What’s Abuzz

Murmurs and musings from the latest trade show circuit.

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FFANY, WSA, The Atlanta Shoe Market (TASM), FN Platform, Outdoor Retailer (OR), TRU Show and a handful of regional shows that transpired over the past month allowed retailers to pick and choose which venues to shop based on market segment, show mojo, travel time and budget. Depending on which booth, showroom or hotel room you dropped into, the assessment on show traffic varied: It was up, down and flat, exhibitors said—often in reference to the same show. Verdicts of the overall mood also wavered, but for the most part attendees were cautiously optimistic.

“Although still guarded, there is no denying the industry’s genuine enthusiasm and improved morale at this year’s Summer Market,” reports Kenji Haroutunian, show director for OR in Salt Lake City. Tom Berry, Technica’s vice president of sales, marketing and merchandising, agreed that attendees were in good spirits. “I think the strength of retail [this past year] was a surprise,” he muses. “Everyone was optimistic about it going in, but I don’t think anyone was as optimistic as the reality.”

Economic improvement may have contributed to the show’s attendance rate: OR saw nearly record exhibitor participation along with a double-digit increase in the percent of attending buyers and represented stores. Dan Legor, senior brand manager of Ecco USA, found traffic to be notably greater than the previous year’s. “The number of sports-, performance- and outdoor-specific retailers has grown significantly, and we’re seeing more brown shoe retailers coming to OR who specifically want to meet with us there,” he says.

Traffic was equally strong at TASM. The Southeastern Shoe Travelers Association (SESTA), which runs the show, also reported record numbers regarding its exhibitors (up 30 percent), product lines (1,680, which TASM claims makes it the nation’s largest shoe market) and retailers (pre-show registration was up 15 percent). The numbers are in step with a decade-long growth curve for the show, according to Laura Conwell-O’Brien, a 27-year industry veteran and SESTA’s executive director. In fact, she ranks the August show as “the best ever.” It was like the “good old days in the shoe industry,” she explains, with the main exhibit hall humming with activity and showcasing a significantly longer roster of first-time exhibitors. Conwell-O’Brien adds that a particular highlight was the new Fashion Collection segment dedicated to fashion-forward brands. The space sold out two months prior and garnered great reviews from both retailers and vendors.

Longtime Atlanta exhibitors like Steven Grubart, owner of Veggies Footwear, said TASM’s growth was obvious: “It’s so busy here that I’d say the show could benefit from an additional day,” he noted on the show floor. And although he lauds the show’s new section and single location, Grubart maintains that Atlanta’s expansion is telling proof that the industry craves a single national show. Tim Patwell, North American sales manager for Camper, says TASM was a great place to reconnect with retailers, and he had great appointments with some of the South’s best stores. “All the major retailers were there,” adds George Mustafa, a sales representative for Trimfoot.

In New York, the mood at FFANY, which was housed in the Hilton and Flatotel as well as local showrooms, was generally positive. Most vendors reported traffic—particularly from the majors—to be up over the February edition. “Our department store buyers were definitely looking to position themselves for Q1,” says Amy Hester, vice president of sales for Caressa, adding that new independents that came through mainly wrote fall orders whereas existing customers booked spring merchandise. Matt Dragos, president of Rialto, says he saw roughly 90 percent of his brand’s customers at FFANY, but he reports the buyers’ mood was “mixed.” Many retailers experienced solid spring sales, he explains, but they saw the pace cool off in the summer. Fortunately, Rialto’s combination of trend-right fashion at entry-level pricing has fueled record sales for the brand and, Dragos says, orders are up for Spring ’11. Dennis Comeau, president of Bernardo Footwear, reports that FFANY had “very few browsers,” and most people left spring orders. “We even got some Fall ’10 reorders on boots already,” he adds. While that left Comeau bullish about the prospects for next spring, he did voice one big concern: the double-dip recession that some economists are fearing.

While the economy was also a topic of discussion at the WSA show in Las Vegas, it didn’t prevent Earth Footwear from experiencing a solid show, according to David Aznarvorian, vice president of marketing. “We booked more appointments at this show than any previous version of WSA,” he says, noting the new Earthies brand captured attention. “It’s the ideal marriage of comfort and fashion, which is what many buyers are seeking to focus on in their merchandise mixes.”

