Steve Madden succeeds with high-risk, high-speed merchandising approach

Fashion can be fickle. What's in today is out yesterday. For those men and women tasked to see, select and buy fashionable apparel, shoes and related accessories, the choices made every season are big-time gambles for overall retailing success. A bad buy, a poor choice or just bad timing can mean the difference between a store being profitable and a store closing down.

Multiply that risk by almost 100 stores and what do you have? A quantum quandary faced by virtually any specialty retailer of significant size, says Lisa Pisano, senior vice president of planning and merchandising at Steve Madden, a leading designer and marketer of fashion footwear and accessories for women, men and children.

"It's like working in a high-stakes card game because product assortment-the styles, types, colours and more-depend strongly on the creativity of your planning and buying teams," said Pisano. "This is especially true for us at Steve Madden because we're incredibly entrepreneurial. For us, assortment planning is a mix of creative energy, instinct and experience among our teams. We rarely play it safe with our assortment decisions and we know that our competitive edge is all about being fast with our decisions. Speed to market is almost everything to us."

While that approach worked well for years, Pisano believed the company could ratchet up its results by matching its team with tools that could better qualify and quantify their decisions. She knew exactly what she wanted-and didn't want-as she began the quest for assortment planning solutions.

Facing FUD & Vexing Vendors They stared her straight in the face: Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. The Madden team showcased the typical FUD Factor of those unfamiliar and uncomfortable with technology.

"In fact, the company was happy as can be as long as they could use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, PDFs, faxes and e-mails," said Pisano. "We worked from a centralised, legacy-based mainframe, and it was slow and cumbersome. The data were not consistent in format or function, and were difficult to compile, tabulate and analyse." Pisano began her plan to showcase the value of assortment planning software.

"The RFP process is exhausting but also really fascinating," said Pisano. "So much of the RFP process is focused on technical requirements and architectures, and what software can do, can't do, will do, how easily customisable and configurable it is, and such. While those are important, other factors are equally important." Ultimately, Pisano's choice had as much to do with people-her own employees as well as the sales, operations, technical and executive teams from software vendors-as it did with a product.

"My decision ultimately came down to what I know about Steve Madden the company and its people, and my chosen vendor," said Pisano. "We have a corporate mindset about technology being a tool that helps us do our jobs, but it's not a holy grail. Also, our personalities are strong. We have opinions. I had to choose a vendor based on these factors and more."

Pisano selected Maple Lake Ltd. and QuickAssortment in April 2009, based on two primary factors. The first was QuickAssortment itself, a software dubbed as "built for retailers, built by retailers." The product, developed by Maple Lake Ltd., is used by specialty retailers in Europe, Australia and North America.

Pisano quickly discovered that QuickAssortment's functionality was extremely visual and easy to use. The software interface mirrors the features and functions of Microsoft Excel. Second, she knew what Steve Madden executives-and end users-expected and what they would buy, use and embrace.

"Our decision was more than just financials, operational issues or software functionality," said Pisano. I had to find the vendor that understood specialty retailing, knew how to work with high-energy entrepreneurs and quirky, creative merchandising personalities, and had a great product too. Maple Lake met all the criteria-people and product."

Keeping It Simple Pisano's goals for implementing QuickAssortment are simple. Get the software installed and applied. Period. She began working with Maple Lake in October 2008. By March 2009, QuickAssortment had been installed and used by the Steve Madden merchandising team.

'The good news? We decided on QuickAssortment and began implementation within headquarters with virtually no application customisation required. It's by far the easiest implementation I've ever been involved in," she said. She added that it was a successful implementation among very non-technical retail personnel.

Maple Lake's merchandise and store planning system is live, up and running, and it only took about five months, start to finish," Pisano said. "Now, I'm in the middle of familiarising my planners and buyers with assortment planning, showing them how it supplements their success, for even greater success." Her goal for the remainder of the year? Get everybody trained and familiar with the assortments so it becomes second nature to do, then begin to use the data for better planning and buying decisions.

"We've leapt into the 21st century by using QuickAssortment. It gives us visuals of our various assortments-a key feature for us visual thinkers-and it eliminates hours of manual data entry and duplicative efforts," said Pisano. "The ultimate advantage in using QuickAssortment is that we can do what we do best; that is, be nimble, increase our speed to market, and plan and buy products that further efforts to localise assortment mix, store by store."

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