Rob Rask, managing director of Ara Shoes North America, reveals why the German-based Euro comfort company—already a major player around the world—is positioned to take the country by storm.
There are plenty of Euro comfort brands that have come ashore during what has become an ongoing head-to-toe casual revolution now stretching back several decades. Some are well-established and highly successful both here and abroad, and many others are small and struggle to find their way. Then there are those that seem to get the formula right overseas but run into enormous difficulties trying to put an American accent on their European designs and seem determined to utilize the same approach to marketing, brand positioning and delivering their goods to retailers Stateside. For the latter companies, it’s like they just refuse to speak English. The fact that they have already been quite successful elsewhere around the world leads to a stubbornness and, to be blunt, an arrogance to adapt to the unique demands that this market presents. C’est la vie. But try as they might, companies that insist upon their European ways often find the road to building a viable business in the U.S. full of potholes, complete with plenty of debilitating detours and sales roadblocks. The wreckage of such brands litters the side of the road. And it’s no secret that our industry does plenty of rubbernecking in this regard.
Rob Rask, an industry veteran with extensive retail and wholesale experience, is well aware of these tales—just one reason why he is the ideal candidate leading German-based Ara Shoes into America. Rask began his footwear career working for a division of Nordstrom called Place Two and sold many a shoe at its Crossroads store in his hometown of Bellevue, WA. He worked his way through many different departments during his Nordstrom tenure and eventually wound up as its men’s merchandise manager for the Southern California region. “It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about this business,” Rask says. “The culture back then was entrepreneurial and decentralized.” Rask says the lessons taught then were to listen to each customer, in each department, in each store. “Employees were encouraged to carry merchandise that reflected the customer in each department,” he says, noting there was a designated buyer in every department. “It was a bit like herding cats, but the idea was not to bring them all together. The idea was to support the buyers in each of their environments and encourage and celebrate the separate businesses that each store had.” Not surprisingly, Rask says the store managers took ownership of their businesses, which, he adds, is part of his approach at Ara North America. “We want to reach the consumer, and we undrestand that each of the retail partners we work with are very passionate about how they go about reaching their respective customers,” he explains. “We are embracing our unique partners by working individually with each to help them grow their businesses.”
Following a successful 10-year run with Nordstrom, Rask entered an entrepreneurial stint of designing and importing shoes from Europe that was later folded into an opportunity with Roots Canada. Rask was then offered an opportunity to work alongside then Mephisto USA President Richard Meckfessel. “Richard believed there was a very big opportunity to grow Mephisto in this country and he and I worked together successfully to that end,” Rask says. “We had almost four years together and really did have fun building that business.” Following Meckfessel’s unexpected passing, Rask once again went the entrepreneurial route importing shoes from Europe under Borgesi until the Ara opportunity presented itself in 2008. He was immediately intrigued by Ara’s vast resources, its long track record of success globally and, specifically, how that could equate to a comfort-loving nation like the U.S.
For starters, Ara owns most of its factories and therefore has a firm grasp on quality control and the ability to maintain consistency from one season to the next. In addition, it assures greater reliability with respect to in-full and on-time deliveries. Then there’s the sheer volume of product Ara makes each season. “We have many lasts, designs, patterns and types of shoes,” Rask offers. “We are well known in many parts of Europe for all types of footwear, including women’s comfort footbed sandals to mid-heel dress pumps to fashion platform pumps to Gore-Tex boots and shoes and much more.” He adds, “We also have a very healthy men’s business that is competitive with many of the brands that are popular here.” Overall, Rask believes Ara’s product arsenal is a key selling point with American retailers, many of whom are looking for product diversity to set their stores apart from increasingly homogenous competition. And the fact that Ara owns and operates approximately 800 stores worldwide, Rask notes, proves it understands the needs and concerns of retailers. “We have a very long retail history; we understand retailing,” he confirms.
Now nearly three years into the gig—the majority of his time and effort was first spent getting the backroom capabilities dialed into American needs and time schedules—Rask believes Ara is positioned for rapid growth. Perhaps the very fact that Rask acknowledges the need to adapt to such market specifics is the first sign that Ara will avoid the mistakes made by others who have sought to conquer America.
“What is difficult to bring to the North American marketplace is the European timing of deliveries as well as some of the sensibility for materials, colors and seasonal products,” Rask says. “We have worked hard to align both Ara Canada and Ara U.S. with their respective markets and, in this regard, distanced ourselves from Europe these last couple of years.” Specifically, Rask says Ara is now offering many more patterns, lasts and styles to the North American marketplace than ever before. “Ara offers such a diverse collection that we believe we can be great partners with retailers in North America,” he says. “As we continue to deliver on those market demands, we expect great results.”
