Sep 1, 2009

Gaining a (Distribution) Toehold

As a long-time triathlete, I take an interest in shoes that help avoid repetitive stress injuries. So I paid close attention to a recent Times article about the new breed of  “barefoot”-wear that aims to reverse the quarter-century trend toward more padded, more complexly engineered training shoes and return footwear to thin soles and lean structures. The idea is that feet have gotten lazy and out of shape when set in Cadillac-sized immobilizers, and this lack of foot fitness percolates up to create problems in our calves, knees, hips, and backs.
I was intrigued. But where would I be able to try on a pair of these toe-fitting things that look like what pre-teen girls wear to sleepovers? Could I find them at Footlocker or Sports Authority? It seems doubtful. Shoe companies have grown to big businesses by convincing us to buy bigger and more structured (and more expensive) shoes. Their proposed ideal has become the shoe equivalent of an SUV.
How could a sales rep say “more shoe structure is better” when talking about 95% of the store’s inventory, then turn around and pitch a “less is more” barefoot-style pair? It would be like trying to sell eco-friendly cars on a Hummer lot. Or like introducing radial tires at a Firestone outlet way back when; you had to wait, years, for Firestone to finally make their own.
As a distribution strategy guy, I started to wonder how Terra Plana, the fledgling business behind these new shoes, could get mainline retail exposure. In a sense, it’s the same problem that Red Bull and many other revolutionary product faced. How can an upstart get traditional distributors to market innovations and overcome loyalty to legacy core revenue products? (Say what you will about offering customers a range of options, but behind the scenes in quarterly management meetings with vendors that view seems not so much enlightened as crazy).
Product transitions are tough because changing entrenched distribution patterns is tough. Yet it can be done. The most feasible, least risky ways to do it require sound analysis. Not big expensive studies or, initially, even pilots. The simplest, and best, step is simply to start talking and selling to growth-minded retail partners, in depth. 

You’d be surprised at what you find out just by smart questioning of innovative retailers. And persistent selling. For more insights, see my earlier post on joining the new generation of marketing and distribution leaders.

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