James Rowley is living the van life—and loving it. But his lifestyle change isn’t fueled by midlife wanderlust. It’s strictly business. His upstart Woolloomooloo brand needs to increase retail penetration nationwide, but in the post-pandemic world traditional approaches like trade shows and multi-line rep agencies aren’t cutting it for the upscale, wool-based casual brand. So Rowley decided to head in a new direction: a year-long road trip—in a tricked-out showroom van—to visit existing accounts, prospect for new ones, and sell DTC at various festivals. (The festival stops help fund the trip.)
With high gas prices and hotel rooms nearly double pre-pandemic rates, “It’s just become very difficult and expensive for sales reps to travel,” Rowley says. “Plus, we’re the fourth or fifth brand out of their bags, which is not special like I want it to be.” Trade shows haven’t been all that special either, he adds. Aside from The Atlanta Shoe Market, many have become splintered and regional. Retailers are traveling less due to costs, and the ones who do attend shows are often pressed for time and distracted, which doesn’t enable Rowley to put Woolloomooloo’s best foot forward. Hence the van.
“I decided to invest in this van to show retailers that we’re investing in them by driving around the country to see them in person,” Rowley says. “I’ve cherry-picked 100 or so stores that we really want to be in but just haven’t had the exposure I want, and we’re visiting lots of our [approximately 300] existing customers to educate staffs and hold trunk shows. We’re making targeted appointments with some of the best stores in the country to showcase our entire line in a beautifully merchandised mobile showroom.”
What retailers see when Rowley rolls into town is the complete Woolloomooloo line merchandised on slat walls ensconced in the full-on brand vibe. That includes complimentary servings of Australian chardonnay and cheddar cheese. “Just showing up at their doorstep makes a great impression, which is quite different than showing up with a bag full of shoes and having to lay them out in a stockroom,” Rowley says. “This van is a trade show-type set-up in an environment of how our brand should be merchandised.”
So far so good. Around 17 states, dozens of stores, and 8,000 miles into his journey, Rowley says the reception has been terrific. Even the occasional drop-ins have been a success. People are generally willing to take the time to see what Woolloomooloo is about. Only one declined because he was three weeks behind on paperwork and just too busy. “I said, ‘What’s the difference between three weeks and three weeks and 10 minutes? I’m parked four steps outside your store, so why not check us out,’” Rowley recalls. “Nope.”
For those retailers who have taken the time, Rowley believes the van has been a difference maker. It serves as the ideal classroom to educate existing customer staffs and get them pumped up to sell the brand. The prospect visits are paying strong dividends too. “Woolloomooloo might have caught their eye at a show, but they didn’t have the time to look more closely to understand what we’re all about,” he says. “But when I show them the brand in this van environment, the positive reaction is absolutely undisputable.”
Rowley believes Woolloomooloo fills a void in the marketplace. “We’ve found a gap that we slip into very nicely, which is capturing that customer who’s been living in their Hoka or On running shoes for the last two to three years but now doesn’t want to always look like they’re just on their way back from the gym,” he says. “They want to be a little more dressed up, but not to a point where they throw on a Gucci loafer. It’s in the middle, and our very simple Merino wool design, colors, and lack of logos planted all over shoes fit nicely between the athletic and dress categories.” Rowley credits his store visits for helping bring this niche into focus. “Conversations with retailers have really opened my eyes to this gap in the marketplace,” he says.
It helps that many of these retailers are on the hunt for new brands, especially in the face of a consolidated landscape the likes of which have never been seen. “We’ve always had to deal with one Ugg or Birkenstock in the marketplace, but now a handful of giants are just dominating the independent channel,” Rowley says. “So, a lot of retailers are concerned and looking for options to spread the risk a little bit. They’re looking for new blood, for sure.”
Consumers on the festival circuit are equally enthusiastic about the van. It’s been a hit at wool festivals, in particular. “People show up head to toe in outfits they’ve knitted themselves, yet they aren’t usually wearing wool shoes. So, when they see ours, they just love them,” he says, noting that the van carries 100 pairs of inventory. “We have enough inventory to make sure people get their size right and can pick the color they want, but most purchase through our Shopify site where we drop-ship directly from our warehouse.”
DTC sales aside, the driving force behind Rowley’s odyssey is to meet face-to-face with leading specialty retailers. For starters, he believes this is where new brands can become established ones. “These are the stores where you build a brand—it’s where your shoes get talked about the right way, because the people working on those floors really care and want their stores to be successful,” he says. “They merchandise and sell your line well. They speak the language that I want them to speak.”
In addition to seeing the country, Rowley’s trip has given him an inspiring reminder of how great these stores are—and shown him that, despite all odds, they’re succeeding. It gives him hope for a bright future. “Stores like Shoe Market in Massachusetts, Maine’s Lamey-Wellehan, and Comfort One in the D.C. area are beautiful and just so well executed,” he says. “I love seeing these thriving independent retailers who have great people working the floor and really understand shoes. It’s just been one great stop after another.”
Man with a van: Woolloomooloo’s Jame Rowley (above) is putting the brand’s best foot forward at leading comfort stores nationwide.