Easy Does It

Keith Gossett, president of Easy Street Shoe Company, on how its unique business model is weathering the pandemic—not easily, mind you—but better than most.

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The old adage “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” has never rung truer than at Easy Street Shoe Company in 2020, the year when everything seems to have broken. While the New Hampshire–based company’s three pillars—an extensive range of styles offered in sizes and widths, a massive inventory (1 million pairs on average) and in-stock ordering capabilities—may not be a panacea for this pandemic, it has provided enough antibodies to avoid a debilitating shutdown or loss in overall sales this year. In fact, Easy Street President Keith Gossett reports that the company’s ecommerce business has grown significantly in 2020, its catalog unit has come on strong and its Easy Works occupational brand, launched about a year and a half ago, had been doing very well before the pandemic—and has continued to during it.

“Our sales, year-to-date, are flat, and we are thrilled to be flat,” Gossett affirms. “During the peak of the virus this spring we were very fortunate in that what we lost in at-once shipments to our brick-and-mortar business was largely picked up from the increase in sales by our online partners. We haven’t closed for one day because we’ve been able to adapt and pivot successfully.”

The ability to adapt, pivot and pounce are cornerstones of Easy Street. Its business model is built well for today’s wildly unpredictable landscape. For example, its broad assortment of at-once offerings available in sizes and widths is highly appealing in a world where retailers don’t know if their stores will be open from one week to the next, let alone what to plan inventory-wise six months down the road. Gossett reports that Easy Street is ready to ship on many Fall ’20 needs, should they arise. “Maybe your demand has shifted—you used to sell more dress shoes, but now you need more driving mocs,” he says. “Well, we’ve got those and we’ve got plenty of other options across Bella-Vita, Bella-Vita Italy, Easy Street and Easy Works. We have evening shoes, boots, sandals, leather, man-made, fabric…and we can ship down to one pair. That’s been the success of our business for over 50 years, and we are planning on it to continue being our success.”

One might say Gossett is even doubling down on Easy Street’s more-is-more business model, especially in comparison to many wholesalers who have cut their inventories to the bone during the pandemic. Gossett, in contrast, continues to carry a hefty inventory load, including what will be a sizeable offering of fresh merchandise for Spring ’21. Many other brands (and retailers) are planning to carry a lot of current merchandise over into next spring rather than trying to clear it out now, but Gossett believes there are risks to that approach. “You have to show new product for next spring because ecommerce has already exposed a lot of the current product,” he says. “The consumer has seen a lot, and a lot has already been marked down greatly. So I can’t go back to our customers and say, ‘Let’s just do those again.’” Gossett has already brought in 29 new constructions for Spring ’21 with more styles, patterns and colors on the way. “I absolutely believe that new product will be critical to next season,” he says, noting that carryovers will amount to only a fraction of the collection.

The way Gossett sees it, Easy Street must be in business to get business. Curling into a fetal position until a vaccine arrives is not a viable option for him. And that’s no different from any other year at Easy Street. “Some of our customers who bought 15 new patterns last year have bought 16 for this coming year, while some have bought 12 and others have bought 20,” Gossett says. “It’s a moving target, but they are still buying.” He cites the catalog business as an example. “It’s performing relatively well and those retailers aren’t suddenly going to start their next season a month or two late because of this pandemic. They’re going to mail their books on schedule to try and meet their customers’ needs, so we need to be ready with inventory.”

Of course, none of this is easy or predictable—and the pandemic has ratcheted up the volatility factor. “You speak with a retailer on Monday and agree to a delivery plan that by Wednesday might all have to be changed,” Gossett says. “Whatever you think is going to happen, I guarantee you that will not be your shipment. It will either go up, down or whatever, because that’s just the landscape we are dealing in right now. It’s constantly moving.” Meeting that target, Gossett, adds, requires enormous flexibility, but “There’s no other choice. We just have to try and figure it out and adapt to our customers’ needs as best we can.”