So far so good, Rask reports. Asked to grade 2011, he modestly responds: “We get a good grade.” While this past spring was a tough one weather wise and the economy continued on its anemic recovery, Rask says Ara came out OK. “Our inventories are in great shape heading into this fall season and we really like how the overall line merchandises,” he says. “We believe we have the right fashion styles with the fit and comfort that the customer is looking for.” In addition, Rask says the finishing touches on a new operating system are nearly complete. “This will really propel us forward,” he says, noting it was already considered a strong suit of the brand. “We often receive compliments regarding our operations and customer service. This will only help us get even better in these areas as well as better in many other facets of the business. Our customers will be pleased.”
What might surprise U.S. retailers about Ara?
That we are a very big brand in Europe. We own most of our factories, which is great for quality control, for the continuity of fit for our shoes and to maintain a good value. Ara started out almost 70 years ago as a manufacturer and retailer of shoes. It is still a family-owned and operated business.
What is Ara’s reputation in the European market?
Ara is in many of the better retail stores in Europe and around the world. In addition, we have a very broad and diverse business in those markets. We are very much a complete shoe company. The consumer knows Ara for all types of footwear as well as for being a go-to retailer for all types of shoes. Or, as our slogan reads, “Shoe fashion that fits me.”
What advantages does Ara have that other Euro comfort brands might not in its efforts to become a player in the U.S. market?
It all begins with our ability to control our quality. The continuity in terms of fit, from season to season, is a strong selling point for us. To be precise, our shoes are made on numerous, specific-fitting lasts. We make certain styles on certain lasts and, therefore, the overall execution of the shoe is much better. There are not many companies that use these types of fittings anymore. While the benefits are a bit more difficult to translate to retailers initially, it builds a loyalty once they understand and their customers experience the difference. In the long run, the better we help the shoe fit and be comfortable, the better for our customers.
In addition to lasts, what are other unique comfort attributes of Ara shoes?
Our Comfort Stretch design gives the customer more flexibility and give in both the ball and the little toe area of the foot. We make many different types of shoes with this technology and have found a very nice following with our customers. Ara also offers multiple shaft width boots—from S, M, L, XL, XXL. This is pretty unique in the marketplace today and a particularly strong point of brand differentiation. Many women in this country have difficulties fitting into one-size-fits-all boots. Women come in all shapes and sizes.
Where are you at in the process of making Ara a major player in the comfort market here?
We have worked very hard over the last couple of years to get our business in line with our retailers’ needs. We are excited that the hard work is paying off. To date, we are beating our plan for 2011, but the numbers are still not where I think they should be. That said, I’m excited for this season. We are in good inventory shape, and I believe we should have a very good rest of the year. We have worked hard on developing more fashionable shoes. We have listened to our retail partners, and they are responding positively. Our initial bookings going into this season are very strong and our deliveries have started earlier than ever. Also, we have a very strong relationship with Gore-Tex and that package of shoes and boots for this season is the best we have had to date. It’s a tremendous product and continues to get stronger because of the consumer demand. Our initial bookings in this category are well ahead of where we were last year. It should also be noted that, because we believe in being an in-stock company, we have a strong inventory position on our entire line.
What are some of the challenges in gaining acceptance in this market?
As you well know, it is very competitive out there. We believe that if we can continue to deliver on time, have stock for reorders, offer great value and maintain our fit, comfort and quality, then we will continue to experience success. It doesn’t hurt that our brand is well known worldwide and it’s a very small world now. People travel much more and they are also exposed to much more because of the Internet. Ara is increasingly coming to the attention of consumers here.
What has been your biggest surprise—good or bad—this year?
The good has been how responsive retailers have been to our efforts. They have really been encouraging us these last couple of years. And while the reaction really isn’t unexpected, it’s nice to know that we are moving in the right direction.
Along those lines, what’s on tap for Spring ’12?
Traditionally, our business has been very strong in the fall and winter months. And while we continue to work on opening up our footwear, we don’t want to lose the unique Ara elements related to comfort and fit in the process. Our head designer, Ralf Schlachter, has done an outstanding job for this marketplace in this regard. He has worked hard to integrate the lasts, materials and colors that we have been asking for. We just finished our line set for next spring and believe we have made great strides. Specifically, we’ve included looks in step with the strong nautical trend, and we also plan to offer more shoes on more moderate height wedges. In addition, we are featuring many more season-appropriate colors and materials than we have in years past. When I started with Ara, I got an earful from some of our retail partners on how they wanted us to become more of a ’12-month-a-year’ player. We’ve been working well toward this goal the last couple of seasons and our latest collection proves we will now be a player.
