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The Rite Foot Forward

Sharon John, president of Stride Rite Children’s Group, talks about the high-engagement category of children’s footwear and the opportunities the company is seizing to keep …

Sharon John, president of Stride Rite Children’s Group, talks about the high-engagement category of children’s footwear and the opportunities the company is seizing to keep the heritage brand perfectly positioned in the modern marketplace.

By Jennifer Cattaui

On a shelf in her office sits a pair of white lace-up Stride Rite shoes. Her father dug them out of the attic of her childhood home in Fayetteville, TN, two and a half years ago when she was appointed the new president of the almost 95-year-old brand. “My father appreciated quality shoes,” says Sharon John, president of Stride Rite Children’s Group, remembering family excursions when he would take her shopping at the shoe store in the square. “He always insisted that we had the best of the best when it came to shoes,” she says. “It is a very dear memory.” In her office her childhood shoes serve as a reminder of the company’s role in children’s healthy development, as well as the extraordinary memories the stylish footwear is making every day. She says everywhere she goes; everyone she meets seems to have a Stride Rite story.

John started her career in advertising in New York, working on kid-favorite brands like Hershey’s and Snickers. After receiving her MBA at Columbia, she was recruited to work at Mattel on the Barbie brand, and then later at Hasbro where she worked with licensed properties like Playskool, NERF and My Little Pony. She focused on turning the dynamic between a parent’s and child’s needs into successful marketing campaigns. “That was great preparation to move into the kids’ shoe business,” says John, who is married and a mother of three children ages 13, 10 and 7. “Shoes, like confections and toys, are what I call ‘high-engagement categories’ for kids—children are very involved in the decision making process.”

The magical balance between what moms want and kids want is something Stride Rite excels in. “We’re a brand moms trust and kids love,” John says. This, she adds, has been an internal beacon for their team, always looked to as the team crafts and evaluates every communication and strategy. Stride Rite’s R&D efforts and strong ties to the podiatric community hone their product for children’s healthy foot development, and their design department ensures they are on-trend and fun for kids. “We like to think of ourselves as a helper to moms—mom knows if she works with Stride Rite, the choices will ultimately be good for her child, and with a wide array of designs, she won’t have a battle on her hands. When a kid is excited about wearing the shoes, it’s not a compromise.”

One of the most invigorating parts of her job, John says, is getting out in the market and engaging directly with consumers. Each spring she makes sure that the associates that work at the headquarters get into the field, whether it’s to run boxes, or if they’re certified, to fit shoes. “We get so many insights by doing this,” John notes. On one such outing, in fact, John sold four pairs of shoes to a little girl, shopping with her grandmothers. She says it all was going well until they asked her where the bathroom was. Not familiar with the mall, John deferred to “her manager,” confiding that she was actually the president of the company. “One of the grandmothers pointed at me and yelled ‘Undercover Boss!’ and the whole place went a little crazy for a second,” she laughs. In retrospect she could see how that assumption could be made, and certainly that day in the field, as always, made an impact. She experienced what’s being done, in over 300 retail doors, every day—greeting and kneeling down next to a child, measuring each foot with precision and making a direct customer connection—those things that underpin Stride Rite’s service model. “We’re not just making shoes,” she says, “We are selling smiles and making memories.”

We talked to Sharon John about leading a heritage brand in a modern marketplace, the science behind keeping moms and kids happy and international expansion.

How is the children’s marketplace changing?
One of the things that has been really interesting in the children’s marketplace over the last few years—maybe even decade—is how much more latitude moms provide their children to get involved in the decision-making process with brands, styles and products. As soon as the child can speak he or she has an opinion; if it’s Disney Princess, it’s also which Princess.

Stride Rite’s primary positioning and objective is meeting the physical, health and safety needs of the child with mom in mind, but we’re bringing back fun and whimsy and the recognition that those things (health, safety and style) don’t have to be sacrificed.

