How Promoting to Mothers Helped Make Vans a Sneaker Titan

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The father made a face. “Right. The Navy then.”

The woman threw up her hands. “Didn’t I just say you haven’t got anything blue?”

A long-suffering expression slipped over the man’s face and he said, “Honey, I like the green best.” He turned to me. “Do you have a pair my size?”

I was thirty-five years old and until that moment I had never noticed that the mother was really the head of the family. Mom is almost always the one who decides when, where, how and everything else about shopping for the family. This has changed my entire view of our core market.

I had to have more mothers. Selling shoes to mothers took longer as our shoes only lasted a while and sometimes didn’t come back for around 16 weeks. We have only ever sewn our shoes for mothers – we have done that for years.

Another way to accommodate our customers was through innovation. Back then, men wore the same shoes they had worn for fifty years or more. There had been some changes, but not very much. Women, on the other hand, didn’t take long to want a change in style. We had a decent range of styles but I could tell women are bored with the limited range of colors on offer in our canvas shoes.

By the time we got to the scene, most of the sneakers sold worldwide were white. They were originally called tennis shoes for a reason. All of the colors offered by manufacturers were usually very conservative, such as the standard blue, green, and red. Even black didn’t become popular until a decade later. The only black shoes we made for years were our basketball shoes. Randy had made a few prints and different colors, but only as a limited special edition, never as a standard item.

Within a few months of opening, we started making our sneakers in different colors, depending on the number of requests, trying new colors and making more of what was being sold. Our customers were enthusiastic about the larger selection, which brought us many new customers.

There was a new line of shoes especially for women to bring them back to our stores more often. We have added three new styles: espadrilles, pointy toes and saddle shoes. It helped a little, but nothing hit it big.

Until we did it personally.

One day while I was working in the store, a customer came in with a piece of pink cloth. She looked for a pair of pink tennis shoes that would go with the material she’d made into a dress. In those days, buying fabrics in the yard was still very cheap compared to buying ready-made clothes, so many women sewed their own clothes.

This customer had been across Orange County looking for sneakers to match her dress, but all she had found was the same old, boring colors. We had more colors so she was really excited at first, hoping to find something in pink. But the only shade of pink we wore clashed with the pink in her fabric. She wanted to go, obviously very disappointed.

As I watched her, I looked back on a few years earlier when I met surfer Duke Kahanamoku at a competition in Huntington Beach and made him and his surfer friends’ sneakers to match their Hawaiian shirts.

Suddenly it hit me. It would be easy for me to make shoes for this woman that not only match her pattern, but are also made of the same fabric. I could make them on the assembly line during a planned transition between colors so it wouldn’t be disruptive or even difficult to make an odd pair. I could just replace the fabric and send it all the way down the line. The only requirement would be that the substance can absorb water, which is necessary for the vulcanization process.

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