Footwear retailer Fleet Feet is leaning into social media and search advertising to not only drive digital sales but also propel people into its stores.
Headquartered in Carrboro, N.C., Fleet Feet is a franchisor of 186 running stores in 37 states that’s been operating since 1976. The company launched its e-commerce business just over six years ago, and while like many retailers it initially feared digital sales could cannibalize store sales, that never came to bear thanks to, among other things, pricing discipline and a strong commitment to omnichannel, COO Jason Jabaut tells RIS News.
Perhaps best known in the retail tech community for its partnership with 3D foot-scanner Volumental, Fleet Feet recently celebrated its 3 millionth foot scan in three years. It also introduced pressure plate technology in most locations to send scan data to partner Superfeet for custom insoles.
The company has more recently been testing local ads through Facebook and Google to connect customers with their local stores, with initial results accelerating both in-store sales and e-commerce growth. Key products and categories have seen a 10%-plus incremental sales lift resulting from digital advertising efforts.
“We leaned into digital advertising and our e-commerce business in a really big way as well, thanks in part to the support of our tremendous partners,” says CEO Joey Pointer. “Pre-2020, that might have been a somewhat controversial spend, but we’ve seen nothing but upside — both in-store and online — in elevating the moments when new and current customers encounter our advertising online.”
Like many retailers, the company shut 95% of its stores for 60 to 90 days last year for COVID-19, but sales have bounced back, says Pointer, and its e-commerce continues to grow — with in-store sales outpacing digital. It ended 2020 with flat revenue at around $230 million and has rebounded in record-breaking fashion, with March 2021 its all-time highest sales month.
Combined brick-and-mortar sales are up 34% for April and May 2021, with digital sales growing over 300% vs. pre-pandemic April and May 2019. The company also leverages its store base for fulfillment —it offers a revenue share program for franchisees — and fulfills online orders from more than 150 locations.
Perhaps a bit unusually, Fleet Feet measures in-store comp-sales growth as its No. 1 e-commerce metric.
“It sounds a little strange, but when you stay focused on growing the in-store business, it helps govern your decisions and build a program that stays true to your brand and makes sense for a multi-location retailer with a 45-year history,” says Jabaut. “You need a good attribution model to prove the connection, but the gratification and confidence make the investment worth it.”
Fleet Feet’s franchisor business model means the company needs to experiment with advertising structures that work within its financial model, he notes. “We are continuously building opt-in advertising programs for our franchisees that we can help manage at scale but allow for a hyperlocal approach. These programs fuel an ever-growing percentage of in-store traffic and online sales.”
The company has also adopted an “always on” approach to social media, particularly with Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. To keep costs down, it relies upon attribution models to better understand where to make additional investments.
It’s also building out its mobile app to not only connect with their loyalty members, but also serve them local inventory information, local event details and a growing library of content.
“Everything inside the app is built to simplify the digital experience for our customers,” says Jabaut. “It’s a work in progress, and we are currently in the middle of a lot of development work to have a higher degree of personalization and product recommendations based on preference within the app.”
Indeed, the future of retail requires a strong value proposition for customers, whether through customer service, in-store experience, product selection or price, Pointer notes. “Customer expectations continue to evolve and even the definition of ‘value’ continues to change over time. What’s working today will be outdated in a couple years, so our job is to continue to get better over time. That’s everyone’s job.”