Why are moms giving this greater latitude? Do you notice any trends that account for this?
I think there are macro trends happening. People are more accepting of what might be a mash up of what were once considered polar opposites. That’s true in the toy industry as well, especially in the case of learning-driven toys. Toys that teach you something can still be fun. Unlike my childhood, if you take medicine today as a child, it actually does taste good. We are slowly understanding that we can have it all—we can have healthy products that look good and feel good and we’re happy to have them. No one wants to compromise any more. With a brand like Stride Rite, our consumer expects us to solve this problem for her and bridge this gap.

Today’s technology has a lot to do with reaching one’s consumer base. How does the brand reach moms?
One of the things that we do on a very regular basis, almost daily, is to try to understand how our “moms” are receiving information—what are the best ways, tools and media to converse with her and get information to her. We have to be careful as brand marketers today to not be checking boxes on social media or whatever the latest this or that is. We have to be sure we’re really responding to the conversation that she wants to have. That’s what’s driving our media decisions.

Where are you finding your consumers? What’s your message?
We have a number of tools such as our integrated marketing programs, our retail doors, our website and our invaluable partnerships with key retailers. We realize, as far as shoes go for children, they’re almost a consumable. Every three to four months you need to have your child sized. It’s not an option that they don’t wear shoes, just what shoes they wear. Shoes are a big part of special occasions—the first day of school, First Communion and holidays. It’s part of the regular cadence of life. Given that, we recently launched a loyalty program so that we can communicate more directly with our mom consumers.

Separately, we have a job to do to reach out to all moms who have children within the age grade that we serve. Some of the innate knowledge that was handed down from mom to mom has been lost a little bit—things like the fact that children’s bones are still cartilage until they’re 5 and that what you put on a child’s feet today relates directly to a child’s overall growth and poor fitting shoes could lead to back and leg problems later in life. We also try to seek out those moms who aren’t naturally migrating to us for other reasons mostly to let them know they have a choice. If they’re not there because they think that Stride Rite isn’t as stylish or exciting as it could be, we have to re-communicate that to them.

Licensing is a great way to reach out into kids’ worlds and speak to what they love. How does licensing figure into the business?
We’re very excited about all of our partnerships. We do so much with Disney, Marvel, Star Wars and Sesame Street—these are best in class. Each one communicates to the moms as well as the kids—they are almost all about nostalgia at this point. We’ve been around for almost 95 years and, for example, we’re on the second generation of dads picking out the Star Wars or superhero shoe. There is a whole new dynamic happening now with the powerful partners we’ve chosen, and it does elevate our brand. We look at it as a co-branded opportunity—you’ll notice that everything we do in the space is “Marvel by Stride Rite” or “Star Wars by Stride Rite” because we’re bringing something to the party as well. With Stride Rite shoes inside and elevated designs, we make sure the kid feels like a Jedi or a superhero.

And, we get requests to make these shoes in big sizes as well—like making our Lightsaber shoes in adult male sizes. I wish we could do it!

Do you specially market to dads?
In relation to dad as caregiver, certainly, but we recognize that a lot of the decisions made about footwear are made in the mom-camp. But I am a personal exception to that. My father made the decisions about footwear in our family. So we try to have inclusive and relevant messaging for everyone—moms, dads and grandparents—even pediatricians.

How do you reach out to the medical community?
We have a long-standing relationship with the American Podiatry Medical Association (APMA) as we have the first babies’ shoes to receive the APMA Seal of Acceptance. Today we have the only APMA Seal of Acceptance on our fit training materials in the industry plus our leading Sensory Response Technology™ products also have the APMA Seal of Acceptance. We also have our STEP program, which is an acronym for Scientifically Tested Everyday Proven. It guides moms as to what shoe is appropriate for her child’s stage of development and mobility from pre-walk to off and running styles and sizes. With the APMA we work together to provide information about healthy, quality footwear for a child’s natural foot development, which includes talking about our STEP program and Rite Fit events with the podiatrist and pediatric communities so they have the information they need when talking to families. A few examples are sponsoring pediatric lectures at the APMA national conferences, distributing joint releases about the importance of proper fit and footwear during key shoe shopping seasons plus partnering on broadcast segments about shoe shopping.

