Speak Easy

Keith Gossett, president of Easy Street Shoe Company, discusses why its formula of moderately priced comfort styles aimed primarily at middle-aged women may not sound all that sexy, but it sure rings the register.

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Keith Gossett

Keith Gossett

Eschewing hype and hypotheticals, Keith Gossett, president of Easy Street Shoe Company and makers of Easy Street, Tuscany by Easy Street and Bella Vita brands, tells it like it is. He speaks about the proven capabilities of what his company offers to the marketplace. Gossett, who has spent his entire career in this industry (including managerial stints in retail), speaks from experience and understands both sides of the equation. His invaluable perspective coupled with a candid honesty is a breath of fresh air. With Gossett, what you see is what you get, and the same goes for Easy Street Shoe Company.

“Our customer can count on seeing a breadth of comfort casuals available in an extensive range of sizes and widths at a moderate price point,” Gossett offers. “And our retail partners will have an in-stock program to support them.” The basic formula has led to more than a decade of steady growth for the New Hampshire-based company. Sales in particular have spiked to double-digit gains the past few years thanks largely to the Internet. “Our online partners have been driving a lot of our sales of late, reaching consumers we never knew were even out there,” he says.

While the Easy Street formula is easy enough to explain, it’s far from easy to implement and maintain. “The fact is most wholesalers don’t want to or can’t do what we do,” Gossett says, citing primarily the financial requirements and risks involved. “We have the customer they don’t want, the sizes and widths they don’t want to invest in making and the inventory levels they don’t want to risk carrying. And we probably have the turns that they don’t want.” But Gossett views those negatives as opportunities, which amount to Easy Street’s reason for being. “If I decided tomorrow to take the sizes and widths and in-stock availability aspects out of our formula—the foundation of our business—we wouldn’t last five years,” he predicts. “We’d be just another brand trying to compete on style. But if we continue to offer the right shoes in the right balance, the right assortment and in sizes and widths, then I expect we’ll continue to grow.”

Gossett believes consumers are flocking to the company’s portfolio of brands—the Italian-made Tuscany by Easy Street being the most recent debut this spring—because it zeros in on the wants and needs of a customer base that many brands consider taboo. Specifically, women 40 and over who are in desperate need of a broad selection of comfort casuals available in an extensive range of sizes and widths. “I understand that our market might not be the sexiest or cutest, but they do need and buy a lot of shoes,” Gossett offers, adding that the brand embraces its target audience. “You will not see Easy Street ads featuring a 22-year-old woman because, to be perfectly honest, that woman isn’t wearing our shoes,” he says. “Sure, every now and then one gets confused and buys a pair, but we’re not trying to sell to her.” Gossett lets prospective retailers know this right away. “If a buyer comes into our booth and asks whom our customer is, the response very well could be, ‘She’s older than you,’” he laughs. “Sometimes they’ll respond, ‘Is that a good thing?’ And I’ll say, ‘Unless they are going barefoot, then it’s a good thing.’” Gossett adds, “I’m a salesman and I want to sell shoes. If someone 81 years old buys a pair of Easy Streets, then I think she’s a wonderful individual. They are all welcome.”

The fact that Easy Street is comfortable within its own skin makes it unlike a lot of comfort brands that have suffered recurring identity crises thanks to a revolving door of re-positions. Often it’s been driven by the fear of being associated with woman older than 30. So these brands try to skew younger in design and marketing, but also leave a neglected customer base for Easy Street to capture. Along those lines, Easy Street’s aim is to interpret the latest trends into wearable fashions, rather than trying to set the fashion pace. And that speaks directly to their target consumer. “Our interpretations of current trends may include some color or ornamentation to jazz it up,” Gossett explains. “But when I’m asked what the new colors for a season are, I say, ‘The ones people can wear.’ It does us no good to develop a strappy sandal in an assortment of crazy colors that no one will wear.” He adds, “If you can’t attribute volume to it, then we don’t believe that’s where Easy Street should be.”