Along the way, Easy Street has completely redesigned its offices and warehouse to meet safety guidelines—all while working 10-hour days to keep pace with the flow of orders, cancellations and reallocations. It’s required a tremendous amount of work and logistics between Easy Street and its factories to balance the incoming inventory relative to the demand. Gossett says the pandemic-fueled challenge has been exhausting—and exasperating—at times. “It’s definitely not for the weak-willed,” he says. “On a grand scale of challenges, this one is certainly the winner, but just like all the others we’ve faced, we adjust and try and move forward.”

Easy Street’s ability to adapt and move forward may have something to do with its New Hampshire DNA. The company seems to have taken its “Granite State” nickname to heart, with no furloughs or shutdown. “We just pressed forward,” Gossett says, noting that until mid-July the company was operating overtime, seven days a week. “You’ve got to stay at it and be willing to adjust. I mean, if you told me a year ago that I’d be making virtual presentations to very large retailers—big pieces of our business—on a Zoom camera in our conference room, I would’ve said you’re crazy. But guess what? That’s what we are doing now. It’s just one of the new realities of our current way of doing business, and we will move forward from there.”

As a company that carries a huge inventory, was there ever a moment, say when stores nationwide closed, where you thought you might be in real trouble?

We did adjust some of the fall future back-up inventory that we had planned. But the adjustments were of a level where the factory didn’t even complain. Because of our ecommerce business, we have to have product available. You can’t do one or the other. You’re either in business or you’re not. Now, when someone cancelled thousands of pairs, we didn’t just stack them up in our warehouse, unless they were already on the water.

I don’t sense any normalcy returning soon, do you?

No. People ask me that question a lot. I’ll be conservative and say it’ll be multiple seasons before any kind of normalcy returns. We have to cycle through the season ending now, this fall and next spring, at least. So maybe by Fall ’21, depending on a vaccine, people will feel somewhat comfortable again. But there’s a caveat to that. I’ve asked lots of people if they were to come out with a vaccine next week would they get the shot? Many people are hesitant and want other people to take it first to see what happens. Like, if you don’t die in 90 days, we’ll think about it. So everybody claims they want a vaccine, but I’m afraid lots of them don’t want to be the first.

You’ve weathered a lot of challenges over the course of your career, where does this pandemic rank?

This is at the top of the list, for sure. We’ve never been through anything like this in our lifetimes, and we have no idea what to expect. The most important aspect you have to take into consideration is it’s constantly changing. You have to be flexible and work with retailers. There’s no other choice. Going forward, retailers are going to be looking for their wholesale partners to be flexible. That and, of course, our ability to fill at-once business will be critical. While we’re culling it back some, we’re doing the exact same things we’ve done in the past with an added level of flexibility.

Do you feel your portfolio is well-suited for this landscape as opposed to, say, being overly dependent on dress shoes?

Yes, but this industry is notorious for overcorrecting. While dress shoes are going to be challenging, to say the least, in the near term because of the lifestyle changes going on in society, I expect the industry will cut back to a level where if you want a dress shoe, you’ll have to be a cobbler and make your own. We still offer dress shoes at Easy Street Shoe Company, and we’ll be offering a nice assortment for next year as well, albeit adjusted accordingly. But ever since I came into this business, I believe an assortment should be balanced. Now, if it doesn’t work, it won’t be the first or the last time. But I’m not going to go from 100 MPH to two MPH from one year to the next.

Taking into account that retailers don’t even know if their stores will be open a few weeks from now, how would you assess their general mood?

Our retailers are being as confidant as they possibly can be, but at the end of the conversation it’s always, ‘You know, everything we are agreeing to is subject to change.’ No one has a definitive answer. Sure, everybody wants everything to be open and to be positive—we’re all in the same boat, in that regard. But they could get a call the next day saying all these stores in this state or that one must close. It could be for two or four weeks. They don’t know, and we don’t either. So all you can do is your best and understand that you have to work with them. It’s a day to day, week to week adjustment.

There’s such room for error in this approach.

There is, but there’s not a lot of choice. When this virus first hit, it was a lot different. Today, there’s more general optimism that eventually this is going to pass. So it’s more about moving the inventory around, delaying something 30 days or something for 60 days. It’s about moving pieces of the puzzle, as compared to before when it was cancel everything. Now it’s, ‘I have X amount on order and here’s how, at this point in time, I feel it’s going to flow and how you’re going to ship it.’ Maybe that’ll change a bit positive or negative, but they feel comfortable with the amount on order and that they’ll be able to work through that versus canceling everything or planning big increases.