I understand you have a prototype store in Burlington, MA. How is it different? What features does it have? Why did you do this?
There were a lot of catalysts for us exploring a new store. We hadn’t had a major remodel in a long time and had completed research about the types of things that moms and kids would enjoy. We worked with a design firm to ensure we were elevating the brand visually and functionally, while making it easier for mom to shop for her family and improving the service model, while adding things that would be fun and engaging for the kids. For example, we installed a “rainbow rug” that runs the length of the store in all of the Stride Rite brand colors, and as a natural extension of the service model, it’s a fun way to get a child to run or walk in the shoes so that we can examine fit. We also put in a rainbow measuring pole so kids can see how tall they are, and when children are sized they get a sticker that says “who knew you grew” with their favorite character on it and their new shoe size. This way mom gets a few visual and verbal imprints as to the size of the shoe and our associates can better serve multiple customers at once with tremendous specificity.

What direction or growth opportunity are you currently focused on?
It’s such a strong brand and Stride Rite Children’s Group manages the kids’ business of Sperry Top-Sider, Saucony and Keds kids, as well as the top licenses within the kids industry today. And we’ve had a lot of growth in those brands and partnerships, which is exciting.

But other things we’re excited about are our international opportunities. Over the past two years we launched our retail model into a number of new countries with some great partners: China (including Hong Kong), Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia. What we found (and we knew this from research beforehand but it’s certainly proving to be the truth) is that the core promise that Stride Rite has always had, which is quality healthy footwear for kids that the moms also love, is proving to be as relevant there as it is here. That service model is working outside of the United States. Parents want to invest in their children’s long-term health and wellness. One of the things that I think we were worried about is not having that 90-plus years of heritage outside of the United States, but with the right service model, the right products and the ability to communicate effectively to those consumers, that proved to not be a hurdle.

We are continuing to explore ways to build the business outside of the United States and opening doors through partnerships. We partner with companies like Li and Fung for example in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia efforts and they build and use our store and service models and products as well as our core marketing plans and insights to launch those brands in those markets. We intend to continue that with best in class partners.

What’s a typical day?
My day is never typical, which is what I like. It’s a dynamic business; we’re dealing with multiple brands, multiple sources of revenue and multiple geographies. I love to empower the team and watch them grow this business within the strategic framework that we came up with just a couple years ago now that’s starting to take hold in a really powerful way. Although I came with a lot of experience, the real estate side and the retail management side are aspects that were fairly new to me when I got here. I find that to be one of the most exciting and empowering aspects—I love to be able to speak directly to the consumer. I’ve definitely been bitten by the retail bug.

What characteristics do you think that it takes to be an effective leader at Stride Rite?
We are consumer-centric, brand driven and I try to ensure my team gets that and understands that. I often ask the question, “What would the consumer do? How would the consumer respond to this?” and it will lead us to the right path most of the time. I focus on ensuring that we are creating service, products and experiences that the consumer really appreciates.

Secondly, we are brand driven because ultimately all of those consumer experiences have to be in the context of something that she would want and expect from Stride Rite so we work very hard at that. The only way that’s executed with excellence however is to ensure we have the best team. I work very hard in both finding the best people and keeping them excited, ensuring that they are as passionate about the brand as I am. I couldn’t be happier with the team we’ve put together.

What does it mean to you personally to be heading up a brand that is almost 95 years old?
I love it, particularly because I enjoyed and wore these brands, including Sperry Top-Sider and Keds, as a child. Stride Rite, particularly, is a part of my life. At the same time I respect the fact that this brand pre-exists me and has a life of its own and a certain number of expectations. I feel I am a steward of the brand. I have to make sure that the brand stays strong and is elevated for the next generation of kids and moms. •

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