Comfort was definitely the driving theme at WSA, where wellness brands took center stage. Aetrex Footwear unveiled its Bodyworks collection—men’s and women’s toning shoes featuring a double rocker sole construction that promises physical benefits—and CEO Larry Schwartz was pleased with the reactions. “Our customers look to us to deliver the latest in wellness footwear,” Schwartz says. “The response has been very encouraging.”

Despite vendors’ sunny reports, Tom Nastos, president of ENK International, organizers of WSA, reports that many retailers were still feeling cautious. “If you were in the toning area, [the mood] was really good. If you were in some of the other areas, it was a little bit more challenging,” he says. Turnout at WSA was on pace with its February numbers and the list of exhibiting brands grew 20 percent. Looking ahead to WSA’s fall market, Nastos sees the sluggish economy continuing to be a speed bump, but the show aims to keep assembling more and more brands. “I think there’s generally a desire to have one show under one roof, so I’m optimistic about that,” Nastos says. “I think that’s the key.”

FN Platform exhibitors in Las Vegas felt retailers had their buys for the Spring ’11 season well-formulated. “Lots of orders were written and retailer growth was significant,” asserts Leslie Gallin, vice president of FN Platform. Exhibitors reported steady foot traffic and, according to Stephanie Unwin, global sales director for Leifsdottir (which debuted its collection of women’s designer shoes), the caliber of retailers at the show was impressive. Jim McCabe, vice president for Bass Wholesale, agrees: “Traffic was up, as was the enthusiasm of the buyers.”

Regardless of which show they shopped, retailers were presented plenty of fresh trends for spring. The halls at OR reverberated the wellness message at WSA, with the explosion of minimalist constructions and barefoot running at the forefront. These ideas have moved beyond technical trail shoes into outdoor casual styles, and retailers said they’re thrilled to have this new story to tell their customers. “I was not smart or fast enough to pick up on Vibram’s FiveFingers early, but we’re ordering it big-time now,” said Lillie Gilbert, co-owner of Wild River Outfitters in Virginia Beach, VA. Major launches of pared-down product, like the new Minimus collection from New Balance, should help elevate the minimalist message of earlier entries, said Ben Cooke, general manager of The Running Company based in Ardmore, PA. “I hope it’s a category that can sustain itself,” he added.

OR also showed vendors concentrating on core hiking and backpacking shoes for Spring ’11, proving the resilience of these categories as consumers look for affordable ways to enjoy the outdoors. Overall, the recession has helped the outdoor business, noted Brian Moore, vice president of global men’s footwear for Timberland. “When the economy goes bad, people flock to [brands and styles] they’re comfortable with, and that gave us a definite bump.”

If outdoor and wellness cover the utilitarian bases, the more fashion-oriented markets set the stage for a slew of new directions for spring. TASM buyers were hot for nude. In Daniblack’s suite, for example, silhouette didn’t matter as long as the shoes came in natural hues. Feminine styling—by way of laser-cut details at Doc Martens, Rieker’s collection of gem-embellished sandals, Claudia Ciuti’s dress shoes inspired by candy wrapper foils and a bevy of shoes accented with three-dimensional flowers—blanketed women’s categories.

FFANY highlighted similar trends. Hester cited laser-cut florals; dusty earth tones; nautical stripes and bright patents; soft feminine pastels and flat sandals with ruching as important spring trends. In addition, she reports that wedges, kitten heels and flat sandals with a cork insole construction are “going great.” Dragos says Rialto is striking the right chord with ornamentation, including jewels, beads and sequins. Gemstones are also influencing color, as Comeau pinpoints turquoise and coral as popular colors in addition to the neutrals.

At FN Platform, many designers bet on spring staples like wedges, espadrilles and platforms. However, exhibitors with new interpretations of these familiar silhouettes shone. Standouts included exposed platform heels from Marc Jacobs and a Jean-Michel Cazabat espadrille with jute rope creeping up from the heel to the upper. “Retailers are gravitating to natural linens, crocheted panels, raffia and neutrals,” says Maggie Finneran, brand manager for Unleashed by Rocket Dog. Leifsdottir’s Unwin and Nancy Espaillat, an account executive for Fossil Footwear, also reported positive reactions to chic neutrals and mixed materials, while other manufacturers saw an uptick of interest in tried-and true hi-tops for men, women and children dotting the Las Vegas Convention Center. Along such classic lines, McCabe says G.H. Bass Heritage products—from penny loafers to saddle shoes—caught the attention of both domestic and international buyers. The lace-up and oxford trends don’t appear to be letting up anytime soon, he adds, with the latest styles featuring woven leather or canvas accents. —The Editors

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