Is this the real Retail Apocalypse?

Absolutely not. The retail environment has been changing, specifically the distribution channels, and all this pandemic has done is make the situation move just that much faster. So if people were shopping online X percent, now they are doing it more. So I don’t think it’s the end, but I do think there will be major adjustments at retail, although I still think it’s absolutely important that we show freshness and stores have some assortment. But I don’t want to be the guy to predict the end of retail. The world is not coming to an end as far as retail is concerned.

Traditional brick-and-mortar stores are definitely on the ropes and if this virus rages on into next year, it could be a knockout blow for many.

Well, every day it seems you hear about who else is filing bankruptcy or reorganization—I mean, every. single. day. It used to be a couple a month or so in between. Of late, someone walks into my office and says, ‘Guess what…’ And I’m like, who is it now? It’s going to be difficult for the foreseeable future, for sure. But this country has been through a lot of this stuff. There’s certain categories that may face more difficulties, but we’ll reposition. I also think the consumer is still shopping and wants to keep shopping going forward. It’s part of our DNA; it’s a thing to do. As soon as stores reopened, there was pent-up demand as lines formed in front of stores of people waiting to get in. Now, partially that was caused by a limited amount allowed in at one time, but the important aspect that I saw was people were doing something that I hadn’t seen in a long time—they had shopping carts, and I’m not talking about grocery stores. It was ready-to-wear stores. Nine out of 10 times I don’t see people using carts in those stores. The number of people shopping like they meant it was amazing and encouraging.

Well, if they made the effort to leave their house, don gloves and a mask, risk exposure… it’s likely not just to browse. At the same time, millions of people remain unemployed. That could have permanent changes, no?

Forget the footwear industry, the changes in general to this country and the world are going to be dramatic. And I can’t even predict one percent of those changes. The way I do things, the way you do things…there will be changes for a very long time. And until things improve from a virus perspective, people will be shopping with masks on, hand sanitizing and social distancing. I don’t think they’ll be going into crowded environments all that much if it’s deemed unsafe. Another example of change: I’ve adapted to the Zoom sales presentation. I can talk to customers from my office and zoom in on a specific shoe so it’s as big as their monitor. I can put it on a model and go through the whole process, just like when we met in person. Maybe we didn’t get to go out to dinner, but here we are: I can see them, they can see me, they can see the shoes, the patterns, etc. There’s one snag: I have to send them a complete sample line ahead of time or as a follow-up, so they have it in their hands to feel how light and flexible it is, see the new constructions, the exact colors and so forth. I don’t think the hands-on aspect of the selling process will change. But, overall, we run our sales meetings the same way as we did before, only virtually. We go through every pattern and do exactly what we would have done if we were locked in the conference room for three days.

So much for experiential retail being a possible cure for what ails brick-and-mortar stores, at least for the foreseeable future, correct?

I think the landscape is going to be so different, but we really don’t know what all the changes will be. To some degree, we’ll get comfortable with certain aspects brought upon by this pandemic. Like how lots of people were freaked out by shopping in grocery stores at first because of all the touching of goods that goes on, but we’ve quickly adapted to gloves, masks, sanitizing, etc. It can be done safely. For example, I went into in an antique store recently wearing my mask and I was met by an employee, standing six feet away and wearing a mask, who told me to put my hands under a touch-free hand sanitizer. I was then instructed that I could touch any items, if I thought I might buy them. On the way out, my hands went back under the hand sanitizer—because he said he doesn’t want me to bring any germs in or have me take any out, possibly. He’s just being cautious, which we all should be. None of this bothered me, but there are plenty of people who are offended by this for some reason.

So a vaccine comes along and it works fine and dandy…do you go back to your old ways, or is this more efficient, affordable and effective way of conducting business?

