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People at an Exhibition

What are the Odds?

Bring your game face.

People at an ExhibitionWalking up and down the aisles and in and out of the adjacent ballrooms and meeting rooms of The Atlanta Shoe Market (TASM) last month, various numbers streamed through my head. How many steps am I racking up daily? (North of 14,000.) Just how many shoe brands are there? Well, there were at least 1,800 at this show. I also wondered how many buyers were roaming around. That isn’t officially reported, aside from a five percent increase over the record number who attended the 80-year-old show last August.

TASM’s buyer attendance is quite impressive, considering the amount of consolidation the retail sector has gone through in the past 10 years. Indeed, the size and scope of TASM felt close to the old WSA Shows in Las Vegas. Granted, the booths weren’t as grandiose, but that’s not what this show is all about. It’s about keeping costs in check so attendees get the most ROI possible. And there would have been even more exhibitors if the space could have accommodated them. (The current waiting list includes about 160 companies.) Approximately $100 billion in retail footwear sales is up for grabs each year in the U.S. That’s quite an incentive to plant your flag in Atlanta, even if dwindling ranks of retailers mean the odds are not in exhibitors’ favor.

Speaking of odds, I couldn’t help getting a Hunger Games vibe as I roamed the aisles. Certain districts, ones populated by established brands, were lively, while others were quieter, a la District 12. Everywhere I went, I sensed a Hunger Games–worthy kill-or-be-killed atmosphere. Neighbors are not friends in Trade Show land. Do the math: The odds of surviving in our business get more daunting all the time. You don’t have to be a DraftKings wizard to calculate what a longshot it’s becoming. And things are only getting tougher, as many retailers roll out private label collections primarily as a way to combat brands selling DTC. If Quinnipiac University took a poll of retailers right now, I’d bet the house that DTC would be issue number one.

Shelf space is thistight. And despte limitless online aisles, trying to stand out in that all-comers venue is the proverbial needle in a (humongous) haystack. You’re going to need a boatload of cash to shine.

Who will survive? Who might thrive? Who will get the cannon blast sendoff in memoriam? (At times, I really do feel like Stanley Tucci’s character, TV host Caesar Flickerman, in the movie version of The Hunger Games.) Our Shoe Games march on.

This issue features plenty of worthy contestants, as well as one who decided to leave our games—on his own terms. First up is Tony Adams, president of Hälsa and the subject of our Q&A (p. 12). Adams is a Shoe Games lifer, having started at age 14 working in his father’s store. After an impressive run in retail with various chains, he crossed into wholesale where he made a name for himself as a brand birther during a 17-year run at H.H. Brown. Adams constantly adapts and finds new ways to survive. His high retail math IQ is one of his key assets. Plus, he speaks retail—starting with not selling DTC. Then there is Adams’ genuine love of this industry. It’s a passion that burns just as strongly as it did decades ago. Combined, it makes Hälsa a Shoe Games contender of note.

Next up is Ron Owens, vice president and manager of Dingo, our Brand Focus (p. 22). Owens is a rare example of a contestant coming out of a well-earned retirement and returning to the Shoe Games of his own volition. Owens has nothing left to prove after decades of success, including big runs with Candie’s and Sam & Libby. He could have kept playing golf. But like any true Shoe Games champion, the thrill of the competition and the opportunity to win (much bigger, potentially) was too tempting to pass up. Owens is repositioning Dingo amid a massive Americana lifestyle movement, a cultural tipping point that underpins his gameplan. Think Taylor Swift and Beyoncé combined in terms of influence. Dingo is definitely a Shoe Games player to keep an eye on.

Finally, we spotlight another long-time Shoe Games champion and his decision to call it a career. The latest installment in our A Note to My Younger Self series (p. 25) is by Gary Weiner, former owner of Saxon Shoes in Richmond, VA. In classic Weiner fashion, he puts his own creative spin on the format by writing a note to his “current” self. Weiner’s reasons for selling his beloved third-generation-owned family business to Comfort One Shoes last fall are equal parts pragmatic and poignant. Basically, he did the math and tallied more yesterdays than tomorrows. Grandkids trump spreadsheets. It’s one fine farewell—and a fitting place to end my latest recap of the Shoe Games. May the odds be ever in your favor.

The March 2024 Issue

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