This past 14 June, Enrico Cietta and Matteo Pasca – respectively the President and Vice President of the Expo Riva Schuh & Gardabags Scientific Committee – decided to undertake an in-depth study of what today represents the third market worldwide for footwear consumption, after India and China, and as such, is an absolute protagonist in determining what the economic trend will be in the months to come. By consulting with some United States buyers like Garrett Breton – President of Comfort One Shoes, Jill Snyder – President of Snyder Shoes, and Mark Denkler – from the NSRA National Shoe Retailer Association, it was possible to understand what is happening overseas by addressing some key themes like inflation, the post-pandemic consumer model, and the forecasted demand in the months to come.
Retail business during and after the pandemic
Mark Denkler confirms that the pandemic undoubtedly created a situation where it was no longer possible to have direct contact with customers, with most stores in the USA having to organise themselves, including those that had not yet done so, to sell on the web or in any case enter into contact with customers through social media, by employing methods like ‘Curbside pickup’, for example, where the order is placed online and then picked up outside the store.
Jill Snyder confirms: “We found ourselves having to compete not only with other retailers, but above all with large box stores on e-commerce. To reach consumers who were unable or no longer willing to go to the store, we began working more extensively with social media, by organising Facebook Live events for example, which is something we never did before the pandemic. At the same time, we organised ourselves for Curbside delivery, to help make clientele feel more comfortable and make it easier to sell in a reality that had changed with the virus. I believe that all this helped bring us closer to our customers, while reinforcing our business when compared to the pre-pandemic period. Interpersonal relations are accordingly fundamental, and if before the pandemic such interactions occurred through a direct rapport with the customer, today different channels are used…”
Garrett Breton underlines how their business has always been very ‘service intense’, in terms of staying close to customers, also by organising or participating in events, and this has also influenced the way in which the company reacted during the period connected to the pandemic: “In 2019, we organised something along the lines of 250 events in our stores with social initiatives like eating an ice-cream together, wine tasting, etc. In 2020, with the lockdown, we quickly moved on to digital technology and accordingly experienced a 150% increase in online sales. Today, we are continuing to work a lot online, also through marketing via Facebook or Instagram. At the same time, however, with a return to normality we have restarted hosting in-store events and I can say that people are enthusiastic about seeing one another and passing time together once again”.
Lifestyle in the New Normal
According to Mark Denkler: “A big change in the market regards the kind of products in demand by consumers. During the pandemic and the lockdown, there was a consistent growth in demand for comfortable shoes to stay at home, or sports shoes for running and hiking, as they were the only opportunities to go out. Now people have started going back to the office and attending social gatherings, as a result, they have started looking for classic, elegant, and formal footwear (these will probably return strongly in 2023). Despite this, the market for athletic and outdoor footwear is still expanding significantly and dressing more casually is now acceptable for everyday events”.
Jill Snyder likewise confirms that the United States lifestyle has been profoundly changed in the post-pandemic period: “People who first worked and spent most of their time outside their homes found themselves smart working, and Athletic footwear experienced a spike in sales. In our case, it was above all a demand by ‘essential workers’ like nurses, doctors, or sales personnel working long hours on their feet, but also by people who, in smart working, could organise their days differently and practice sports or spend more time outdoors”.
Today, at a distance of almost three years from the lockdown? “After the boom in slippers for the home, indoor shoes, and Athletic shoes – confirms Garrett Breton – with the return to the New Normal, we see there is a return to dress shoes, along with those for formal occasions or special events, which are finally being held once again in-person. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the classic black office pump, which we sold for years, will never return in vogue, because the way of working has profoundly changed”. “Additionally – he continues – people are now in search of colourful products with a positive mood and are happy to purchase a shoe or a dress that makes them feel good”.
The role of digital
Garrett Breton confirms: “The customer who now comes into contact with us online is different from the one who comes to our store; the latter is familiar with us, participates in our events, and especially appreciates our personalised service, which ranges from digital foot measurements to receiving advice from sales personnel on the most suitable shoe for different needs. Our ‘typical customers’ have more problems with availability of time than with budget, so when they come to the store, they want to find the right shoe, without having to return afterwards to exchange it. The customer who buys online chooses us because we have the model in the colour and size that interests them, but more often than not the rapport ends there”.
Mark Denkler argues, citing the well-known significant increase in online purchases that occurred during the pandemic. So much so that many merchants have adopted the trend and developed their own e-commerce. It was a trend that had already begun, but due to recent events, it witnessed an abrupt uptick. After the growth levelled off, people once again resumed going out and shopping. Despite this, making purchases online has remained a common practise. And continues: "With the high prices of recent times, as for gasoline, people are more sensitive to their car trips, and this also influences purchases in stores”.
This is an opinion shared also by Jill Snyder, who believes that digital today is very important. At the same time, however, her business is firmly based on interpersonal relations, understanding the customer, and staying close to their needs. She in fact declares, “We will never be online retailers, even if we use the same technology”.
From economic stability to the roller coaster effect
Over the last three years, we have passed from a situation of significant economic stability to constant instability, and in fact there is now increasing mention of how the global economy is on a ‘roller coaster’ ride, with the costs of raw materials and transportation constantly rising and inflation growing: “Inflation is currently at 9% in the USA – confirms Mark Denkler -, the stock market is down by 20%, the national bank is increasing interest rates and all this transmits a sense of uncertainty to people, who feel less rich than before, and who are less willing to spend money… At the same time, leading store chains and big retailers have an excess of inventory, which they are trying to get rid of by holding sales”.
Garrett Breton instead believes that the situation of economic uncertainty and the increase in inflation is negatively impacting important purchases, like that of a car or house, more than the purchase of clothes and accessories.
There’s lots of talk about sustainability …
How much does the theme of sustainability really impact your business? Is the consumer willing to pay more for a sustainable product? To these questions, Garrett Breton replies that many brands today find themselves tending to speak of sustainability because it is a ‘hot’ topic that is extremely relevant, more than because they are really moving in this direction with their businesses. In fact, often their declarations are untrue. “My experience is that if a consumer has the possibility to choose whether or not to purchase two kinds of shoe at the same price, and one of them is sustainable, the latter type of shoe will undoubtedly be chosen. However, if they must pay 50% more, then the choice will fall upon the less expensive shoe”. At the same time, with the rising cost of gas and energy, inflation and economic worries move the focus away from the theme of sustainability.
Mark Denkler and Jill Snyder agree on the fact that consumers first look to see if they like the shoe and if the price is right and do not enter the store asking for a sustainable shoe. Certainly, if the price is the same, then a shoe that is attentive to the environment and respectful of workers is preferable, but this is not a priority, even if new generations starting from GenZ seem to be more sensitive and aware of environmental issues.