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Footwear Execs Discuss the Future of Retail

Zappos.com’s Tony Hsieh and human resources professionals led a lively discussion at Foot Locker’s New York headquarters.

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Tony Hsieh

Tony Hsieh

Photo By Jim Decker

The shoe industry’s leading e-commerce executives engaged in a lively panel discussion about the changing retail environment at Two Ten Footwear Foundation’s HR Leadership Summit in New York.

Human resources professionals from across the U.S. flocked to Foot Locker’s headquarters in New York to learn about key strategies for merging online and in-store retail, as well as topics such as hiring millennials and promoting a holistic corporate culture.

Beth Goldstein, industry analyst at The NDP Group Inc., spoke about the shifting distribution channel and the increasingly blurred lines between what constitutes an online and in-store purchase.

“It’s a constant challenge to differentiate and improve the online shopping experience,” she said before kicking off the panel discussion.

Milton Pappas, president of e-commerce at Nine West, said companies must focus on seamlessly integrating all channels from which consumers can purchase.

“The digital disruption is being driven by consumers. ... We have a retail presence, full-price [stores], outlets, online and wholesale. So long as she buys, I don’t care where she buys,” he said.

Jim Salzano, a board member at Datapoint Capital, said omnichannel strategies should center on finding new ways to make it easier for shoppers.

“In the footwear industry, it’s difficult to predict how the consumer is going to shop. The savvy entrepreneurial retailers are the ones really demonstrating how easy it can be,” he said.

Todd Dean, VP of cross-channel and e-commerce at The Aldo Group, said omnichannel requires a rethink of the retail model.

“Mobile is a huge opportunity. The mobile customer experience is a bridge between the digital and physical world,” he said, noting that navigating the digital e-commerce space is essentially mapping out a path to becoming closer to the consumer.

Also on the panel were Janet Bell, senior director of online footwear and home at Sears, and Lady Foot Locker VP and GM Natalie Ellis, who spoke on topics ranging from organizational structure to dealing with millennials in the workplace.

“As people have access to so many pieces of information now, there is a real power in building communities and networks,” Ellis said.

Later in the day, Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh offered a glimpse into his company’s culture and next steps, including his transformation of downtown Las Vegas.

He recalled that after selling his first company, LinkExchange, to Microsoft during the dot-com boom of 1998 for $265 million, the then 24-year-old Hsieh was committed to reworking the company formula he had developed straight out of college. He started investing in various tech ventures and joined Zappos.com a year later. Fifteen years on, Hsieh attributed the firm’s success to two main ingredients: having a strong culture and a vision that goes beyond profit.

“Has anyone ever seen the movie ‘Notorious’?” Hsieh asked the crowd gathered to hear him speak Wednesday afternoon in New York. “It only lasted a week in theaters,” he deadpanned. The message? “Sean Combs says to Biggie Smalls: Don’t chase the paper, chase the dream.”

In Fremont East, the Las Vegas neighborhood where he has already funded countless new businesses — all offering something unique and aimed at engaging the community — and also has introduced a music festival, seminar hall, and apartment building where 100 free apartments are open to interested and interesting visitors, Hsieh is putting his philosophy at Zappos to work in city planning.

“Our goal is to get [people] to walk just one more block.”