How DSW reinvented to stay relevant

More from 2017

View coverage of, held in L.A. Sept. 25-27, 2017, on the event recap page.

With 25 years of history, DSW is no stranger to navigating the retail landscape with a focus on assortment, value and convenience. But as CEO Roger Rawlins sees it, that’s not enough anymore. Speaking at NRF’s conference, he said the company had to figure out why it was relevant — what they were going to do to survive.

It started by going back to its roots. “Designer” used to mean Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, but “There is a different definition of designer today than there ever has been,” Rawlins said. “It’s our job to go find the next designer. It’s our job to go find the next Tory, the next Steve Madden.”

Meanwhile, the company had to think beyond the shoe and into the services they could provide. DSW asked its 25 million rewards program members what they wanted — and is delivering on those requests: Shoe storage and repair services, shoe recommendations via a virtual closet and the ability to buy or rent shoes on demand.

“It’s our job to go find the next designer. It’s our job to go find the next Tory, the next Steve Madden.”

Roger Rawlins

Those loyal customers still want a place to go. The warehouse is “the roots of who we are as an organization,” Rawlins said; DSW was originally open only on weekends, when it would sell through inventory, buy more over the week and do it all over again the following weekend. Now the company’s 500 stores represent “the infrastructure that everyone in the country talks about when they say ‘omnichannel,’” he said. “We have all of those capabilities. So why not turn all of that on in a different way?”

The company’s lab store in Columbus doesn’t just hold more inventory (about 20,000 more items, Rawlins said), it displays it in inventive ways; movable fixtures create flexibility within the warehouse-inspired interior, and wooden shipping pallets and flexible roller conveyors showcase trends and curated styles.

And “to operate that warehouse you can’t have the same system you’ve always had,” he said. “We have to have associates that have as much if not more information … at their fingertips than what [consumers] have. Think about shopping in that warehouse — there’s a lot more product there that’s harder to find, so we have to give a competitive advantage to our associates.”

Just one device is used for everything — receiving products in the warehouse, checking in inventory and stocking shelves and, most importantly, helping sell on the floor. Customers, meanwhile, can navigate directly to desired products, scan to purchase and walk out a few minutes later, product in hand.

Brand survival is dependent upon differentiation, and DSW aims to inspire self-expression from the feet up.