MILAN — Italy’s small and medium sized footwear companies accelerated their digital strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic and those efforts are beginning to pay off, especially in key markets such as China.Exhibitors at Micam’s spring 2022 footwear trade show at Milan’s Rho Fairgrounds, which ran from Sept. 19 to 21, said their first-half sales were salvaged by a buoyant performance of digital sales, in the absence of travel shopping and an overall spending slowdown.
“Major markets like China are balancing themselves. We’re seeing a shift in China. They used to travel and now they want to buy at home. And despite the pandemic, sales generated from China were up 106.4 percent compared to the first half of 2020,” said Tommaso Cancellara, Micam’s chief executive officer.
After a 12-month hiatus from the physical fairs, exhibitors were eager to return to face-to-face meetings. Some 652 brands, of which 262 were from overseas, exhibited at the world’s largest high-end footwear trade show. Morale was higher, though the number of exhibitors still pales in comparison to pre-COVID-19 norms of 1,300 exhibitors and 2,000 collections.
Spanish sandals brand Alohas, which took part in Micam’s emerging designer showcase last year, books about 80 percent of its sales online and 20 percent through its wholesale channel. Its Instagram marketing and the success of its unique on-demand fashion model — driven by its monthly drop collections — has boosted sales in foreign markets like the U.S., which represents 40 percent of its sales.
“Our wholesale business is also growing fast and in order to create a deep relationship with clients, we need to get to know them in person,” said Alejandro Porras, Aloha’s founder and business developer, who underscored the importance of physical fairs over digital ones.
Last year, Micam, the largest business-to-business physical footwear event in the world, launched a b-to-b digital platform to enhance its exhibitors’ digital capabilities by partnering with California-based tech firm NuOrder.
“Buyers can get to that last step of ordering,” commented Cancellara, adding, however, that high-end buyers will always need to touch the leather.
Across the board, the Italian footwear industry is in the midst of a hard-earned recovery, though “pre-pandemic levels remain out of grasp,” reported Italian footwear consortium Assocalzaturifici. Italy’s statistics office ISTAT reported that in the first half of 2021, industrial production index rose by 13 percent and revenues by 22 percent, according to a report compiled by Italian business association Confindustria. “International sales due to work performed on contract for major luxury multinationals has limited the gap compared to the year 2019,” stated the report. Compared to 2019, sales and industrial production are still 5 and 15 percent lower, respectively. The industry shed 5,000 footwear and components industry workers since the start of the year.
In terms of exports, volume rose 24.8 percent between the months of January and May, while in value terms, the footwear industry surged 31.5 percent versus the same period a year earlier. The footwear industry generated 4.02 billion euros versus 3.8 billion euros recorded in value terms the first five months 2021, while a total of 81.8 million pairs were exported compared to 78.7 million pairs exported over the same period, a year earlier.
Exports of small and medium-sized companies and micro realities have also been helped by tech start-ups like Italian Artisan, which has built a trusted sustainable ecosystem for premium foreign brands by linking premium brands worldwide with Italian factories and artisans in just a few clicks.
“Minds have changed as the sector continues to digitize and micro, small and medium sized companies embrace a phy-gital format,” its founder David Clementoni said, noting that the organization doubled its sales in 2021 compared to its 2020 levels.
Other digital-tech players distinguished themselves for innovative personalized services that showcase Italian creativity on a global level. The customization project launched in 2020 by Seriplanet, an Italian-based screen and digital printing company, focuses on personalization while also helping brands resurrect deadstock from previous seasons into something completely original.
“We want to offer this opportunity to buyers, a service that was once reserved solely for big groups,” said sales director Lorenzo del Biondo, explaining that the goal is to put the consumer in direct contact with stylists. “We want to revolutionize the process and integrate the skills used for main partners by employing a drop shipping method — print in one day and send it off.”
Imanol Martínez Gomez, marketing and international business development director for FICE, the Spanish footwear industry federation, said like Italian businesses, Spanish players were hard-pressed to amp up their digital capabilities. “We had a four-year plan that was condensed into 12 months.”
“The focus going forward is digital, establishing more efficient pricing, working closely with retailers and leaner management and production methods,” Gomez continued, noting that Spanish brands over the last year have been hit by an increase in prices of raw materials, up about 30 percent on the year. Italian brands echoed this, noting steep hikes in calf-hide prices and a fourfold increase in shipping prices due to restrictions and shipping bottlenecks from China and in the Suez Canal.
“Our strategy going forward is to select retailers carefully and try to support them with credit lines, while planning marketing events and physical trunk shows in the U.S.,” said Karl Schlecht, owner of Parabiago Collection, which owns Thierry Rabotin.
The usual space dedicated to Micam’s emerging designers showcased items from 12 designers: Italy’s Alessandra Balbi; Oakland, Calif. native Marcus Thomas of Marcus Alexander; Brazil’s Ammabile; Spain’s Momoc; O.T.A. Paris; Sri Lanka’s Thread; Skua Studio from the Netherlands; Umoja from Guinea and Congo; Nigeria’s Titi Adesa; Pakistan’s Meher Kakalia; Syria’s Daniel Essa, and India’s Jerelyn Creado. With more foreign designers than ever before, creations paid homage to their nation of origins, re-imagining age-old craft and eco-designs that respect the environment from which they emerged.
Larger players like Furla also revisited their existing strategy. Its debut at Micam marked its renewed focus on its footwear category as a part its core business.
“Omnichannel, its technology and innovation are the best ways to reach our customers and the new generations who have a more digital approach to buying new products. The online facet of our business will have to represent 30 percent of our sales by 2025,” said Mauro Sabatini, Furla’s CEO, noting that the company’s foray into footwear was motivated by forecasts of ample growth potential of the sector into 2025.
In terms of trends, Uberta Zambeletti, owner of Milanese concept store Wait and See, noted a rise in chunky, brick-like platforms and square toes in both sandals and closed-toed shoes.
“I was happy to see bright pastels and metallics and very juicy sorbets in the neon range,” mused Zambeletti, who launched her digital platform in March 2020, investing heavily in Facebook and Instagram marketing. “Digital saved us with 45 percent of our sales generated from Instagram worldwide. We closed 2020 with a mere 19 percent drop compared to 2019, our peak year. I am delighted to say that the U.S. market is growing and is now our first market after Italy.”