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The Atlanta Shoe Market served as the industry epicenter.

Perhaps it’s the best compliment a footwear show can receive: Last month’s edition of The Atlanta Shoe Market (TASM) at the Cobb Galleria Centre felt like a WSA Show in its heyday of the late ’90s. Indeed, the joint was jumping with industry-wide attendance not seen in decades.

“I found retailer traffic to be heaviest in years,” says Steven Mahoney, senior vice president of sales for Samuel Hubbard. “You’d have to go back to the best WSA days to beat what I saw, if at all.”

Sam Spears, president of Ara North America, sums up the show in one word: “fabulous.” At the February TASM, the company brought its Canadian sales team, who left very impressed. This time, Ara brought two of its global board members from Germany, and Spears reports that they were “blown away” by the show. “Traffic was very strong,” he says. “We had nearly 100 ‘shoes-on-table’ appointments, and the reaction to our Spring/Summer ’24 collection was fantastic!”

Laura Conwell-O’Brien, executive director of TASM, backs up the bullish sentiment with stats. She reports exhibitor and retailer traffic were both at record levels. “We had an 18 percent increase in buyer attendance, and exhibitor attendance, at 1,100 brands, was a record, too,” she says. “We had retailers from 46 states and 20 countries, which is also the most ever. That included a lot of new people, especially from the West Coast. And they were here for three solid days, as it was the busiest Monday ever.”

One such West Coaster in attendance was Julie Beck-Gomez, COO of Beck’s Shoes, a 20-plus store chain based in Campbell, CA. The show also reminded her of the old WSA Show days. “There was a lot of traffic in the aisles, lots of energy,” she says. Beck-Gomez was able to connect with key vendor executives as well as present the chain’s new marketing and values proposition plan: We measure. We 3D Scan. We custom fit. “We were able to accomplish all our goals,” she adds.

John Daher, owner of Shoe Box and Co. in Kennebunk, ME, says the show had a renewed sense of vibrancy. “Buyers and vendors were excited to be there,” he reports. “The mood was reminiscent of shows from years back, with a mix of key accounts and independents, shoulder to shoulder, excited to view next year’s collections.” Stanley Eisenman, owner of Stanley Eisenman Shoes in Fort Worth, TX, concurs on the show’s “very upbeat” mood. “The event is so well orchestrated that both vendors and retailers find it a great show to attend,” he says. “The venue is very efficient and workable, enabling attendees to cover a lot of ground. It’s top-notch in every way.”

The show’s collective energy helped fuel an overall sense of optimism, which comes despite strong external headwinds like war, inflation, and political uncertainty. Of course, those factors are beyond the industry’s control, so many attendees reportedly focused on what they can try to control: shoes that sell.

Jerry Williamson, Aetrex’s senior vice president of business development for footwear, confirms the overall mood among buyers was optimistic. “Retailers expressed positive feedback and confidence about their Aetrex business, and our larger retail partners were eager to expand their assortments for Spring/Summer ’24 after seeing positive results this season,” he reports, noting that many times stations were fully occupied and, at times, accounts even waited in line to meet with reps. He cites Aetrex core products, such as the Jillian sandal and Sydney wedge heel collections, as show highlights. “Retailers were interested in our expanded color and style offerings based, in part, on their phenomenal sell-throughs this season. Retailers were stocking up, given the demand.”

Optimism was the buzz word inside the Ecco booth as well, according to Brandy LaPlante, sales manager. “Traffic was great, and business is trending in the right direction,” she says, adding that the independent tier, in particular, is thriving. Show highlights for the Danish brand included the kickoff of its 60th Anniversary, marked by the introduction of the Soft 60 collection featuring a new midsole material dubbed Lytr. “It’s lighter weight with more bounce and easy to clean,” LaPlante explains. “Additionally, it’s made with our DriTan leather, which uses less water in the tanning process and saves enough water to keep 9,000 people hydrated for one year.” 

