Why Allen Edmonds is hiring, making sneakers and partnering with the Ryder Cup | Ep.87

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When you’re business is making dress shoes, a global pandemic that means more people are working from home or not dressing up for nights is a big problem. But Allen Edmonds has navigated through the past 18 months with a greater emphasis on a wider variety of shoes and on meeting consumer needs, plus contributing to the pandemic response by making masks.

It’s been nearly five years since the Port Washington-based company was acquired by Caleres, the St. Louis-based parent company of Famous Footwear, Dr. Scholl’s Shoes, Sam Edelman, Naturalizer, Vionic and other brands. Under Caleres, Allen Edmonds has 150 manufacturing employees in Port Washington and is looking to fill another eight roles. The company also has some of its operations in St. Louis.

Keith Duplain, president of St. Louis branded portfolio at Caleres, and Bob Steffes, vice president of manufacturing at Allen Edmonds, joined BizTimes associate editor Arthur Thomas on the BizTimes MKE Podcast to discuss the company’s journey since the acquisition and over the course of the pandemic. They also discussed Allen Edmonds’ partnership with the PGA of America to make the company’s shoes the official dress shoe of the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Here are some of the highlights from the conversation:

On what’s changed under Caleres:

Steffes said the Port Washington factory is still focused on making high-quality products and the biggest change has been increased demand for boots and sneakers.

“We didn’t make sneakers pre-Caleres, but we’ve added equipment here in Port Washington, we’ve added the skillset to make sneakers.”

Duplain said Allen Edmonds had some success with its initial entry into more casual shoes and sneakers, but found traction when it launched a sneaker version of its flagship Park Avenue style.

“It was a little bit like, that’s interesting looking. We didn’t know quite what we had in terms of sales ability or revenue with that particular item. It resonated,” Duplain said, describing it as a sneaker in the shape and form consumers knew from Allen Edmonds. “The sales volume immediately took off.”

On changing consumer shopping habits:
One of the biggest shifts accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the growth of e-commerce and online shopping. Duplain said the reality is any retailer needs to serve customers with the service they want, whether that’s online shopping, picking up at a store or shopping in store.

“We view brick and mortar as a critical component to Allen Edmonds,” he said, noting the importance of quality and craftsmanship to the brand. “It’s hard always to demonstrate that in a catalog or online, so the store has to be there to really give that individual who wants to interact with it the chance to, but I think some of those locations will shift over time.”

Duplain said the company’s stores located in downtowns and financial districts have yet to see traffic return to pre-pandemic levels, but stores in Sun Belt areas have rebounded nicely. He said it is possible some stores will close, but the company will also look to add stores in certain locations, likely in the second half of 2022.

Steffes said the biggest change to manufacturing because of changing consumer preferences is in production volume.

“The customers’ expectation is they want a shoe and they want it in stock,” Steffes said. “Our challenge is we offer so many style, size, width combinations. Twenty years ago, we would work in big batches. We would run 50 pair of this or 100 pair of that, now we have to run in batches on one.”

On Ryder Cup and other partnerships

Allen Edmonds’ partnership with the U.S. Ryder Cup team includes making custom shoes for players to wear at the event’s more formal ceremonies. Steffes had the shoes on display in the company showroom when Duplain visited recently. He said the opportunity to make the custom shoes and then hand-deliver them to the golfers was one “we couldn’t pass up.”

He added there is alignment with those attending and watching the tournament and Allen Edmonds’ customers.

Duplain pointed out the company has partnered with others, including NBA coaches and other professional athletes, provided there is alignment with the Allen Edmonds brand.

“We’re very discerning about the partnerships we keep and what it means for the brand and what it means for our devoted followers,” Duplain said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He spent also five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.