That volume-based positioning leads to Easy Street’s massive in-stock program that carries upwards of 500,000 pairs on select items. While other brands offer similar programs, few go to the breadth and extent of Easy Street—a level that has only increased of late to meet its growing online demand. “Our available inventory is at four or five times the level of what it was six years ago,” Gossett confirms. “You’re not going to find that level of commitment in this industry.” That’s largely because it requires placing huge bets that most wholesalers are unwilling or unable to wager. As Gossett explains, “You better have done your homework and trust your instincts if you backup orders that big.” It helps that Gossett has been at the helm of Easy Street for the past 18 years and that he and his team have a sixth sense when it comes to knowing their consumer. The team also understands the tremendous value the ability to re-order provides its retailers. “Whether they are an independent or a major, the ability to fill-in instead of waiting for months is very attractive,” he notes. “It’s been a critical aspect to our success.”

Another factor contributing to Easy Street’s success lies in its flexibility and speed. Specifically, being independently owned is what Gossett says enables the company to turn on a dime. “It doesn’t take a committee to get things done around here,” he offers. “When we get our hands on something that works, our team knows how to maximize that opportunity.”

Going forward, Gossett sees plenty of continued growth opportunities for Easy Street. In five years, he projects the company could be twice its current size. For starters, its consumer base isn’t going anywhere, plus there are fewer competitors to its unique business formula. Nevertheless, Gossett, a self-described “conservative guy,” keeps his company’s expectations within reason. “The company is growing at a nice pace, but I won’t let it go any faster than we can handle,” he says. “There are more pieces involved than just selling a lot more shoes. We have to be realistic and be able to deliver on our expectations.”

Carrying several hundred thousand pairs on the expectation they will sell: That’s a strategy not for the meek of heart, correct?
It isn’t. But we have a good track record. A lot of it involves a gut reaction as well as a willingness to take risks. You eventually have to just step off the curb and make a decision. But it’s not like we are all just guessing here. There are plenty of conversations within our very experienced team—a lot of how, why and where when it comes to determining which styles to pile in our warehouse. There are no tricks, really. For example, with our new Tuscany by Easy Street collection, I bought a 100 percent increase on every pair we just ordered from the factory. Not a lot of companies do that. If they sell 20,000 pairs, they aren’t going to buy 40,000 pairs and carry the extra 20,000 pairs in case somebody might call. But we feel confident in taking that risk. Easy Street, in general, is a different school of thought, and the inventory aspect in particular is a big part of that concept.

Teamwork, a gut instinct, risks taking… What else?
It involves one of my pet peeves: You have to stop talking so much and really listen to what retailers are saying. Everybody has something to contribute. Now that doesn’t mean what’s coming out of their mouths is all gospel, but they do have contributions to make. You just have to be smart enough to put the right value on those contributions. There are a lot of smart people in this business and if you listen and work with them, you can increase your opportunities to be successful.

What are retailers saying right now?
Many are saying this spring started off slow, which is no big secret. They are being very conservative in their thoughts and plans, but they are also optimistic. For example, in the southern areas of the country, where the market didn’t start as slow, we’ve gotten some very strong responses and we are getting reorders. So we feel very optimistic right now, as well. We believe if we keep putting fresh merchandise in front of our customer, she is going to buy.

Beyond fresh merchandise, what are the leading factors causing her to buy Easy Street?
For sure, it’s our extensive range of styles available in sizes and widths. I would say 95 percent of the shoes we carry come in narrow, medium, wide and extra wide—43 sizes and four widths. I will not do business with a manufacturer if we cannot support that size range. We are determined to make sure that’s our niche in the marketplace, and our customers are responding. For example, if she wears a 10 wide or even a more obscure 9 double wide, we are not offering just three styles. She will be able to shop about 50 styles in her size. It’s like shopping a store’s full selection. We feel comfortable in that we offer her a wardrobe. If she wants an evening shoe, we’ve got it. A summer sandal, we’ve got it. A boot, we’ve got it. And we’ve got a wide calf boot, too. If she wants a more contemporary or trendy style (at a slightly higher price point), we’ve got Bella Vita. And Tuscany is the same approach with the cachet of being made in Italy. The only reason any of it exists at Easy Street, however, is that it’s available in sizes and widths. We won’t walk away from that business, especially since some of our competitors have pulled back on their offerings in this segment.

There doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity with respect to what Easy Street offers or much deviation from the concept. 
My theory in life: Anything you do, commit to doing it. That said you always have to be repositioning, to some extent. You need to look at opportunities that can enhance what you currently do. If we think a new comfort construction will enhance our sandal business, then we will spend a lot of time and money to put that program together. But Easy Street doesn’t make large leaps. I’m not going to show something that goes into a totally different direction. It’s about taking what we do and making it better. We have to be able to adjust to the market, but still speak to our core consumer. Besides, retailers are pretty sharp folks. If we go off the deep end with something, they’ll just smile and tell us to put it back down.

It sounds simple enough, but is it really?
There are always difficulties, like with sourcing issues in the Far East that makes it a little more challenging today. But, at the same time, there are things you can’t change and you just have to figure out how to adapt and work within those guidelines and opportunities. I hear complaints all the time about how hard the business is today. But I’m not the doom-and-gloom guy. You’ll never see me complain like that. I just look at the opportunities, because I’m an optimist first and foremost. Now, have I launched programs that have been total disasters? Absolutely. But am I going to cry about it? No. I accept it, try and figure out what I did wrong and then try something else. I’m always working for that next opportunity. Amid a very challenging retail climate and a lot of the diversification going on in the industry, if you let all that negative stuff make you crazy, then you are never going to get anywhere.

How has the Tuscany by Easy Street debut been received?
It’s been absolutely fantastic and has exceeded everybody’s expectations. Of our current top 15 drop-ship selling styles, every Italian-made style is represented. We are expanding our made-in-Italy program going forward, which our partners are very capable of handling.

In what ways is the Tuscany product different from Easy Street?
The real difference is it truly looks like an Italian-made product, which reflects a different taste level. The details, materials and weaves on some patterns are special. If you mix both Easy Street collections in a room, retailers could pick out the Italian shoes in 30 seconds, probably. At the same time, they still speak to our core customer. As a result, I think we are getting her as well as attracting new customers.

Does Made in Italy still hold a level of cachet with consumers?
I believe so. The bonus is now they can buy that cachet in a 10 wide, a 12 narrow or whatever the case may be. Also, of late there’s been a large retailer in our region (New England) running an extensive prime time TV campaign promoting its selection of Italian-made handbags, shoes and accessories. What is interesting and encouraging is the people featured in the commercials are in their twenties and the designs are aimed at that audience as well. This retailer wouldn’t be going to this expense if they though the Made in Italy aspect was meaningless.

Any new launches in the works?
Yes. We’ve spent considerable time developing a new sub-brand that is more technical and, for a lack of a better term, is more orthotic-designed casual comfort footwear. There’s been a lot of success of late with orthotic type concepts, and this is our version for our customer. We’ll be introducing it at FFANY this month. At this point, it’s called Easy Motion by Easy Street. It’s taking what’s been working for us and making it more technical and, based on the time and energy that we’ve put into the program, better. And that’s better for the consumer and better for the retailer, because it gives them more to talk about. But we won’t go crazy, it will be a small package of sandals that, when she puts the shoe on, she’ll feel an immediate difference thanks to our built-in comfort features. And they’ll be priced similarly as other Easy Street shoes, mainly between $49 to $59 retail.

What’s your assessment of retail in general right now?
When I walk into malls of late I think the environment is challenging. Aside from those who might be on a mission looking for a particular item, how many people are actually carrying bags? Not nearly enough, from what I’m seeing. If they don’t have shopping bags then all they are doing, in my opinion, is wandering. These retailers haven’t closed the sale. While no one is going to like to hear this, part of the problem is the consumer can pretty much see the same thing from one end of a mall to the other. There’s no uniqueness. That makes it really easy for the consumer to go online and look for something unique. If she wants cobalt blue shoes because she just bought a dress in that color but can’t find it in her local mall, she’ll go online and find plenty of cobalt blue shoe opportunities. To that end, we’ve made a huge investment with our sizes and widths offering. We believe retailers have an opportunity to stay in business if they offer sizes and widths and service that customer. That’s something that customers can’t find in the 11 other shoe stores in the mall.

They may find it online, but they can’t get the fitting expertise.
They really can’t. Because shoes are manufactured in so many different places, the fit can vary from brand to brand. If you wear a more challenging size, you might want to try on a couple of different styles. In the same breath, however, consumers are having 25 pairs shipped to their doorstep, thanks to free shipping both ways from online dealers. The customer practically has a shoe store in their house. The Internet, overall, is changing the game dramatically. Our drop-ship business is growing extremely well.

