14 Nov 2016
Footfall Slows with Buyers Remaining Cautious at New York Shoe Show
Unpredictable weather and a sluggish economy put a bit of a dampener on this year's Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY) shoe expo, although one or two bright spots remained – particularly a renewed passion for boots.
While sales in the US shoe sector remain slow – albeit not depressed – for some FFANY exhibitors there was a number of clear bright spots, including men's footwear trending towards boots and the popularity of flexible fashion in day/night styles. Several also reported a rise in the popularity of slightly androgynous menswear, a look that has been adopted by a number of women, particularly among residents of the more sophisticated cities of the American East Coast. Younger buyers, meanwhile, seem to be rediscovering the joy of leather soles, with comfortable, rubber-shod footwear now increasingly associated with older consumers.
Throughout the event, a number of exhibitors commented on the changing shape of the market, with consumers apparently abandoning the once-dominant mid-market footwear retailers in favour of high-volume online portals at the lower end of the market, while the more affluent were turning to the upmarket niche bricks-and-mortar boutiques at the higher end. The profound effect that weather patterns have on consumer decisions was also a common topic, with retailers reluctant to order in advance in case unexpectedly warm or cold conditions left them with products suddenly out of step with changed buyer preferences.
Dave Sengstaken, President of Style West, a California-based specialist in rainproof boots, was particularly aware of the impact of the country's changed weather patterns. He said: "On the West Coast, we are not selling a whole lot of waterproof footwear. We used to have a nice business in northern California and on up north but, as it has been so dry out there, it's been tough.
"We had a dry, warm winter last year. Overall, a lot people were badly affected by that, not just those in the footwear sector."
Joe Pickett, Founder of Casitas Footwear, an Arizona-based European footwear brand importer, was another to note the way that the currently unpredictable weather has spooked retailers. He said: "All the seasons are tricky now when it comes to predicting weather patterns. Retailers have a very tough time as a result.
"In some markets, the fall lasts just two months. You can't sell boots in New York City or Boston in August, when it's still 90°F or 95°F through to September. It used to be a California problem; now it's a whole East Coast thing.
"We're now trying to talk to our suppliers about creating more year-round lines – footwear that can go nine months or more."
As well as the weather, the overall retail environment has also undergone a number of changes, with consumers now sourcing their shoes through a variety of sales channels. Highlighting this, Pickett said: "Online is becoming increasingly important when compared to bricks-and-mortar outlets. Despite this, we have no intention of abandoning the High Street. It's still very much at the core of what we do.
"Nordstrom.com [the online shopping portal of the US-based Nordstrom department stores] has changed our lives. For one brand alone – Toni Pons – I have 60 espadrille SKUs in stock. We are also pretty much committed to having them in stock nine months of the year."
Although the online sales channel is clearly growing, Pickett believes that speciality 'boutiques' remain a vital part of the market. He said: "In the speciality footwear business, there are still a lot of strong independents. The way we are growing our business is through the boutiques.
"We have one customer on Nantucket Island in New England. Initially, she took 70 pairs, but now she's at 500 pairs a season – and she really only runs a small shop."
This shift in retail channels has not eluded Lorraine Abrams, an Account Executive with Restricted Footwear, a California-based women's affordable fashion brand. She said "Spending habits have changed in terms of where consumers are getting their footwear. It's not the traditional shoe store any more. It's either a boutique or its online."
Irrespective of sales channel, many at the show complained that stagnant sales and cautious buyers remained the order of the day. Jeff Levy, one of the Founding Partner of New York's Attitudes Footwear, said: "Government statistics show that the last three quarters have been a little slow – and they really have.
"We always notice it very quickly because retailers are always fast to react. For us, I think business started slowing down back in November or December."
Despite slower sales, Levy spotted a shift upmarket among his younger customers. He said: "We are now seeing a slight trend back towards leather soles and away from rubber ones. Today, the younger customer wants a leather sole, as opposed to a rubber bottom.
"That's just the way the market is going. Little by little, the younger customer is associating rubber bottoms with older people. A few years ago, though, they were for everybody."
In the case of women's footwear, Linda Pettinato, a Sales Representative with New York's Nina Shoes, sees a clear move towards more flexible fashion. She said: "Customers are buying more day-to-night items, things that they can wear not just for a single occasion. In terms of trends, mesh material is going well for us, while I would say the use of a mixture of materials is also a trend."
Abrams, however, had a different view of just what was selling well, saying: "Lace-ups and cut-outs are still strong. Verona heels are definitely still strong, too, as are heels that are a little bit lower. Our mid-heel heights have definitely been selling well too, as have mini-wedges and slimmer wedges."
Men's footwear, although less trend-driven than women's fashion, is not immune to shifting preferences. Jeanella Blenden, Founder of What's Rockin', a New York based multi-line fashion showroom, said: "It is important to stock a standard men's footwear line-up, which is why our core collection is never out of stock. Lots of retailers just come and play in that world, because it's nice to know that you can just keep getting back into it. That's why core is so important."
According to Blenden, despite men apparently paying less attention to trends, fashionable East Coast males are now favouring higher-cut formal footwear. She said: "Most of the men in New York are wearing Chelsea boots – they are the number-one thing around the town. In general, when it comes to the fall, we are finding that men are moving towards boots. If a guy would normally wear a wing-tip [brogue], he'll now be wearing a wing-tip boot. Similarly, if he tends to favour a derby – a dressier shoe – he'll now be wearing a dressier boot.
With What's Rockin' also carrying women's lines, Blenden has noticed a growing penchant for a menswear look in certain female styles. She said: "We continue to do well with our more androgynous look – our Oxford for women.
"I have had a lot of retailers tell me that Oxfords are starting to be in demand and that they have realised that they don't have any on their floor. It seems to be a little bit of a void in the market and, of course, they're trying to chase that."
Even niche products, such as the rainproof rubber boots offered by Style West, are not immune to trends. Acknowledging this, Sengstaken said: "We are heavily trend-driven. We are getting into different materials, trying to mix it up so that it is more than just a classic rubber rain boot.
"The whole idea behind our line is to have a rain boot that doesn't look like a rain boot, one that you can wear as regular footwear. That's what we're trying to push towards."
Overall, it was pretty much a consensus that consumer tastes in New York and the other East Coast US cities run to more 'dressy' footwear. Flagging this up, Abrams said: "Here the buyer a little bit more sophisticated, a bit more fashion forward. In the South, they enjoy neutral colours and safer kinds of silhouettes – tried and tested stuff."
A number of exhibitors at the show emphasised the importance of local knowledge, especially given the variations in tastes between cities separated by only a few miles. Citing a prime example, Levy said: "We just had a customer from the West Coast of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico side of the peninsular. They were commenting on how, on the East Coast of Florida, they wear far more bling than on the West Coast – and that's just 60 miles away.
"There are even differences within the New York area, with Long Island being notably more bling than the southern suburbs. It's really a question of knowing your customer more than anything else."
Despite the fine-tuning needed to target US regions and even individual cities, there are still some macro trends that characterise the whole American market. Jorg Windsheimer, Head of Sales for Austria's Hogl Shoe Fashion, said: "On the whole, Americans prefer comfortable shoes – everything here has to be little more comfortable than it is in Europe.
"Over in Europe, it is much more fashion-orientated. In the case of the Chinese, they tend to like luxury products. We have a premium brand and that is selling particularly well in China at the moment."
The Fashion Footwear Association 2016 of New York (FFANY) Show was held at the New York Hilton Midtown from 2-4 August.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York