Hotter CEO adds more tech, lures younger shoppers while retaining core customers
Hotter Shoes’ CEO Ian Watson has a long-term vision for the comfort shoe brand’s stores to become “experiential centres” that use technology to make them inventory-free.
In an interview he talked of using 3D tech to measure customers’ feet with AR projecting an image of the shoe onto their feet.
It would mean not having to commit millions of pounds to inventory “on the off chance that someone is going to walk in, needing a size 9 1/2 in a slim fit and having the specific style they want”, he told The Business Desk.
It's unlikely to happen any time soon and for now, remains a wishlist fantasy. But with the company having closed a huge number of its stores and having a much smaller estate now, it's perhaps not as far from reality as it might have been pre-closures. And in April, the firm is taking a step forward as it launches an iOS app that incorporates both measuring technology and AR.
Watson joined the company two years ago and has pushed it towards digital, a good move in hindsight given the enforced closure of shops during lockdowns in the past year.
He’s also driven through a company voluntary arrangement so the business now has 17 shops and six concessions having permanently closed 59 sites.
That has obviously affected sales and annual sales this year should be around half of the 2019 levels at £45 million.
But Hotter is now focused on growth and Watson said that online sales in the six-week Christmas trading period rose 27%.
Watson said: “We’ve got to grow – we’ve got to grow digitally and we’ve got to grow by developing great products that we’re all passionate about delivering to the consumer. It genuinely is pretty exciting. There are more ups than there are downs. But it is a rollercoaster. Don’t let me give you the impression this is a breeze.”
His optimism comes as other shoe retailers such as Clarks, Dune and Office go through their own pain with CVAs and store closures as footwear has struggled to gain traction in a pandemic that has seen many people confined to their homes. Many of Hotter’s core older customers, in particular, have been advised to ‘shield’ indoors.
Its average customer age had been around 70 for some years and this presents Watson with a challenge in reinventing the firm. “The historical view of Hotter is it’s just for the people who have relaxed to the point where they’ve almost given up on what they look like, and therefore we’re challenging those perceptions now in a positive way,” he told The Business Desk.
“We’ve improved the products from a technical perspective and a comfort perspective [and] we’ve significantly spent a lot of time on our styling.”
Bringing Claire Pearl on board as chief product officer 18 months ago was key and Watson said the change she’s headed has seen over 180,000 customers joining its database in the past year, with an average age of 54. He insists the company hasn’t lost sight of its older customers, however.
Both groups will be targeted by new products currently in development that include a collab with BASF on Infinergy tech. This should give its shoes the kind of rebound properties found in running shoes. And it’s investing in automation that should shorten its lead times, as well as the app mentioned earlier.
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