How Selling to Moms Helped Make Vans a Sneaker Titan

The father pulled a face. “Right. The navy ones then.”

The wife threw up her hands. “Didn’t I just say you don’t have anything blue?”

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

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

I had to get more moms. Selling shoes to moms took longer, because our shoes just lasted for a while, and sometimes they wouldn’t come back for sixteen weeks or so. We just kept sewing our shoes with moms in mind—that’s what we did, for years and years and years.

Another way we accommodated our customers was to innovate. Back then, men were putting on the same kind of shoes they had been wearing for fifty years or more. There had been some change, but not very much. Women, on the other hand, didn’t go very long before they wanted a change in style. We had a decent range of styles, but I could tell women were getting bored with the limited selection of colors offered in our canvas shoes.

Until we arrived on the scene, most sneakers sold around the world had been white. They weren’t originally called tennis shoes for nothing. Any colors offered by manufacturers were usually very conservative, like 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’s had done some prints and different colors, but only as limited special release items, never as standard stock.

Within a few months of opening, we started doing our sneakers in a few different colors, according to the number of requests we got, trying new colors, making more of what sold. Our customers loved the broader selection, which brought us a bunch of new customers.

There was a new line of shoes specifically for women, to help bring them back into our stores more often. We added a trio of new styles: espadrilles, pointed toes, and saddle shoes. It helped a little, but nothing hit big.

Until we made it personal.

One day when I was working in the store, a customer came in carrying a piece of pink fabric. She was looking for a pair of pink tennis shoes that would match the fabric she’d used to make herself a dress. In those days, buying fabric by the yard was still very inexpensive compared to buying ready-made clothing, so lots of women sewed their own clothes.

This customer had been all over Orange County looking for sneakers that would match her dress, but all she’d found were the same old boring colors. We had more colors, so at first, she was very excited, hopeful of finding something in pink. But the only shade of pink we carried clashed with the pink in her fabric. She started to leave, obviously very disappointed.

Watching her, I had a flashback to a couple of years before when I’d met the surfer Duke Kahanamoku at a competition in Huntington Beach, and made him and his surfer pals’ sneakers to match their Hawaiian shirts.

Suddenly it hit me. It’d be easy for me to make shoes for this woman that not only matched her swatch but also were made from that very same fabric. I could make them during a scheduled transition between colors on the assembly line, so doing one odd pair wouldn’t be a disruption, or even difficult. I could just substitute the fabric and send it down the line. The only requirement would be that the fabric had to be able to absorb water, which was necessary for the vulcanizing process.

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