Athlete's Foot Looks To Redefine What's Neighborly

With the reopening of its store in Atlanta's Atlantic Station, the Athlete Foot is ushering in a new era of customer experience. While the goal is to create consistency among all its stores, it's also aiming to flex in unique ways. Matt Lafone, the company's president and general manager of the Americas, tells Retail Insider about the changes.

Retail Insider: Why hyperlocal at a time when so many brands are looking for global consistency?

Matt Lafone: Yes, many are looking for an easy, turnkey approach. Having one point of view minimizes distraction, and you can pop stores open anywhere. Our view is different, especially given the retail consolidation within the sneaker space in the last five years, with bigger-box guys eating up smaller guys. We look at our model, which is 100% franchise-owned in the U.S. and 95% franchise-owned globally, as an advantage. It's our secret sauce.

In most cases in the U.S., these franchisees have been partners for 20 to 30 years. They go to church with their customers. Their kids go to the same schools. In many cases, they've sold sneakers to three generations. While we're looking for consistency in our commercial statements and storytelling approach, we want to take advantage of the local stories.

Retail Insider: What does that look like in the store?

Lafone: Think of all the Atlanta icons, in terms of entertainers, athletes and social justice. There are unique murals by local artists. A gigantic neon sign says, "The South's got something to say."

I wouldn't put that in one of our Chicago stores. From a product level, we bring in specific brands. For example, Atlantic Station serves a demographic that's a bit more upscale, so we've got a few more premium streetwear brands.

Retail Insider: How big is the national versus local split in stores?

Lafone: It's about 85/15. We don't want to create a fractured experience and have a consumer go into one store that is so different from another that it confuses them. But we want to have the curation local enough that it's meaningful, based on brand heat within that market. It's based on analytics and data down to the store level. And it includes local brands -- but also regional preferences for national brands.

Retail Insider: How do new customer experiences help build the brand?

Lafone: After COVID, people were urgently ready to get back out to the stores. But about 90% of consumers know exactly what they want in this channel. They come into the store looking for the release and the next big drop. So our job is to create an experience that shares that sense of excitement and discovery. There's a Jordan store-within-a-store and a T-shirt bar. There's vintage wallpaper and relevant new brands.

I don't even want to call them stores anymore. I look at them as community hubs for events. That can be a philanthropic effort. It can be an entrepreneur sharing his success story. Our goal is to service that community from a product level and uplift neighborhoods.

Retail Insider: How it's going so far?

Lafone: In the last 30 days, we've seen a 300% increase in sales, which is great. We've had some good consumer feedback. But we're still listening and learning. We'll do more focus groups. So far, we've converted three stores and hope to convert about 25 by the end of January.

It's complicated. There's a lot of technology, like touchscreens and other bells and whistles, that we're adding to stores. And like many retailers, we're asking what kind of tech will still be relevant in three years.

Next month, we'll open our first store through STAART, a program we began after George Floyd's murder. It stands for Strategic African American Retail Track, and aims to increase Black ownership and representation. This group represents roughly 13% of the nation's population but closer to 40% of sneaker purchasing power.

Retail Insider: How different is today's consumer?

Lafone: Gen Z is gravitating to some nostalgic throwback brands, but they also ask, "What's the next big thing?" There's an opportunity to take calculated risks, offer more newness, and then learn from that. You don't need a ton of brands to make them happy, but you need the right brands.

Female consumers are a bit fickle these days. You're only as good as your last season. We compete with fast-fashion brands like Shein more than we used to. So we're pulsing big on apparel, creating an environment where they can shop head to toe. And we are investing a lot in minority-owned brands, like Proud Black Brands and Rad Black Kids, which are extremely relevant to this consumer.

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