Todd Wolff, president of Wolff Shoe Company, makers of Sesto Meucci, Vaneli and Eric Javits brands, on leading the fourth-generation, family-owned company during a paradigm shift in retail.
Todd Wolff got his start in the family shoe business early—really early. At the tender age of five, his job was to sweep the Wolff Shoe Company’s warehouse floors. Ever the entrepreneur, he took it upon himself to speed the process up by slapping on roller skates. “I thought I was a big trendsetter when I figured out that I could make it up and down the aisles a lot faster,” Wolff recalls with a laugh. While he was never pressured to make the family business a career, it was in his blood; deep down he always knew it was what he wanted to do for a living. “I love the creativity,” says Wolff, who was named president in 2014 following 12 years spent learning every facet of the company. “I love the interaction with people, whether it be in sales, manufacturing or product development.”
Many of Wolff’s coworkers have been with the St. Louis–based company as long as he has been alive, and the company’s Italian factory agents are a family-owned business with whom they’ve partnered for more than 50 years. It’s always been a yearly handshake deal. “We’ve been blessed to have wonderful technicians through the years,” Wolff says. “Everywhere we’ve made shoes, our technicians have made sure that they meet both our standards and our customers’ expectations.” Wolff takes great pride in the enduring partnerships his company has maintained, something he believes makes it unique. “It’s about respect, trust and working toward the greater good for both parties,” he offers. “These are basic principles of what’s right in business as well as being a decent human being. That’s what allows you to have a handshake deal with somebody for 50 years.”
Nurturing such ties and leading the family business into its second century of operation are Wolff’s top priorities. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” he says. “I’ve embraced the notion of wanting to follow in my family’s footsteps and take it further than it has gone—for our family as well as the multitudes of families who work with us.”
Wolff has definitive plans to grow the company, but he is a Midwesterner through and through, reserved and practical when it comes to fine-tuning what his predecessors built. “You don’t get to be about 100 years old [98 to be exact] by trying to revolutionize everything,” he explains. “But we’ve made some strides updating the product—new constructions, lasts and styles—as well as our e-commerce site, and we are installing a new wholesale computer system.”
Wolff Shoe Company is a unique blend that knows how to make casual, comfortable shoes for its target audience of middle-aged women and understands how to retail its brands, in part through its 24-store Marmi specialty boutique chain. “We are positioned at an upper moderate price point [retail range is $150 to $300], depending on whether we are making the shoes in Europe or China,” Wolff explains. “It’s a really good position to be in right now,” he adds, noting that another competitive advantage is the company’s extensive sizes and widths program. “A lot of people have gotten out of the business of making those sizes,” he notes. “We still see it as a very large market that needs to be serviced, and we are filling that niche.” Wolff believes recent upgrades are also taking hold. Five years down the road, “I see an expanded wholesale business with updated product,” he predicts. “Opportunistically, I envision some more stores and a bigger presence online.”
In some ways, Wolff’s approach remains unchanged since he began working full-time, the day after he drove home from the University of Colorado Boulder, business degree in hand, in 2002. The next morning, he flew to China with his grandfather to visit shoe factories. Wolff got right to learning the shoe business. And who better to learn from than his grandfather, who has been working in shoes for more than 60 years and making sourcing trips to China since 1982. (The Wolff family was among the first Americans to break into the Asian sourcing market, beginning in Hong Kong after making shoes for about a decade in Italy.)
“I listened a lot and talked a little,” says Wolff. Over the ensuing decade, he earned the equivalent of master’s degrees in just about every facet of shoes, including sourcing, product development and design. “I had great teachers. They are true pros,” he says. “I learned a lot, first by carrying their bags and setting up at shows.” Indeed, Wolff has done his share of heavy lifting. “I was on the road 300 days a year for pretty much the first 13 years of my career,” he says, noting his air mile odometer has surpassed four million. (His father’s tally eclipses 10 million.) “I was visiting factories in China every six to eight weeks, going to shows and meeting with retailers,” he says.
One of the key lessons Wolff learned from his father and grandfather was, “Make your yes a yes and your no a no,” he says. “If you are going to do something, tell everyone you are going to do it and then follow through. If you’re not going to do it, state it outright and stick to it.” Another memorable business tenet of his grandfather’s: “A shoemaker sticks to his lasts.” Translation: “Do what you do, do it to the best of your abilities and don’t try to be something you’re not.”
That’s sound advice in a chaotic year when many companies have grasped at straws trying to survive. Flip-flopping and stabs at radical reinvention are not the best courses of action, according to Wolff. While this year has been no cakewalk—“retail is tough for everybody and, trust me, they are not leaving us alone”—the company has fared well, all things considered. “There have been some challenges, but, on the wholesale side, we have been received quite well,” he reports, adding that Marmi has held its own, too. “Every month we’ve come within a couple of points of either making or missing that month, and we’ve had more wins than we’ve had losses,” he says. “But they are not giant gains by any stretch of the imagination.”
