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Evolutionary Times

Tectonic retail shifts once measured in years are contracting down to blinks of an eye. It’s a zero sum game: Keep pace and evolve or become extinct.

Facebook is only 10 years old, but can you think of a world before the social networking giant and its nearly instantaneous ability to reach billions of consumers worldwide ever existed? Or a time before the Internet and how it has since rendered the traditional brand-to-consumer communication platforms nearly obsolete? The pre-smartphone era now seems like the equivalent of sending smoke signals to reach consumers.

What’s more, the pace of these changes is accelerating. The latest technologies and communication platforms become passé before they ever become standard operating procedure. Similarly, the cycle of trends is spinning in and out of fashion like a tornado, which curates even the most miniscule of trends for the most micro of target audiences. The ability to see what’s trending on Nakano Broadway in Tokyo, for example, allows a trend to travel across the Pacific Ocean instantly as opposed to the past, when a look would slowly migrate from state to state, city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood largely by sightings or word of mouth. Wholesalers and retailers that are able to spot the meaningful trends and react quickly will benefit most in this brave new landscape. When it comes to requirements, speed to market is a no-brainer. But speed alone will get you no place—fast. Knowing when, how, where and what resources to allocate are also vital to success.

This issue profiles two fine examples of companies that are stepping up to the evolutionary demands today’s market presents: the omnichannel retailer Solestruck and the legendary youth culture brand, Vans. Solestruck (The New Retail, p. 20) is one of the most unique retail evolutionary stories I have come across to date. What launched as an online business in 2004 has since morphed into adding a pop-up shop that’s since become permanent in its home base of Portland, OR. And here’s the kicker: that shop operates like a showroom. Rather than gripe about consumers who showroom at traditional brick-and-mortar stores only to buy online (often for less or in the size and colorway that the retailer didn’t have on hand), CEO Bryce Morrow has created an actual shoe showroom. Customers come in, peruse, try on and snap a photo of a style’s QR code with their smartphone. Their purchase is shipped free to arrive the very next day. The set-up is far more efficient in terms of space allocation demands, enabling Morrow to showcase 450 SKUs instead of about 100 SKUs, which was the store’s limit when it carried inventory. What’s more, the new model allowed the shop to stay in the city, rather than moving to some white elephant of a building amid the suburban sprawls where Morrow knows his über-trendy customer most definitely doesn’t want to shop. There’s plenty more Morrow is doing—like wholesaling four of his own brand creations around the world—to adapt to the ever-changing wants and needs of his customers. It’s an inspirational industry story, if there ever was one.

Likewise, our Q&A with Kevin Bailey, president of Vans (Old Skool Meets New School, p. 14), is a candid and informative read on how the legendary brand refuses to stagnate, and that’s despite 18 consecutive quarters of double-digit sales growth and latest annual sales topping $1.7 billion. Bailey, a lifelong retailer who possesses an eternal teen spirit, chooses to dive right into the volatile, liquid market where Vans’ core audience swims. No significant consumer shift is overlooked and a need to react is never ignored. Bailey combines a boots-on-the-ground retailer perspective with proven examples of how Vans’ willingness to adapt and change can apply to all retailers and wholesalers. The message is clear: Evolve or run the risk of going the way of Thom McAn, Simple, the Edsel, Ladies Home Journal, the Roman Empire, the Dodo, dinosaurs… The list goes on and on. No industry, civilization or species is immune, but let’s hope none of us ever end up on it.

The April/May 2024 Issue

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