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In Person: Famous Footwear's Store Strategy

Rick Ausick, Diane Sullivan and other prominent players focus on Famous Footwear’s game plan.

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A Famous Footwear store
A boot from Madden Girl a brand popular with the chain’s tween shoppers
A Famous Footwear store

A Famous Footwear store

Photo By courtesy of Famous Footwear

Famous Footwear has made some major expansion moves recently, including broadening its international reach and bolstering its presence in the digital space. But rather than rest on his laurels, the retailer’s president, Rick Ausick, already is looking for the next big thing that will grab consumers’ attention.

And that forward-thinking approach is paying off. In the most recent quarter, the firm logged sales of $388.2 million, a robust 10.8 percent increase from the same period the previous year. Ausick attributed the success to an overall strategy “[designed] around the way customers shop and making sure we are relevant in every way they want to shop.”

One example of how Famous is striving to do that is by enhancing its omnichannel presence. “Over the last two years, we have done a thorough job of advancing our customer contact strategy, driving it to more media and connecting in a multitude of ways,” said Will Smith, SVP of marketing for the footwear chain.

Interactive content has been well received by consumers, he added. For instance, Famous’ most recent initiative, a smartphone app that soft-launched last month, offers coupons, purchase tracking and social media connectivity. Although more than 30,000 people have already downloaded the app, the retailer will make a push to promote the new asset over the next few months.

Under Ausick, Famous also is building on the crowdsourced independent film program it showcased on YouTube and its own site last Mother’s Day, with a second incarnation set for 2014. “We’re trying to connect with the customer wherever she is digesting messages around footwear and places to shop,” Smith said, citing moms as an important demographic for the retail firm.

Still, despite the increasing focus on digital, brick-and-mortar expansion remains an important priority. Famous took a big step in August, opening its first store outside the U.S., at Toronto Premium Outlets in Halton Hills, Ontario.

Tim Meyer, SVP of retail finance and real estate, said the move into Canada was a logical next step for the chain. “[Parent firm] Brown Shoe Co. operates nearly 90 Naturalizer stores in Canada, so we’ve developed a deep appreciation for Canadian consumers and their shopping preferences. The economy is good there, and [real estate] developers we have relationships with in the U.S. are looking to increase their presence in Canada,” he added.

Famous’ brand partners also are bullish about the retailer’s entry into Canada. “I believe the Canada expansion will be a big success,” said Nick Connors, co-owner of White Mountain, which has sold its labels at Famous for 27 years. “We are excited for our brand exposure to grow internationally through this partnership.”

With the Ontario store turning in better-than-expected sales, Famous is forging ahead, aiming to open several more Canadian locations in the next 12 to 18 months. Here in the U.S., the retailer expects to add between 10 and 20 new doors annually in the next few years. “A lot of it comes down to real estate opportunities,” Ausick said.

But maintaining an optimum product selection is as critical as location when it comes to driving strong sales numbers. Famous’ merchandising strategy is equal parts style and comfort, with a heavy emphasis on family.

“Our buyers are out working on knowing the customer, reading the market and making judgments about the big items that are going to drive the business,” said Martin Fink, SVP of store operations and merchandise planning. “What does she need to be fashionable and comfortable this year? Our goal is to distill that into an understandable but not overwhelming mix of product.”

Each region has a slightly tweaked offering, based on careful analysis of demographics and sales history.

“We do a lot of ‘Retail 101’ stuff,” Fink said. “We make sure we’re executing on all levels, that the planners and allocators are making the buyers’ vision come true in the stores.”

Vendors cite Famous’ savvy merchandising as a key factor in the chain’s success. “Their buying team consistently identifies and meets the changing footwear needs of the American family,” said Jim Klein, president of Eastland Shoe Corp. “[They] recognize that today’s woman does not have the luxury of time, and they provide her a quick and easy shopping experience by offering the most desired, trend-right footwear at a terrific value.”

Famous carries more than 100 brands, including several from within its corporate family. “Even the Brown Shoe brands are national brands,” Fink said. “They are not house or private-label brands.”

Diane Sullivan, Brown Shoe’s president and CEO, pointed out that less than 15 percent of Famous’ business comes from its parent company’s own labels. “We never force any of our Famous buyers or DMMs to buy Brown Shoe [brands],” she said, citing Steve Madden, Vans and Converse as outside labels that are popular with the retailer’s important tween customers. “They buy whatever they think the consumer wants and is happening. If not, we’re not being honest.”

Consistency also is imperative. Although assortments may vary by region, the chain’s e-commerce site cements the overall shopping experience. “As much as possible, we’d like [consumers] to have the same experience in mobile, online and in the stores,” Fink said. “The Web features an expanded assortment — more sizes, colors and even some exclusive products — but what’s important in the stores is also important on the Web.”