It’s been tough going for footwear (and for retail in general) in 2019. Adjusted for the extra week in January 2018, U.S. Footwear dollar sales are down -1 percent year-to-date through May, after growth of +8 percent year-to-date last year*. Business continues to shift away from major department stores to brands’ direct-to-consumer channels as well as to off-price retailers. Consumers continue to gravitate towards athleisure and away from traditional fashion. Q1’19 proved to be a very mixed earnings season as many retailers are still grappling with how to react to these changes and prepare for those still to come.
Those were the big topics of conversation a few weeks ago, when the footwear industry came together for its June market week in New York City. But three other areas caught the attention of many industry insiders as well.
Buy Now, Wear Now
The industry is clearly still struggling with the disconnect between the retail calendar and the weather outside of consumers’ windows. Brands and retailers across industries noted soft first-quarter performance due to the fact that spring was slow to start. This February, which is the start to spring in the retail world, both fashion and winter boots were among the top growth silhouettes for all genders. In March, sneakers and closed, transitional product were strong. April was a record warm month across much of the U.S., and that, along with Easter promotions, jumpstarted sandal sales. However, seasonless styles continued to perform well, too. These patterns help to confirm that consumers are buying when the need arises, not in advance. I bought my first new pair of sandals on June 1st, a few days before an event at which I wanted to wear them. Of course, weather across regions differs at any given time, so the industry needs to leverage the wealth of data available today to better plan product deliveries by geography.
The pending China tariffs were another hot topic of discussion. While not yet official (and as of 6/29 on hold), an additional duty on imported footwear would likely negatively affect the footwear industry as a whole. Price thresholds that once existed between brands could break down, confusing consumers and diluting brand equity. Demand, and therefore costs, would ultimately increase in other footwear production countries. Price increases of this magnitude will almost certainly stifle industry growth. So it isn’t surprising that the industry has rallied together to attempt to prevent the tariffs from going into effect. It is a vital effort; however, with so much time and energy being spent here, focus has shifted from other key initiatives important to ensuring longevity.
Sustainability has quickly come to the forefront as one of the most game-changing issues of our time. Consumers, particularly young Millennials and Gen Zers, are demanding more from the brands and retailers they shop and buy from. Retailers are starting to make this easier by creating “sustainability shops” on their websites to promote eco-friendly and responsibly sourced product. A number of upstart brands have made sustainability part of their DNA, but established players are struggling with how to put their best feet (pun intended) forward here. Many are making great strides with product, production, or both, but are grappling with the question of how to communicate what they are doing without seeming disingenuous. However, we’ve learned from our research that despite the buzz, consumers’ awareness of eco-friendly brands and materials is low**, so this education component is essential.
The Bottom Line
During market week, showrooms were busy, networking events were packed, and despite the challenging business environment, the vibe was mostly positive. Brands were excited about their new product innovations for Spring 2020, and retailers, although cautious, seemed open to new ideas and partnerships. More brands than in the past discussed holding delivery of more opened up summer footwear until later in the spring season next year. This is a step in the right direction, but they know they’ve got to get through the rest of 2019 first, and headwinds are strong. I’ll be pulling together my full mid-year update later this summer, and will dive further into all of these issues. Hope to connect with you then.
*Source: The NPD Group/Consumer Tracking Service, adjusted for 53rd week in January 2018
**Source: The NPD Group/February 2019 Omnibus