If it continues to grow at that pace, what’s that say about the long-term viability of brick-and-mortar retailers?
I don’t know the long-term answer to that question, although that topic comes up at just about every trade show I’ve been to of late. As of now, we still have a nice independent business. Similarly, people still seem to like going to malls. Around the holidays or even on an average weekend, there are plenty of people in them. So the opportunity is there. In general, I think people still like to go out and shop. It’s a fun activity, and I don’t think that’s going to stop completely. However, consumers used to shop when the Internet wasn’t at their fingertips and, therefore, were more likely to have compromised and made a purchase. Now, if they are not 100 percent sure that item is going to work and fulfill a need, they are not nearly as willing to pull the trigger. They may go home and do a comparison shop online, finding exactly what they were looking for and then have it mailed to them for free.

It doesn’t bode well, especially if stores all look the same. 
I don’t disagree and, to your point, I have zero plans to open any brick-and-mortar stores any time soon. The reality is the independent tier is not a growing market for us. If I compare the decrease of that tier’s orders with the increase in orders from our online customers, guess where the business has gone?

Well, what’s not to like when these dealers buy your entire collection?
There are some large online retailers who say, “Give me everything you have available.” Done. While others make you lay the product in front, do a sales presentation and then they pick and choose a few styles here and there.

Which meetings are better?
Well… It’s a wonderful thing if they buy everything, because I have a warehouse full of shoes. My logic is we’ve got a huge inventory and we want to offer that customer everything. We don’t specify which boot she can purchase. I’d rather say to our customer: You can have 10 different boots. They come in multiple colors and styles, and they all are available in sizes and widths. We believe diversification gives the customer increased opportunity. The growth of the Internet is being driven largely by choice. The logic that follows is you better give the consumer more choices because if you don’t, then they are going to shop somewhere else. By and large, people love choice. It’s the same thing in large stores where there are aisles and aisles of choices because they want the customer to go, ‘Wow, look at all these choices!’ Amazon has taken it to the nth degree, while other retailers prefer to be very selective in what they carry. In general, it’s more challenging if you can’t offer meaningful choice. Along these lines, there are an increasing number of online retailers seeking exclusive patterns to further distinguish their level of choice. That presents a pretty big opportunity for us going forward.

The online tier matches particularly well with Easy Street’s model, correct?
Those retailers are pretty satisfied with us. If they project to do X amount of volume with us and have the ability to blow that up to 200 percent better, that gets their attention. But you have to carry significant inventory to play this type of game. And fulfillment is key in this tier because we are dealing directly with that retailer’s customer. Hypothetically, she’s a Nordstrom or Macy’s customer and we’ve got to do everything perfectly right from quality of the shoes to delivering in a timely fashion. Otherwise, those retailers will throw us out, and rightfully so. Disappointing my customer is one thing, but if I disappoint the drop-ship customer then I’m messing with somebody else’s customer. That’s just taboo. For example, we have a cable TV retailer that does huge numbers with us and the window we must ship their orders is exact. It’s thousands of pairs, and we better not miss it within the hour. There’s no variance. If they sold 20,000 pairs, but three pairs didn’t get shipped, it better not happen again. That’s why our call to duty every day is: service, service, service. We make sure we deliver. It’s why we won’t accept unrealistic terms or make promises we can’t keep. Like we’ll never put an item on an Internet feed unless those shoes are sitting in our warehouse. We don’t even consider doing anything in anticipation. Nothing goes live until we can fulfill the order for that customer.

What do you love most about your job?
That’s easy: Running an independent shoe company. The freedom and the flexibility in doing that is what I love most. I tell people all the time, it’s easy to do business with us. We don’t do things by committee and we can make decisions on the spot. That’s one of our slogans in our advertising: “We make it easy.” We are not just talking about the shoes being “easy,” we’re talking about how it’s easy to do business with us as well. Unlike other large organizations that deal in a similar depth and breadth of styles and sizes where you have to sit before a board of directors explaining how, why, where, terms and so forth and so on, that’s a lot more challenging and time-consuming than me basically saying, “Yes, we’re going to stock 100,000 pairs. Done.”

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