Who is the target Ara customer?
More than likely she’s a business professional who is on her feet a lot. She needs to look professional and wants a comfortable shoe, but she doesn’t want to sacrifice comfort for fashion. She also would like to be able to wear her shoes beyond the workday, for her evening plans as well.
Where will this customer most likely find Ara?
We are currently in many of the better independent retailers across North America. We want to become even better partners with them. We also believe we can partner with many other retailers. Our research tells us that there are a lot of customers looking for our brand.
Has our industry recovered from the financial collapse?
I’m not so sure. Many companies have disappeared and I suspect more will follow, in both retail and wholesale. So it’s hard to say we’re better off with people still losing jobs and companies going out of business. But we all know that we have to keep moving forward and, those that do, probably will be better off. They are the ones that tend to be better organized and prepared as well as leaner and more able to weather this tough climate. To further answer your question, I would say our industry has become even more competitive since the financial collapse kicked in. As a result, we have to continue to make our companies, brands and products better Is it fair to venture then that introducing a relatively new brand has become more difficult these days? Business overall has definitely not gotten any easier over the last couple of years. The marketplace is getting tougher. Fortunately for us, more retailers are becoming aware of Ara and are excited about our value, comfort and fit stories. While we have experienced the loss of some partners due to the difficult economy, we have begun many new partnerships, which is exciting.
Might we all be meandering amid a “new normal” that no one is particularly thrilled about or can define?
Can anyone really define what is going on right now in this country from an economic standpoint? I sure cannot. In the meantime, I’m just trying to make sure that when our retail partners have a request for an Ara shoe, that it is of great value, fits properly and is very comfortable. And, let’s not forget, that it’s in stock so they are able to ring the register.
What is your assessment of the consumer’s psyche right now: good, bad or ugly?
The customer is always good. Without them, we don’t have a business, period. We need to listen to them always, because they always want something. We just need to be sure to give them what they want.
Do they still want to shop in stores or will they continue to increasingly look to the Internet for their shoe purchases?
I think that most customers still want to shop in stores. I travel quite a bit and many of the stores I visit are filled with people sitting in the seats with shoes boxes strewn on the sales floors as they try on pairs. And, fortunately, the registers are ringing. However, I also believe the Internet has opened up a much bigger shopping environment—one that is staggering, actually. But it can also help grow sales in the shops. The Internet can be a great driver of business. Many consumers still enjoy or need to try on shoes before making a purchase. And the Internet lets them pre-shop to their hearts’ content.
Is social media truly a revolutionary change with respect to consumer behavior?
I sure think so. We can learn so much more about the consumer through this medium. For one thing, the social media age has helped usher in the casual movement. The marketplace is a much more relaxed in terms what people are wearing and what is acceptable. I believe the Internet has played a big part in bringing that vibe to the forefront. As such, social media is really an amazing opportunity for us to grow our business. We need to embrace it, learn from it and grow with it. To this end, we have our own website for Ara North America and we also have a Facebook page. Our website is completely independent of our parent company’s site. Some may think this is not a good idea, but it enables Ara North America to speak to our customers directly. We felt that it was important that our website and Facebook page really be our own voice. The traffic has been growing daily. I find that the site is very similar to working on the sales floor: you get direct feed back from the consumer. While not as immediate, you learn what the customer is thinking. Of course, it’s not fun to read any ‘need improvement’ messages, but I am listening to what our customers have to say. It’s a great tool to help Ara become a better partner with our retailers and consumers. That said, I don’t think the in-the-store basics will ever change: The need to offer quality, value, fit and comfort remains the same.
What’s the status on the rest of the Ara’s brand portfolio with regard to the U.S.?
The parent company, Ara AG, based in Langenfeld, Germany, has many brands under its umbrella. All of them continue to perform well in Europe. Currently, we are focusing on Ara women’s and men’s, the edgier, more moderate-priced Jenny by Ara brand for women, and Ara handbags in North America. Recently, we also decided to introduce the Lloyd men’ brand here. We believe this could be a very good brand for North America.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the opportunity to work with so many different people from across North America and around the world. It’s really cool to experience such diverse interests and cultures but, in the end, to discover that we are at the heart of it so much the same. That and I also love doggin’ (i.e. selling) shoes! —Greg Dutter