Daher is also bullish on the strength of independent shoe retailing going forward. In fact, he says it was his biggest takeaway from the show. “I see a future for the next generation of independents that are able to compete and be profitable alongside other channels of distribution by offering freshness in the market,” he says. That was his mission at TASM: to search for new and emerging brands that offer consumers something fresh and with storytelling potential. “I was very pleased with my finds and excited to bring freshness to my store,” Daher says, citing collections from Oncept, Ambitious, Wooloomooloo, Miz Mooz, and Psudo as setting the stage for an exciting season ahead.

Mark Jubelirer, president of Reyers Shoes in Nelsonville, OH, was on the hunt for “exciting merchandise” that would help to separate the store from the rest in its mall location. Psudo, he also notes, is a brand with potential. “They were different, priced well-enough, and more exciting than all of the other sneaker brands at the show,” he says. Jubelirer, though, is being careful of sneakers, in general. “They’re everywhere, at every price range, and with very few differences among them,” he says. “This is typical of our industry: overreacting to last season’s best-selling styles. I’m not getting caught up in that.” Jubelirer adds, “Most lines were warmed-over styles of last year’s good ones. Too safe.”

Along those lines, Bruce Kaplan, newly appointed CRO for Impo, believes there is a dearth and overcorrection around the dress and dress-tailored categories. That presents opportunity. “People are slowly and surely making their way back into the office and are certainly going out on the town and to events more, so this need is quickly opening back up,” he says, adding that wide legged jeans on the horizon will also lead to thicker—though not heavier—bottom interests. “Sneakers and loafers remain strong but platforms and flatforms are very important going into the next season.” Kaplan cites, in particular, Impo’s stretch sandals that range from dress to very casual as a fit with this trend. “These styles are great for all time zones,” he says. Additionally, Kaplan see opportunities with subtle embellishments, which are rich in details and combine fashion with function. “We heard time and time again from buyers that they’ve been missing this category,” he says. “In today’s market—and I believe this to be true in virtually every category—those who do the best job of combining style relevance, comfort, and functionality will be find themselves at the head of the pack.” 

TASM Takeaways

“We have a lot of people rooting for our brand and are excited to have alternative brands who are thinking beyond DTC and how to approach business in a fair and transparent way. I’ve been in the game 38 of my 51 years, and I’m as optimistic as ever. Things evolve but our industry is resilient, and I always feel there are great people who will continue to help us all move forward. I’m more proud than ever to be part of this community.” —Steven Mahoney, SVP of sales, Samuel Hubbard

“My biggest takeaway was how many off-price opportunities were available in-season. As such, my strategy for next spring is to buy much less upfront and to take advantage in-season. As for my general takeaway from the show, every rep I dealt with had better shoes than everyone else’s. Or so they claimed. Personally, I thought everybody just copied everybody else. It was hard to find excitement and originality. Where have all the designers gone?”
—Mark Jubelirer, president, Reyers Shoes

“Coming out of Covid there was a lot of reinventing of business models, and much of this came out of working in survival mode. In Atlanta, I got the sense that the same was happening but more out of retailers having learned who their true partners are and gravitated to those vendors they want to do business with vs. who they had to do business with. The takeaway being the shoes and designs, of course, are important, but the retailer had better want to grow the business together with vendors vs. simply filling needs.” —Brice Kaplan, CRO, Impo

“Our biggest takeaway is that we have a lot of potential to grow even further within the independent channel. Consumers love shopping in this segment. They expect service, and this channel delivers on that promise, and that’s what Aetrex is all about.” —Jerry Williamson, SVP Business Development, Aetrex

“The biggest takeaway was the high level of engagement retailers have for business, as manifested by the NSRA-sponsored panel on Sunday morning. For an event that started at 7:45 a.m., it was incredibly well attended. The nearly 200 in attendance shows me that the independent retailer is very serious about continuous learning and is very dedicated to maximizing vendor relationships. I’m even more confident about the strong future of the independent retailer.” —Sam Spears, president, Ara North America

The March 2024 Issue

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