In Person: Q&A With Rick Ausick

Over the course of a decade, Rick Ausick has used his well-honed skills to reinvigorate a giant retailer.

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Even so, was it difficult for some brands to feel comfortable entering this channel?
Sure, there was definitely hesitation. Brands wanted to make sure their product was represented well. When I arrived, Famous didn’t have the best reputation in the marketplace. It was all about negotiating on price: how cheap we could buy a shoe, what deal we could get. Our team spent a good part of its first five years convincing people we intended to represent their brand in a very positive way. We took steps to show we meant it, changing the way our stores looked and focusing more on brands and telling a story rather than being all about price. We rebuilt that credibility. Still, there were always going to be brands that weren’t ready for that step.

What other issues needed to be addressed?
There had not been much discipline around the age of inventory. We were operating with the basic philosophy that a black shoe is a black shoe, and if we don’t sell it this year, we’ll try again next year. Our competition was much more current with inventory, offering the customer more trend-right product. We got rid of styles that weren’t selling and we kept our inventory fresh. We put that discipline in place. Also, our women’s business at the time was very underdeveloped, especially in non-athletic categories. In fact, our research indicated we were perceived [by consumers] in a very male sense. We set out to make our store environment and product assortment more appealing to women.

How did you end up transitioning into wholesale?
That opportunity was a real leap of faith for me, but Diane felt strongly it would be beneficial for me to have that experience and understand how that side of the business worked. And it was. I learned a tremendous amount about design and development, how shoes are made, production and delivery logistics. It helped me think about the business differently.

What are the advantages to being under the Brown Shoe umbrella?
There are many great synergies, but we try not to force them. Obviously, some of our key brand partners live on the floor below us, so there are opportunities to share and interact. But we try to approach that relationship as we would with any of our key partners. Our wholesale brands do give us the ability to see what is going on in many different retail channels. It’s more directional, rather than specific — boots aren’t selling or sandals are doing great. Those broader trends tend to pop up across all channels, so it helps us determine whether we’ve missed something or if it’s simply a category that’s not working anywhere.

What are Famous Footwear’s biggest strengths as a retailer?
We’re a branded business, so we have those great national brands. We also have a strong connection with families and busy moms. And then there is our convenience, whether it’s our brick-and-mortar locations, the ability to shop online or through our mobile apps.

Are there things that could be improved?
You’re never really done. We continue to work on our shopping experience, from the physical look of our stores to pushing our sales associates to adhere more to an engagement strategy. Instead of thinking of our [store environment] as open-sell, we like to think of it as assisted-sell. Help is there if you need it. If not, you are welcome to serve yourself. We’re constantly working on stepping that up.

Famous recently opened its first international store near Toronto. Is Canada a major growth area?
If this first store is any indication, there definitely is an opportunity. The store is doing very well. We’ve talked with the Canadian representatives for our brands, and they believe the concept is right for the marketplace. That gives us confidence to forge ahead. We already have several more locations on the radar that we will potentially open within the next 12 to 18 months. We have some successful stores along the [U.S. side of the] border, so it’s a matter of finding a balance and making sure we’re not splitting differences.

Are there plans for further international expansion?
We’ve explored some opportunities, but it’s too difficult. Because we are a branded business and not an integrated business, getting the assortment replicated in a store in the Middle East or Russia or Europe is complicated. We think about that, and when we do the math, we can’t seem to come up with a profitability model that makes everyone happy. Still, that doesn’t mean we won’t [expand into other countries] someday. We’ll continue to look at it.

What other opportunities exist for the chain?
The whole digital space shows tremendous promise. I see a lot of growth opportunity there. There also is potential in the future to get more aggressive about store openings. And then the other piece is new store concepts. There is nothing specific in the works right now, but we do look at trying new concepts, whether it’s an athletic or a kids’ concept.

Tell us about a few mentors in your career.
Howard Socol, who was chairman of Burdines [from 1984 to 1997], was an important mentor. I worked with Howard for a number of years, and he was a very savvy merchant and leader. Here [at Brown], Diane has been a great partner. She is a terrific talent and tremendously dynamic and energetic. She wants to jump right in, while I’m more, “Let’s think this through, let’s make sure this works.” So we are a good combination in that sense. We’re thoughtful about our actions, but we take action.

What do you love most about the footwear industry?
It’s full of great people. As competitive as it is — and there are way too many of us and not enough customers — by and large we go about our business in a professional way. People aren’t overly protective or aggressive at any cost. Also, what I love and what is a little unusual about our industry is that we come together in a major way for causes like Two Ten Footwear Foundation and FFANY Shoes on Sale. From a product perspective, footwear is extremely complicated to manufacture and deliver, but then it has this incredible emotional quality. It is always energizing to go into a store and see a kid put on a new pair of shoes and run around. The whole emotional side of our business is something you don’t have in a lot of other categories.


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