As a fourth-generation leader of a nearly century-old family shoe business, Wolff knows that to succeed you need the ability to run a marathon, not a sprint. Recessions, wars, new retail formats…they come and go. It’s how one adapts and evolves without losing one’s identity that enables a company to survive for decades rather than a few seasons. This (crazy) year has been no different, Wolff says. “You tighten your belt and just try to keep going,” he says. “As my father likes to say, ‘I wasn’t smart enough to become a doctor or a lawyer, so I’d better figure out how to make it in the shoe business.’” How, when and where consumers shop for shoes is rapidly changing, but Wolff takes solace in one industry constant: “The world isn’t going to go barefoot any time soon. We’ve just got to figure out what types of shoes people want and make them for them.”
Did you foresee this retail shakeout coming this year? Is it really a surprise, all things considered?
Some of the moves have been drastic. Macy’s announced it will close 100 doors. That’s no laughing matter. But then again, some drastic moves needed to be made. There was such an expansion push a couple of years ago that some of these closings were inevitable. I’m not going say I had a crystal ball and I predicted everything. But you could see some of the writing on the wall, so it hasn’t caught me so off guard as to be totally shocked by what’s going on in the marketplace.
What exactly is going on?
Well, there’s a lot of consolidation going on, tightening up as far as companies buying other companies. Those that have money are deciding to spend it on acquisitions, whether it be brands buying other brands or investment firms buying brands. As interest rates have stayed low, you are not making any money really with it in the bank, and money doesn’t really cost that much, so the ability for companies to acquire others is there. In addition, there are people looking to get out of whatever they are in, be it retail or wholesale—and that’s not just in regard to the shoe business. Retail is really challenging right now. You are seeing some store owners switch into year-to-year agreements when their leases are up because they do not know what the future holds, or many are at an age where they feel comfortable enough to retire and think it’s not worth the fight anymore.
To what do you attribute Marmi’s ability to hold its own this year?
Well, we’re geographically diverse, which helps. And we have been offering more new products, which is helping draw new customers every day. We have been offering our core customers something that they haven’t seen before—something that isn’t in their closets already. That is key right now, because everybody is interested in having something that they don’t already have. What was good yesterday, isn’t necessarily good again today.
Who is your target customer?
Overall, she’s 45 and up with a want to be fashionable but also has an appreciation for customer service, fit and quality. The Sesto customer, in particular, is a little bit more upscale, and the product is more casual in vein and flavor. She values the name more and the fact that it is manufactured in Europe. Some consumers still don’t like “made in China” even though just about everybody makes something there. Our Vaneli customer is more of an updated, contemporary woman, and Eric Javitz features a lot of casual and colorful styles like the designer’s wonderful hats and handbags. The shoes coordinate back, using a lot of his signature straw braid material.
Are you a firm believer in the future of brick-and-mortar shoe retailing?
We are believers in brick-and-mortar stores because shoes, unlike a lot of things that you can get online, are a tangible product. Customers enjoy that interaction in being able to try things on and see what fits, what works and what looks good. Not only does a knowledgeable salesperson assist with what is appropriate fit-wise, but they also often act as impromptu stylists for a lot of our customers. I just believe you don’t get that level of interaction online. You can do a lot with pictures, pop-ups and what not, but you don’t get that one-on-one, personalized, “Ms. Smith, this looks great and you can wear it with this and with that,” type of interaction. There’s no way to recreate that online and I think for shoes, in particular, there is still a want from customers for that type of experience.
Any plans to expand the number of Marmi doors?
Opportunistically, we’re always open to the idea. To say, however, that I would jump on a bunch of new store openings right now would depend on where they are, for starters. In addition, we want to make sure that we would be opening successful stores, because anybody can open stores and get out of them quickly. We would want to make sure that we open stores properly—to do our customers justice. Since we make sizes and widths—from size 4 narrow to 13 wide—in all of our brands, our stores must be comfortable environments to meet the needs of what is a broad range of customers. We also would want to make sure as to not step on a bunch of toes wherever we might open a store.
What advantages are there as a wholesaler to have a retail arm when working with other retailers?
It’s a testing ground for new products, ideas, concepts and constructions. We can take a lot of the risk for new items. It also helps to be able to get shoes made. As our wholesale reps know, if we are buying the shoes for our stores, then those particular styles have a 95-percent chance of being made, so they can sell to their customers confidently, because nobody likes a bunch of cancellations. Our stores also provide a lot of brand recognition. That said, we’ll never try to underprice anybody; it’s a very clean retail operation. It’s not like we price the shoes $15 to $20 less than everybody else because we own the business vertically. So it’s not bad competition, and it boosts brand awareness.
Speaking of growing retail competition, what’s your take on the online tier?
