DSW Goes Big on Kids

The new and improved kids’ department expands to all doors as the chain ups its one-stop shopping game.

Bigger, broader, deeper: the DSW kids’ department aims for destination status.

DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse) already owns plenty of women shoppers, especially those just starting out in their careers and who have a need as well as the disposable income to do lots of (affordable) shoe shopping. However, it’s when many of these customers get married, start having kids and are juggling work and parenting responsibilities that DSW execs noticed a drift away from them being regulars. DSW research discovered that many of these women just didn’t have the time to indulge in shopping for themselves, opting instead for outlets where the whole family could get their shoe needs fulfilled.

Like any wise retailer, DSW is adapting to meet the needs of one of its key demographics (more than half of the chain’s 25 million VIP Rewards members have at least one child in the household) to encourage her return. Enter its new, improved and expanded kids’ department, officially open in all 500-plus outlets nationwide as of last month. The rollout follows a test phase over the past couple of years in select stores where DSW tweaked the format, selection and service to get it just right. Above all, Kirk Persson, GMM of DSW’s Kids’ division, says the company listened carefully to what customers were saying. “Overwhelmingly, our customer expects us to carry a big assortment just based on the convenience factor,” he says. “Our approach is different than other kids’ shopping models in that we carry a much broader assortment across multiple categories.”

From sneakers and sandals to boots, casual, dress and uniform styles in stores and thousands more styles online in sizes spanning infant, toddler and youth, Persson says DSW aims to be a back-to-school destination for families as well as year-round. “We aren’t just an athletic or casual house; we meet all the needs in the children’s wardrobe,” he says. “It’s a wide assortment of quality brands from designer to traditional athletic.” Key brands include Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Vans as well as dressier labels like Sperry, Steve Madden, Stride Rite, Minnetonka, Carter’s, Robeez and Kenneth Cole. The assortment also includes DSW private label brands, Max + Jake and Olive & Edie, which Persson reports are performing exceptionally well. “Our consumers view them as regular brands,” he says.

In addition to a huge assortment, Persson says DSW is going the full nine yards on proper fitting. All department staff have received extensive training and passed the chain’s fit certification program. They are identified in stores by sporting kids’ fit expert buttons. “We’ve walked them through the Brannock device, instructed on how to ask probing fit-related questions and explain why, for example, a child might need a greater width versus a narrow or a basic size,” he says, noting parents want what’s best for their children. The fact is plenty of parents may know how to fit themselves, but not so when it comes to their kids. Do you leave a thumb’s print worth of room? Should the toe go all the way to front? What’s the best shoe for safety purposes? “The expert service gives Mom confidence, especially first-time ones who are looking for a safe environment to shop for children’s shoes,” Persson says.

The fit expertise marks a new level of service at DSW, which Persson says is a must when it comes to kids. “For Mom to think of us as a kids’ resource, we needed to go a step above,” he says. “We didn’t want her to have to hunt for her kids’ shoes on her own. This added level of service is designed to gain her confidence, just like we have when it comes to her purchases.” And while Persson says DSW falls short of being a 100 percent sit-and-fit experience, the fact that it is willing to measure every child’s foot as well as ask relevant questions provides assurance to parents that the DSW is listening to their child’s needs. What’s more, when compared to many competing retailers who have stripped away service, the willingness to engage customers represents a fresh approach, according to Persson. And if Mom wants a little space, he says, she can grab her kid’s size and go.

The kids’ shopping all takes place in a self-contained section that consists of roughly 1,000 square feet. It’s bright, cheery and clearly signed, according to Persson. Interactive elements like a mat where kids can measure themselves and test their jumping skills adds to the overall experiential vibe. Rounding out the department is an extensive offering of accessories, including backpacks and lunch boxes. “Our research showed that more of a shop-in-shop approach with a hands-on touch with the customer is what is preferred,” he says. Persson credits DSW employees, many of whom are recent first-time parents, for providing lots of useful feedback on what makes a great kids’ shoe department. “The biggest takeaway from our employees was realizing we needed to do more than just offer a big selection,” he says. “They told us we had to have the added touch with the customer and to be able to explain why this is the right size and shoe for your kids. The ability to walk through the quality and durability attributes of the shoes is important. Is it just foot covering or are they actually going on an adventure?” Another employees’ takeaway was to not be a one-dimensional department. “Like we do in adults, we offer fashion, function, athletic, dress and seasonal categories,” Persson says. “We’re just not stocking the top 20 styles and carrying them deep. We’re also building and curating a selection that meets all of the footwear needs for the child’s total wardrobe.”

Selection, service and setting combined, Persson believes the DSW kids’ department is a winning formula. He adds that the partnership with Soles4Souls allowing customers to make room for new shoes by donating last season’s gently worn styles at any DSW store is icing on the cake. Each donation nets DSW VIP rewards members 50 points towards their next reward. Since launching its new loyalty program in May, the chain has seen tremendous response, with more than 127,000 pairs donated. “Kids go through so many shoes because they grow so fast and the thought of them just ending up in a landfill is heartbreaking,” says Margaret Standing, director of corporate communication for DSW. “Parents love the opportunity to clean the closet out before they go shopping for the next round of shoes for the school year and they love the fact that they’re helping others and the environment at the same time, and it’s great for the kids to see that too.”

Like with pretty much everything DSW does, when they do it, they go big. The kids’ department is no exception. It’s comprehensive, fun and relevant, according to Persson. “It’s not like they’re sitting in a dentist’s office,” he says. “They’re able to engage with different types of products—to touch light up styles from Skechers as well as see an array of dress styles that many probably have never even seen before.” It’s a shopping experience that can’t be replicated online. And while Persson says customers can shop the 2,000-plus styles online if they prefer, the belief is the lion’s share of kids’ purchases will happen in its stores. “Ultimately, it’s about the convenience factor for parents,” he says, especially if they have multiple kids in tow. “Parents want to get in and out efficiently, be able to get all their kids’ shopping needs done in one trip and leave knowing they’ve been waited on by a sales associate who really listened to their needs and provided them with a great shopping experience.” Persson adds, “As long as we’re trend-right, have the brands kids want and the inventory, we should be very successful.”

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