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Fashion footwear retailers and the online imperative

The fashion industry has always been dependent, more so than any other type of retailer, on very expensive real estate in prime locations and a very tactile, physical model of sales. While other retail segments have aggressively moved online and consumers have accepted that move, fashion remains an industry where seeing and touching is paramount.

The fashion industry however, is beginning to embrace the inevitable, recognizing that a boutique in Beverly Hills or on Fifth Avenue may no longer be necessary. Even when retaining those high-end flagship storefronts, fashion brands are giving alternative channels equal time, ranging from temporary pop-up stores to online ecommerce shopping venues.

The undisputed king of the retail sneaker business is Stadium Goods, a veritable monument to shoes located on Howard Street in Manhattan. At a time when the in-store experience is losing ground to ecommerce, Stadium Goods has mastered the in-store model by transforming shoe shopping into a true experience, reinforcing that with a brilliant marketing campaign, which includes being featured on the hit YouTube show, Complex's "Sneaker Shopping" with host Joe La Puma, who takes prominent rap stars and celebrities shoe shopping in various locations around the city, including Stadium Goods. The latest video shows rap star Ski Mask The Slump God in the store, buying his first pair of Air Jordans and racking up a bill of just over two thousand dollars. This one video alone has racked up over two million views – that's the kind of placement that drives real traffic in-store.

Walking through Stadium Goods isn't just shoe shopping, it's an experience to be remembered, a fact reinforced by the video campaign. But like most retailers, Stadium Goods has embraced multi-channel with a strong ecommerce component – and the video campaign works well here by giving online visitors a glimpse into the in-store experience before they buy online, and bringing a little entertainment and excitement into the shopping experience.

Increasingly, shoppers – whether in-store or online – want more. Steve Brooks, a global consultant who specializes in helping retail pop-up entrepreneurs achieve success, says that another way retailers are bringing more excitement into the shopping experience is through short-term pop-up shops. Steve appeared on a recent episode of TDAmeritrade Network's Morning Trade Live show, suggesting that "consumers have gotten really bored with shopping. You go into a shopping mall and you see the same shops. Everything looks the same. Pop-ups really inject some enthusiasm and some entertainment into the shopping experience."

During the show, TDAmeritrade host Oliver Renick noted the recent phenomenon of purely online stores moving into popups to gain a physical presence, and give buyers a chance to touch and feel the products before buying, and more easily show case a specialized collection.

Even traditional shoe retailers are changing their strategies to de-emphasize mall stores in favor of online and popup experiences. Adidas, for example, has decided that it will not go into any more shopping malls, in favor of standalone stores, smaller formats that can serve the customer in a more personalized way, and innovative pop-up stores which are shaped like a giant shoebox.

The idea is catching on. Steve says, "Larger established retailers have caught on to the idea of pop-up retailing, and they are filling in some of the gaps. Some of the major users will be fashion designers and fashion retailers, who want to do a 12-week pop-up or the like. With the changing trends in fashion every season, pop-up shops offer designers the flexibility to create seasonal events around their collections."

Those smaller pop-ups work especially well for fashion, where customers tend to want a more personal experience. Steve notes, "Fashion retailing is currently losing 21 percent of its sales from environments that don't have somebody by a changing room when somebody comes out from trying something on. That's money walking out the door."

The ability for customers to touch, feel, and try on their fashion selections is vital, but that doesn't mean online retailers will lose out. Some smaller-format boutiques are taking that tactile experience to the next level. "There is a business in New York called Olive & Bette's, and what they do when a customer comes in, is they find out about their customers, about their interests," said Steve. "Not just what they are coming in to shop for, but who they are as a person. Then they send that person a five-dollar gift relating to who they are and what they like, and what type of person they are. Just as a thanks for coming in. That's just amazing, and their business is growing so well."

Steve also notes that pure-play online retailers like Amazon are also getting into the act, taking a page out of the playbook of smaller boutiques with a more personalized approach that allows for that personalized experience. "What Amazon is doing right now as far as clothing is concerned, they're going to ship you the things they think you might want, you take the ones you need, and then ship back the ones you don't want. For a retailer, why wouldn't you want to do that? As long as you've got somebody's card to charge if it doesn't come back, why wouldn't you?"

The fashion industry is seeing some major changes in how they relate to the customer. Ecommerce is absolutely essential for fashion retailers of all sizes, but to succeed in that world, those fashion retailers must take that extra step to combine the look-and-feel excitement of the in-store experience with the convenience of online. 

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