The customer we target, in particular, is not as online focused as Millennials that shop, if not exclusively, very close to exclusively online. Our customer still likes to be serviced. But the ability to sell shoes everywhere and the convenience of online shopping helps. And online shopping is only going to get stronger as people get more accustomed to it and younger generations age into our market. It’s a force that has to be addressed and embraced, and that’s why we launched a new website in April. We wanted to make sure that we are able to hold our own in the ring.
What have you done, in particular?
A lot of it is backend stuff that you can’t necessarily see, which has been met with tremendous success. On the front end, the site features a different look as far as offerings, ways we showcase the product and shopper interaction features. It’s been very well received so far.
It’s not easy and requires a lot of investment to sell online properly.
I wish it were easy. And while, in theory, consumers can just go to Amazon, being able to offer our own products through our own site gives us a bit more control. Especially when you are not just selling 6 to 10 mediums. We offer something different, our customers realize that and know they can get it from us. And we offer more of our own product on our site than anyone else does, which is only natural.
What’s your take on the expanding direct-to-consumer (DTC) efforts of many brands?
It’s another way to service the customer and a way to avoid the pricing issues online. With increased competition everyone is basically saying, I might as well as throw my hat into the ring, too. The assumption is it’s only one more domain and that it won’t hurt anybody. It’s also pretty cost effective to do, depending on how in-depth your site is.
DTC has to hurt retailers, though. These are sales they would have had.
True, but it’s the norm now and not the exception.
I get a multitude of brands offered on one site, but shopping brand site to brand site doesn’t seem all that efficient.
It all depends on how consumers are shopping. To be able to type a specific brand name into a search engine, it’s pretty easy to then click on that brand’s site to see what they have. If the customer wants that brand’s loafer specifically, it can be an easy way to get it. Now if you are looking for a general style and there are 4,000 brands offering it, then that would be quite different.
Consumers once had to go to a store for selection, curation, service, advice, etc.
A lot of that is easy to do from the comfort of a couch. But you still don’t get that personal service. Any good sales staff has the ability to help inform a customer on their shopping decision and be a sounding board. Unfortunately, however, we are living in crazy times and there are terrible things happening at some shopping malls.
The fear of getting actually killed at a mall might kill malls before online competition does.
It’s a terrible to see and there are a lot of people that won’t go to a movie theater and are increasingly afraid to go to a shopping mall. It is just very sad. Hopefully, we, as a country, can have intelligent and enlightened discussions to resolve some of these issues.
Still, I don’t envision consumers barricading themselves inside their homes and have everything delivered.
I whole-heartedly believe that shopping still involves a want for some human interaction. Studies have shown that even with catalog and home shopping channels, there are some people who order something nearly every day just to interact with the delivery person. That need for social interaction will always be there, and I don’t think everybody is just going to wall themselves off in the hopes everything gets delivered the next day.
Might malls as we now know them exist 10 years from now?
There’s too much real estate already tied up in malls for them to go away completely. But there probably won’t be as many, which will create a lot of space for something else. Regardless, you have to offer valid reasons for the customer to come see you. Malls are going to have ensure safety and be more than just a place to buy something. The days of just being a great mall isn’t getting it done anymore. You have to offer something more, be it dining, entertainment and outside programming to make people want to come. It’s going to be the challenge of both wholesalers and retailers to figure out what it needs to be to remind consumers that it isn’t just lightbulbs or toilet paper that you are buying. There’s something to be said for personal interaction when shopping for shoes and clothing—having a salesperson tell you this is what you need, this will work best with your fit issues, be most comfortable…You can’t get that online. Unfortunately, personal interaction is becoming a lost art. Many people today would rather send an email rather than pick up a phone. Personal interaction, I believe, is something to be cherished, whether it’s in a retail setting or even just in day-to-day life.
That’s a byproduct of the social media age, no?
The whole retail paradigm has been turned on its head as well. Never in the times my father and grandfather were president of our company had the retail environment totally shifted. There were challenges, for sure, but there wasn’t a whole shift in buying mentality. This is not just shifts between big store to discounter to independent to department store. Those all ended with somebody going to an actual store. It’s just such a changing and challenging retail environment today. Back in 2008, right after the financial collapse, my grandfather pulled me aside and said he’d been doing this for 65 years, which is 130 seasons, and that there’s always something that goes wrong. But then he said that this is as challenging a time as you are going to ever see. I don’t know if it’s tougher then or now, but we’re still clicking along and fortunately we’re in a very good position. We’ll see where it goes. The fifth generation was born in July and he might go into the business. He hasn’t let us know officially just yet, but that’s ok. I was never told that I had to and my son will never be told that he has to, either.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that it’s never the same two days in a row. Even from hour to hour it can change. I love working on product one day, sales the next, then retail, marketing, etc. I also love the challenge. It’s exciting because it’s challenging. It’s not exactly what we used to do five years ago, or even last year. And if it were easy, then everybody would be doing it, which would be no fun either.