There are some people that I’ve spoken to that are absolutely, positively determined to go back to how we were. But there are also a lot of people, including myself, who will never go back all to the way we were doing business. We’ve learned certain things are now acceptable and, in some cases, we don’t have to be there. We don’t have to do everything the way it was done before. Things have evolved and life goes on. We’ve learned, for example, we can have a great meeting and get our point across without standing in the same conference room. Similarly, my son in-law works for Slack and they were recently informed that they’re never returning to an office, largely because that they haven’t missed a beat working remotely. It’s the same way others I have spoken with, who used to commute into Boston five days a week are now required to go into the office only one day a week. Again, because productivity hasn’t been adversely affected. Everybody seems happy. So are we going back entirely to the way it was before? Some people might push back, but I don’t think we’ll be going all the way back because we’ve already learned we don’t have to.

What about trade shows going forward?

Trade shows are going to be a challenge for a while. Even with a vaccine, I’ll admit I’m not anxious to come to New York right now. I would be nervous, even taking many precautions. Many people I’ve spoken with feel the same way, and it’s not just New York. When you put all those people in the same space together, it’s all the more challenging. That said I do believe we’ll get back to a modified trade show at some point, but I don’t think there will be as many. There’ll likely be Atlanta, Las Vegas and New York shows in the future. For starters, the organizers will push to have it, and I really don’t think the industry is willing to say goodbye to the concept entirely. But I don’t think attendance will be as strong. In the shorter term, some people are just not going to put their employees at risk or take on the expense. Similarly, many retailers are saying if you are in a hot zone, whether you plan to travel here by car or plane, don’t. And you have to abide by those rules, the same way we expect them to follow our safety protocols. The two protocols must marry together so that everybody feels safe. That’s just what it comes down to. I mean, we’re selling shoes here. This doesn’t have to be a life and death situation. There are ways to do that without putting people at risk, and that’s the most important thing for us to do. We should be able to sell shoes without jeopardizing anyone’s well-being.

At the very least, both should be would be wearing a mask.

That’s my pet peeve…it amazes me that you still see lots of people shopping in stores without them, even though the sign on the door clearly states a mask is required. I don’t understand? The sign reads you can’t. It’s not for me to enforce, but I definitely avoid those stores because they are not enforcing their own safety guidelines. We should all, at least, follow the minimum rules. Why wouldn’t you? Unless you have an illness that prevents you from wearing a mask, which is a low percentage of the population overall, arguing about whether or not you should protect yourself and others is ridiculous. You should wear a mask! Meeting over.

If the nation as a whole fails to do the basic safety guidelines then there stores may be forced to close again. Seems like incentive enough.

Right. Granted, we’re getting mixed messages, but the rules are simple: wash your hands, social distance, wear a mask—and don’t go to a pool party attended by 300 people. Certain activities are obviously risky. I’ve always said think about the consequences before you act. Think about the pros and cons—what is the good if I do this and what is the potential bad. In my office, the word “think” is emblazoned everywhere. When people sit on the other side of my desk they see me and they see the word think. Think about what’s happening, think before you act and think about what you say before you open your mouth, basically.  So if you think to follow these basic safety protocols, then you shouldn’t have a problem.

What’s the biggest takeaway from this whole ordeal?

That we’re all in this together, and that there’s still a consumer with an appetite for shoes. She still wants to shop and buy. The demand is still there. She also wants to move forward, like we all do. We just have to move forward differently. We need to accept that the world has changed, deal with it and move forward. Once we figure out and agree on what is a safe shopping environment, then we’ll be ready to go, because the consumer wants us to do the right things so they can get back to shopping and buying shoes.

Well, the world is definitely not about to go barefoot any time soon.

I went into this business a long time ago and the running joke has always been that there’s always going to be a need for shoes. Maybe something will replace that need one day, but I likely won’t be here so it won’t matter. In the meantime, I’m pretty confidant people will keep needing shoes. I’m also an optimistic person by nature. I’m that guy who believes people are inherently good and that they’ll do the right thing. And like you noted, as much as the industry is in turmoil right now, people aren’t going barefoot any time soon. So I guess I’m going to be one of those guys trying to sell them shoes—until I decide my antique toy museum is dying to be opened!

What do you love most about your job?

I love the challenge. Our owner asked me recently how many years I’m going to be here and I said here’s how this works: As long as I’m not bored and I’m challenged, I’m here. Well, guess what? I’m surely not bored, and the challenge now is absolutely greater than ever.

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