A Veteran Researcher Looks at the Subject of Shoes

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Flipflops, crocs, sandals, loafers, pumps, boots, sneakers – everybody wears some sort of shoe. Across all cultures, climates, and incomes, the shared experience of buying shoes is more universal that any other apparel item. Have you been to a Kinney Shoes, Footlocker, Payless, DSW, or shoe departments at Walmart, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Selfridge’s or Gallery Lafayette? From self-serve to elegant serve, the culture of how you sell shoes has been a research topic for us at Envirosell for more than 35 years. That the price of shoes can vary from $10 basics to $1500 runway jeweled platforms is testament to the power of footwear. How many of us own a range of models bought at a wide variety of price points? How many of us own the same shoe in a rainbow of colors?

In our multi-ethnic world, high-end stores need some adjusting to the protocols about how to deliver service. For example, at Selfridge’s in London a significant percentage of customers are Muslim women. Having a young man kneeing at a woman’s foot is not acceptable.

What prompts this column are several new shoe stores in New York, including the new SJP Collection (Sarah Jessica Parker) store on the corner Bleeker and Perry Street. And after all these years, why are same mistakes being made?

The Shoe Purchase Adventure

Rule One

Whether at Macy’s, DSW or your local thrift store – the sale is predicated by the try-on. While we look down from above at our shoes, the key to the sale is getting shoppers to pick them up off the displays, touch and feel them. Technically speaking, the ergonometrics of this shoe pick-up falls into a prescribed range. We have researched that she/he will bend over, but only so far. The rule? Adjust the height and shape of a display to make it easy and comfortable for the customer, thereby increasing the number of pick-ups, and as a result, increase sales.

Rule Two

What is the right height of shoe salon seating? The older we get the more our subconscious mind governs our seating choices. Yes, in the comfort of the living room we may plop down on a sofa, but in public, much less in retail, we want seating that is appropriate to our height and becoming to our appearance. The rule? Work under the premise that a good shoe department has at least two different seating heights — and even better, three. While Hollywood may be populated by tiny women, catering to tall mature women is just good business.

Rule Three

In our multi-ethnic world, high-end stores need some adjusting to the protocols about how to deliver service. For example, at Selfridge’s in London a significant percentage of customers are Muslim women. Having a young man kneeing at a woman’s foot is not acceptable. The rule? empowering the service staff to be observant and smart about who needs help and knowing who will best help her is a better customer service approach than just sending the next salesperson in line.

Rule Four

Cementing relationships through cultural understanding. In markets outside the U.S., high-end shoe and jewelry stores have dressing rooms. The rule? Recognizing that jewelry and shoes are always accessories, the savvy retailers invite key customers to bring in their outfits to accessorize. This is one meaningful way to cement relationships.

Rule Five

With athletic shoes, be careful to merchandise men’s and women’s styles in separate sections. Early on we tested display walls where one gender’s display merged into another. We noted the number of men that suddenly realized they were shopping women’s sneakers got embarrassed and walked out. When I walked into Adidas in Moscow, I was met with suspicion. My small victory was that within an hour after making a simple adjustment to a display wall – just creating a little space between men’s and women’s section of the display wall – the staff picked up on the improvement and I got high fives and invitations for a lot of Vodka.

Rule Six

We know that a visit to most women’s closets will reveal clothing that was intended for men or often boys (sweaters, jeans, T-shirts). In my own life, my stepdaughters borrow my coats all the time. But for many traditional men wearing, much less shopping women’s clothing or shoes can be embarrassing. Yes, but. In Chelsea there used to be a clothing/shoe store that catered to the drag queen market with dramatic stilettos in men’s size 13. Rule? With today’s changing norms, make the shoe department welcoming for any self-identifying customer. Case in point, at the new Croc’s store when I asked about the separation of genders, I got a rude look. Some shoes like flipflops and crocs are crossover hits and intentionally gender neutral. But for sneakers (at least for the time being) I stand by my fifth rule.

Rule Seven

One very simple rule to upsell shoe sales is merchandise matching socks and stockings. Or go a step further; at the SJP Collection store on my corner I loved their suitcase specially designed to carry a whole shoe collection – just like the store’s namesake’s role, Carrie Bradshaw.

The Shoe Evolution

The broader landscape for men’s shoes is changing.

  • Slip-on, slip-off has taken on new meaning driven in part by the Asian and Middle Eastern customer who slips off shoes inside the doorway to a home as the custom. We do it in my homes now as a way to keep the floors and carpets clean.
  • It’s interesting to look at the evolution of the shoelace/tie shoe. When the laces still exist, they are usually nonfunctional, intentionally unlaced or treated as accessories. Or more likely the case, secured by Velcro or elasticized lace toggles.
  • For men the rubber sole has largely trumped the leather sole. It’s driven by walking and utility when using of public transportation. It’s also comfort. And style. The era of the stylish white sole for men’s slip-ons popularized by the tech crowd is slowly fading. Performance shoes have become status symbols in any culture, especially when a pair of Jordans can resell for up to $100,000. And just look at what happened to Yeezey and Adidas’s $540 million loss.

There are changes afoot for women as well.

  • As more women step into conservative professions – law, insurance, banking, and business — they tend to wear uniforms. Whether it’s suits, skirts, and pants, the style is typically about blending in rather than standing out. It’s an occupational standard for all genders in the same jobs. Where they can express their sense of style is in their shoes and jewelry. That said, we have a colleague who worked for Nielsen several years ago when the workforce was told, “no open-toed shoes,” which started a protest in response.
  • In our research, we have noted the number of women that change their shoes over the course of the work day. They have one pair under their desk to wear to and from work another pair they wear at work, and possibly a third for post-work evening events.
  • The friction between great looking shoes that aren’t crippling and utilitarian shoes that aren’t stylish continues every season. In a car culture, it’s less of an issue. But for urban women, comfort generally wins out, which has made the kitten heel the new style of choice to bridge both worlds.

Shoe Service

Going to the shoemaker to get your shoes resoled and heeled still happens, but with the evolution of shoe design and the rubber sole, the shoemaker’s role has shrunk. But shoes still wear out, whether it’s from a year of heavy wear, or decades of dancing in party shoes. Most of us are comfortable throwing shoes away or giving them to secondhand stores. With the trend in upcycling and recycling, shoes are finding a second life with new owners and saving the landfills at the same time

The Major Disruptor

Although the Zappos story is now decades old, it still leads as a massive disruptor and headache for shoe manufacturers. We all know the routine. Buy multiples to determine the right size and style and return all the rejects. It’s customer friendly, but a shipping, packaging, and inventory nightmare. What I don’t understand is why Zappos doesn’t have my personal CRM file which identifies what size I would wear across different manufacturers. I found Merrells almost a decade ago. While the first pair was bought in a shoe store, the 15 subsequent pairs were bought online. So, why doesn’t Merrells know me? It’s time for one of those data analytics crackerjacks to analyze my online purchases over time and do some direct marketing, introducing new colors, or like Alexa telling me before realize it that it’s time for a new pair.

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