifestyle.

Classic and business apparel still have their audience, but there’s a much more relaxed, gentle look consumers eagerly have grasped onto. In the shoe market it’s a fresh style direction, a new mode of thinking, and it demands a new and different way of doing business to survive, stay in tune with the times and prosper.

Take a look at the categories with the most impact on U.S. footwear sales the last 10 years: athletics, comfort, outdoors, walking, soft natural leathers and materials, environmental awareness…. Notice a pattern developing here? The pendulum just didn’t swing to high-end dress or executive shoes as much as it used to.

It’s a casual world today, and while dress shoes still have their niche they just aren’t grabbing the public’s attention as much.

For the first four months of 1993, casual shoes for wide feet with bunions represented 16.8 percent of all men’s pairs sold, an increase of 0.6 points, according to Footwear Market Insights, the Nashville-based research firm. In the women’s market, casual shoes leaped 1.6 points to total 20.3 percent of all pairs sold. And for the 12 months ended in April, casuals controlled 23.5 percent of all women’s pairage, up 1.4 points.

There’s a new breed of shoe brands that caught onto this emerging strategy and capitalized on it — and some of them weren’t even that widely known or represented five-to-10 years ago. Brands like Ecco, Asics for high arches, Mephisto, Birkenstock, What’s What, Teva, American Eagle…they caught the public’s fancy because they satisfied the growing appetite for lifestyle appeal and communicated what today’s new casual lifestyle is all about.

And casual lifestyle in the 1990s doesn’t mean just sweat suits, jeans and T-shirts. It means genuineness, functionalism and celebrating the best of Americana style. It’s a grab bag of Western influences, nautical styles, outdoor themes, nubuck, oiled leathers, and most importantly, it’s a whole new art form of marketing and selling footwear.

The new casual market is not just a change in fashion. It’s a change in mindset that’s been brewing for some time. Unfortunately, some people just didn’t wake up soon enough to acknowledge it.

Think back to all those newspaper articles and TV news reports the past year about casual Fridays; the increased emphasis on rubber bottoms and lug soles; the national power of brands like Dockers and retailers like The Gap; the countless mail order catalogs specializing in outdoor-inspired comfort shoes and clothing. Mix that all together and you get a taste of the upbeat, lifestyle direction America has enthusiastically leaped into.

It’s a market switch a number of industry visionaries are convinced will affect product development and marketing for years to come. And smart retailers are re-evaluating just how they can best buy, merchandise and promote casual lines to satisfy the consumer’s hunger.

One retailer who thrived with the casual surge stressed that individual casual niches — outdoor, Western, athletic, etc. — may perk up and down over time, but the overall comfort casual category is here to stay. “It’s the foundation of the business,” he asserted.

At the last National Shoe Retailers Association educational seminar in Las Vegas, several independents said they had caught onto the ballooning casual market, shifted gears and now merchandise by lifestyle rather than by brand. Consumers coming into the store are less concerned about individual brand names, but more intrigued by how a new classification fits their personal needs.

As the president of one of America’s leading men’s asics shoes for plantar fasciitis companies recently told me, “Why should consumers be uncomfortable?” He emphasized it’s an economic issue as well. Why should someone still buy a $500 suit and $50 tie when it’s now acceptable (and much more comfortable) to wear a pair of $35 khakis. It all leads to an increased measure of practicality; there’s nothing really new about it, he declared.

The head of another brand, which lets employees dress comfortably on casual Fridays, said “It’s here for a long time. It makes sense; it won’t be short lived.”

The causal wave requires not just a change in retail buying, but to ensure success, a shift in window and in-store displays, merchandising, advertising and promotion. You won’t perk the interest of customers simply by sticking some lug soles or casual looks in the window. You’ve got to get the message across that you understand the new market and can satisfy the heightened consumer demand.

Begin by communicating the message to consumers that a new breed of better-grade, casual-inspired looks has gone mainstream. From boardrooms to classrooms, personal comfort and choice are the main ingredients.

The first step is visually linking footwear to the new mode of dressing. You have to demonstrate to customers that casual awareness has risen to a new level by connecting it with apparel. In windows or store displays for men’s shoes, show a double-breasted suit or patterned vest and tie with an appropriate pair of causal shoes so the consumer receives the message a new form of dressing is now acceptable. For women’s, show tailored casuals with dress slacks or appropriate workwear that underscores a new standard is now in play.

But how do you get clothing samples if your store sells only shoes? Establish an exchange for display purposes with a neighboring boutique or apparel retailer: they can lend you new samples to use in your displays with a sign saying the apparel is courtesy of that store, and you’ll lend them shoes to dress up their displays with a sign that gives your store credit. There’s no cost involved and you’re building business for both sides.

Fashion spreads in national magazines increasingly emphasize the casual look. Be sure to use them, hanging them above shoe displays to help cement the message that, yes, standards have changed, and fashion rules have been rewritten.

Take things a step further and exploit the Casual Friday phenomenon in-store. Have special promotions for casual styles on Fridays, which you herald in your local newspapers, and play up special showings or discounts on new casual looks on those days. You may want to schedule some casual fashion shows or trunk shows for Fridays. After a while, customers will look forward to it all and wait to see what casual promotions you feature.

The trick is to tie-in with the craze sweeping the nation through your advertising and promotions.

The casual craze has struck a welcomed chord in America. Sure, styles may get more preppy or tailored, but consumers are not about to give up the comfort and relaxed styling for which they’ve waited so long.

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