Sushi and Slippers: How Dearfoams Transformed a Time of Crisis into Sustainable Growth
August 17, 2022
What do sushi and slippers have in common? Other than the fact that people love them both, of course! The answer may surprise you.
During Japan’s Tokugawa period, the population of the city we now know as Tokyo grew exponentially, causing a series of hardships for the rural population including disease, flooding, and fires. Eventually, increased consumption and deforestation gave way to poor harvests, forcing the Japanese to rethink their way of life and how to feed the growing population. It was out of this time of crisis and necessity that sushi was born.
From the global pandemic to supply chain issues to record-high inflation, brands today are also experiencing a time of crisis. And just like the Japanese turned a catastrophe into what would ultimately become one of the world’s most popular foods, Dearfoams harnessed recent events as an opportunity to completely transform its product strategy and deliver slippers that consumers truly love.
We recently attended PI Apparel in NYC, where we sat down with Angela Kenney, Chief Merchandising Officer for RG Barry and its subsidiary Dearfoams. During the session, Angela shared how the slipper brand has embraced the “new normal” and achieved sustainable growth through consumer-obsessed product creation.
When the COVID-19 lockdowns started, consumers couldn’t go to movie theaters, eat at restaurants, or attend sporting events. But they could work from their sofas, wearing sweatpants and slippers all day.
While other leisure brands were busy ramping up production to maximize their “15 minutes of fame,” Dearfoams took a different route. According to Angela, the team asked itself, “How do we make this so it’s not a moment in time? People are inviting us into their homes as a brand. How do we capitalize on that and talk to them and learn from them?”
Little did the brand know that this was the first step toward completely evolving its product creation process and adopting a consumer-obsessed approach. “We knew we couldn’t do small changes,” Angela says. “If we were really going to evolve our business, we had to make massive shifts in how we look at the consumer and what their journey is. Talking to the consumer was critical for us.”
Today, Angela and her colleagues consider the consumer part of the Dearfoams team. They are consistently looking for ways to gather consumer feedback and incorporate it into each and every phase of assortment development from forming the product strategy for the season through go-to-market. “Consumers are changing so rapidly in terms of what their expectations are from different product categories. And what we saw was an opportunity to get on board or not. How do we not be a moment in time as a brand?”
Thanks to MakerSights’ Voice of Consumer testing, Dearfoams’ audience spoke loud and clear: “It’s not a moment in time, it’s a shift in lifestyle. And I know this because our consumer told us that,” shares Angela. “It’s not my opinion or the opinion of anyone else in our building, it’s the consumer playing back to us what our category is to them.”
And Dearfoams hasn’t stopped listening since.
Supply- vs. Demand-driven Product Creation
Brands have traditionally sought consumer input via focus groups toward the end of the product creation process. However, Dearfoams has taken a completely different approach by involving consumers and digitally testing product concepts even before any sketches or samples are developed.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and we always looked at consumers last,” says Angela. “We started putting consumers at the very front end of the process. Before we make anything, before we talk about trends or colors, before we do any of that — the very first thing we do in our process is talk to the consumer.”
This has led the brand to make a number of pivotal yet highly impactful product decisions. “Today, 54% of consumers expect slippers to be worn outside,” Angela shares. “That’s a huge shift. So we completely pivoted really quickly. Upwards of 85% of our product assortment now has visual queues that show the consumer can wear it outside.”
Another example is male consumers’ desire for water resistant slippers. “Because of the testing we did in advance, our product completely changed before we had any design on paper. Before we talked about material, we knew the directive was to give the consumer what they wanted.”
This consumer-first approach has also enabled the brand to circumvent many of the post-pandemic supply chain issues plaguing retailers today. As Angela explains, “ In the past, you would make a product, bring it in, wait for it to sell or not to sell, and it would take you 18 months to pivot. Or you’d have to bring something in, test it, read, and react. We don’t have time to do that anymore with all of the backend issues.”
By replacing supply-driven product creation with a demand-driven process, Dearfoams has been able to reduce proto sampling by 50%, as well as shave off a minimum of 8-12 weeks from its assortment development calendar. “It’s taken a lot of the guesswork or opinions out of the mix,” says Angela. “We’ve already talked to the consumer and we know what they like. They like this color, they like this print, and they like this style. We have the data behind it before we even make something. When you take all those learnings from the consumer, it makes it really easy to put a plan together to build your product.”
Sell-in and Marketing and Merchandising, Oh My!
For Dearfoams, consumer learnings don’t just inform product creation — they also influence sell-in, marketing, and merchandising decisions. For example, when developing its recent women’s assortment, the brand ran eight MakerSights consumer sentiment tests against nearly 2,500 females. Strategic panel selection and targeted segmentation questions allowed them to isolate specific department store customers and tailor subsequent assortment decisions to these accounts.
“Buyers today have taken on multiple categories,” says Angela, “so I may have a buyer come and she’s in charge of 20 categories. But being the slipper expert company, I want to be able to go in and be like, ‘Here is the information, here is the data, I’m going to make your job really easy because we already talked to your consumer and we know this is what they want.’”
The brand has also updated its marketing and merchandising to factor in common terminology that target segments use to describe the products they love during testing. Consumers’ favorite adjective? Comfy, of course! “Every single thing we do, we look at through the lens of, is that going to be comfortable?” shares Angela. “Is the consumer going to visually see that that’s going to be comfortable?”
In addition to using these words to describe products on the Dearfoams website, the brand also takes every opportunity to display furry, padded, and puffy slippers online and in-store. The same goes for showcasing the bottom of various items to clearly indicate that they’re the indoor/outdoor styles modern consumers want.
Grab Some Sushi and Watch the Full Session
These are just a few of the insightful tidbits Angela shared during our PI Apparel session. To hear what she thinks about the impact of consumer testing on designers’ creativity, how pricing optimization has helped drive Dearfoams’ AURs up post-pandemic, and why the brand now lives by the mantra “Fewer, Better,” watch the full session recording here.
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