Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Shoes

We hold these truths to be self-evident… Well, at least I do after 20 years.

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A cold and snowy winter, and boots sell like hotcakes. A cold and clammy spring, like last year (I’m hoping for better this season), and sandal sales freeze.

There are certain shoe truths that I’ve come to accept as law after covering this industry for 20 years. Take the weather, for example. Its inability to behave predictably just about every season I can recall begs the question: Is the weather ever normal? More to the point, should our industry continue to act surprised or dismayed when it doesn’t behave as expected? The famous quote, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” is spot on, especially when it comes to the shoe business. It’s too cold, snowy, rainy, hot, dry—pick an adjective, any adjective. Inclement weather is one of the leading excuses for missing a seasonal sales forecast. Why take blame when Mother Nature can be the scapegoat? You’d think that after a while one might expect the unexpected to be the norm. At the very least, it might be wise to hedge one’s bets by offering more design versatility and, on the retail side, more merchandise flexibility to adapt to the curve balls Mother Nature inevitably throws our way.

Incidentally, that famous weather quote was actually coined by Charles Dudley Warner, a novelist and friend of Mark Twain. Twain got credit, though, because he repeated the witticism once during a lecture and, being more famous than Warner, the misattribution stuck. After being repeated often and long enough, people forgot who really invented it. Now when has that happened in our industry? This is the fashion business, after all. Rumors spread like wildfire, sometimes mushrooming into infernos of hype, misperception and fabrication. And therein lies another industry truth: “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” That bit of wisdom is usually attributed to another American icon, Benjamin Franklin, though some say it was Edgar Allan Poe. Who’d have thought one of our nation’s forefathers would turn out to be a fashion prophet more than 200 years later?

When it comes to making the final call on what styles are in a line or on a store shelf, I say, “Go with your gut.” Don’t take a flyer on a rumored slam dunk, because, “If it’s too good to be true…” Well, you know the rest of that proverb. Still, having interviewed countless executives over the years in retail and wholesale, I know that those who exhibit the best track record in picking winners have years of experience working the floor in stores. There are no finer examples than the two featured in this issue: Bob Infantino, president of Drydock Footwear, and Joe Moore, president and CEO of FFANY. Combined, the execs have nearly 100 years of industry experience, spanning retail, wholesale and trade shows. But both cut their teeth working the floors of independent shoe stores. Infantino worked at Altier in Rochester, NY. Moore worked at Trippets in Tulsa, OK. Both attribute their career success and longevity to that experience.

“I learned everything I had to know about what people wanted in comfort footwear from being on the floor. It’s where I learned exactly why women bought shoes,” says Infantino, the subject of this month’s Q&A (p. 14). “It wasn’t so much about what they were buying as it was why they were buying. I learned those lessons by selling a pair at a time for 10 years, and I never forget them. That stuff never changes, and I’ve been using it my entire career.”

Moore, the recipient of our Plus Award for Lifetime Achievement (p. 24), learned the secrets to success by working the floors at Trippets and Bullock’s department stores. It set him on a path that helped make Neiman Marcus a destination for salon footwear, leading Charles Jourdan into a $100 million retail/wholesale operation and making Saks Fifth Avenue’s Off 5th retail concept a $300 million operation. Moore did it by remaining close to the sales floor, where he interacted with consumers in real time rather than poring over spreadsheets and market studies. His recommendation to anyone looking to succeed as a buyer—at any level—today: Sell shoes. “You have to work at the fitting stool,” he says. “Learning what fits, what works, what doesn’t, what women want… There’s no way to learn that without literally being a shoe salesperson.”

Last is what I call the Golden Shoe Rule: Women love shoes. No matter how much might go wrong, our industry collectively can’t go wrong in this regard. Footwear Plus has been covering this love affair for nearly a quarter-century. The proof is in our pages, in the countless success stories fueled by women’s willingness to shop for, try on, buy, collect, fawn over and obsess about shoes. It never ceases to amaze me. As a rule, I just leave that one alone and count our collective blessings.

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