(Image via Vans/Footwear News)
Vans is sneaker culture as much as it is streetwear, surf culture, skate style, and even California history. While contributing to many touch points amongst fashion and sport, Vans’ DNA is inherently unpretentious and has always been the sneaker of choice for misfits, outcasts, and rebels alike.
In a new interview with Footwear News, Vans Global Brand President Kevin Bailey reveals that Vans is in a critical position as sales have declined and the brand has lost its grip on its image, as well as creative practices.
Last month, Vans’ parent company, VF Corp., who also backs heavy-hitters like Supreme, Timberland, Dickies, and North Face, reported that Vans sales declined in Q3 2023, earning $926.9 million, which is a 13% decline from the year prior.
VF Corp also expects Vans revenue to decline by high single digits in constant dollars, compared to the previous outlook of down mid-single digits.
With a brand as tried and true as Vans, this decline in sales in certainly noticeable and has triggered the brand to take action.
“The brand is not broken,” Bailey told Footwear News. “Everybody trips up once in a while. Skateboarders fall and cut their knees up. It is what it is. Have we hit a bump in the road? Yes. How much of this was our causing? Nearly all of it.”
Bailey started working for Vans in 2002 and has been through many highs and lows with the brand, despite his on-and-off tenure with the company. Bailey returned to Vans almost a year ago in April 2022, and may have been handed-down circumstances more demanding than he imagined.
While the road ahead seems long, Bailey seems confident about Vans’ approach to remedy its recent shortcomings. Amongst other issues, Bailey believes that Vans has become too dependent on certain styles and that the brand is not creating enough newness.
“Our consumer said we want more style and versatility, but we kept pumping out Classics,” Bailey told Footwear News. “When I wasn’t involved with Vans, I saw how much we spent on product development dwindle to places where no one spends that little.”
Bailey also feels that Vans’ brand image has taken a hit and lost its rebel-yell that Vans first stepped on the scene with in 1966.
We allowed ourselves to become too comfortable. We didn’t maintain our edge. We lost our rebelliousness, that rebellious nature that is Vans. That ‘eff you’ attitude that is Vans. Somehow, we got watered down in the process.Kevin Bailey, Vans Global Brand President
Vans’ recent safety-first approach has impacted more than just its creativity and brand image, but across all its different channels of distribution.
Bailey continued confessing his frustrations, telling Footwear News, “When [chief product and merchandising officer] Marissa [Pardini] agreed to come back and help [in December 2022], the look in her eyes two weeks in was pretty similar to the look in my eyes, like, ‘What the heck happened here? How did we lose some of our practices? How did we lose some of our disciplines? How are we this unfocused? How is our execution this poor?’ The fact that we’re still there is not a surprise to me.”
Vans celebrates its 57th Anniversary in 2023 and will be spending the year ahead getting back to their roots as they work to reestablish prominence within the sneaker space.
Although Bailey and his team have identified their problems and created a plan of action, the president stresses that patience is key.
“The time it takes to get well is serious,” said Bailey. “Turnarounds don’t happen overnight. It’s not what public companies want to hear, generally.”
He continued saying, “I’m convinced we have the right elements in play to change the way we show up by the second half of this year. But we’re not going to be all the way to where we want it to be. We’re still going through a tough cycle.”
Moving forward, Vans is in good hands as Bailey will be leading trusted new-hires in the executive space: Marissa Pardini as Chief Product and Merchandising Officer, Sarah Kleinman as VP and GM of global digital, and Bobby Goodwin as VP of DTC merchandising for the Americas.
The Vans team plans to get more selective with SKUs during the upcoming year and will be getting rid of models that aren’t flying off the shelves.
“Retail stores will have 30% to 40% fewer SKUs in the fall on the footwear wall, which will allow for a greater focus and greater understanding of the stories we’re telling,” Bailey said. “That drove an 11% increase in sales when we did a test in one store, just by taking models off the wall.”
Vans hopes to bring awareness to new models and series like the MTE offerings and the Vans UltraRange product line, which have not caught on with consumers just yet. Footwear News reported that awareness of the Vans UltraRange product line was around 10% among all consumers and below 30% among brand loyalists.
Retail plays a major part in Vans’ success and will also be receiving an overhaul all its own. Vans will be reimagining its stores, which Bailey believes have also lost their appeal. The upcoming changes look to take on a more modern approach that rearranges the offerings by lifestyle, rather than gender.
“Today, because our footwear and apparel teams haven’t worked well in the past, they don’t even feel like the same spaces on some level. We also have the men’s side and women’s side. We’re talking more about style fluidity. Our young consumers dress the way they want to dress, that’s how they express themselves,” Bailey explained. “If you go to our website today and look at a men’s pant and go through the images, you’re going to find an image of a woman wearing the men’s pant styled out. Why not? Consumers are doing that.”
He continued, “So why do we have a men’s and women’s side of the store? Why could we not think in terms of consumer category teams? Why could we not have a pro skate section, which has the skate shop for the hardgoods and our pro skate shoes and apparel? Why couldn’t our lifestyle section have our core Classics and a bunch of basic tees and hoodies?”
In general, Vans to hopes to get reconnected with its consumer and understand their customer on a deeper level.
“[That] work has just kicked off,” said Bailey. “It’s a study, a deep understanding of our consumers across demographics, geographies, activities, lifestyles.”