Fashioned sole searching

Anne Konopelski steps out on to the high street in search of the latest footwear creations and finds out how design is helping this growing sector to stay ahead

Imelda Marcos may be the most famous of all shoe fetishists, but she is in good company.

The Design Museum this year toasted shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, now virtually a household name thanks to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Sex and the City character, with his own exhibition. And the rest of us are hot on their heels.

High street stores are giving designer brands a run for their money – Topshop now sells ten pairs of shoes every minute. The growth looks set to continue. A Verdict report out this week claims that the footwear sector will outperform the clothing market as it gets back on its feet for the second year in a row.

According to the report, consumer expenditure on footwear will increase by 3.5 per cent in 2003, producing an additional £166m spend. That’s nearly a third of market leader Clarks’ UK turnover for savvy retailers to chase.

Verdict senior analyst Maureen Hinton says the footwear market is the healthiest it has been in years, primarily because it has become more fashion-led.

This autumn, as part of a larger revamp strategy – which includes a new flagship store by architect Future Systems – New Look will be launching a Georgina Goodman-designed footwear range. It is intended is to compete with M&S and Topshop.

Non-specialist retailers are keen to get in on the act. Supermarkets such as Asda, and clothing retailers like River Island and Next, have all successfully introduced footwear ranges in past years.

But Hinton suggests it’s specialist footwear retailers, who last year increased turnover by 4.7 per cent, that are the real success story.

It seems, then, that shoe retailers – whether specialist or non-specialist – are getting off on the right foot. But can they maintain the past two years’ growth in the long-term?

Hinton thinks they can. And, in a bit of good news for designers, she says retailers will have to get smarter and create ‘destination status’ stores if they are to continue to experience growth.

‘Shoe retailers need to make their store formats more enticing,’ she explains. ‘They need to make it easier for customers to shop and ensure that their formats relate to their target markets.’

The Nest strategy and communications director Freddie Baveystock agrees. The group revamped Kurt Geiger sub-brand Carvela’s corporate identity last month (DW 14 August), and Baveystock says there is ‘room for huge improvement’ in the sector.

‘Putting aside high-fashion boutiques – which are fantastic and use a lot of theatre – retailers really

should put more effort into interior design. The places that do so are inordinately successful.’

Baveystock cites the Birkenstock store in London’s Covent Garden as an example of what can be achieved.

‘The shop is perfectly designed for the products it sells. It has a natural aura, just like the shoes,’ he says. ‘People were queuing down the street when the [new-look] store opened, and I think that says something about retail experience. The street is full of shoe shops, and people could have easily bought lookalike Birkenstocks.’

Faith retail director Paul O’Neill says the effort the company has put into its new standalone stores’ interior design has paid off.

The company introduced Us Designers-created branding and interiors in its Bluewater store last month and plans to roll out the concept across 20 sites over the next year.

‘We’ve changed our brand image and store environment and [introduced] some innovative design. It’s a big thing for us. We’ve put a lot of investment into it and are really seeing the benefits,’ he says.

O’Neill claims the Faith stores’ ‘fashion-focused’ look has played an important part in its success. ‘At Faith we talk of fashion rather than footwear. That’s the way we’re approaching the market, too,’ he says.

‘For years, footwear lagged behind clothing retailers in terms of store design. Now we’re seeing more shoe shops that look like fashion stores,’ he adds.

The Verdict report says retailers must also offer customers greater levels of differentiation if they are to stay on their toes in the future.

Us Designers design director Richard Brett thinks this advice is spot on. He says it is vitally important for footwear retailers to target particular sectors, rather than offering ‘one size fits all’.

‘Differentiation shows you who your friends are and makes shoe stores more personal and more real,’ he asserts.

Brett expects to see greater diversification and far more ’boutique-style’ shoe shops in the future, as shoe retailers continue to emulate the clothing market.

Upmarket brand Kurt Geiger has already adopted this approach. The company launched its Soft Moss- designed interiors in March (DW 20 March) and also worked with the group on its Birmingham Bullring concept.

According to Kurt Geiger head of marketing Claire Talbot, interior design concept and footwear offerings evolve with each new shop.

‘We’re always reassessing what the [retail] experience should be, to make sure we’re in tune with our location and to get the product mix right,’ she says.

This business model has earned Kurt Geiger high praise from Verdict’s Hinton, who calls it ‘an extremely strong, successful’ brand. A shoe-in, then, for future retail dominance?

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