Foot Locker’s Dick Johnson on Closing Footaction Doors, Consumer Shifts and Post-COVID Leadership Skills at FN CEO Summit 2021

·6 min read

When COVID-19 hit stateside last year, Foot Locker exec Dick Johnson was the first exec to speak with FN in April about the concerns the industry was facing with uncertainty and unease. More than a year later, with coronavirus restrictions starting to lift throughout the country, the retailer’s president, chairman and CEO once again joined FN to address today’s most pressing issues — albeit with a bit more clarity.

Below are edited excerpts from Johnson’s discussion today with FN Editorial Director and Fairchild Media Group Chief Brand Officer Michael Atmore.

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Leadership Evolution

“It has forced certain skills to become louder — the empathetic leader, the ability to work without a team around them all the time, the need to be in front of people more frequently. It wasn’t business as usual, so I think the acceleration of so many things that happened during COVID caused the amplification of certain leadership characteristics. I think that we all benefited from so many things that we struggled against so many other things. There will be things that remain sticky after COVID, whether it be from a leadership point of view, whether it be how we work, how we go to work, how we define work, even. We’ll find what the right rhythm going forward is, and what got amplified will stay loud and what [things] will be able to move into the background.”

Footaction’s Fate

“It wasn’t specifically related to COVID, but throughout our history we’ve done portfolio reviews. For many quarters, we’ve talked about the flexibility that we’ve built into our leases, and we looked at the calendar to see when leases are expiring and the productivity and profitability of our Footaction doors, and now is the time where we’ve got the most leases that have expirations coming up. We’ve got the ability to repurpose some of those stores in the Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker, Champs Sports stores, and it really follows the work that we did with the Runners Point banner back in 2020. I wouldn’t call them either one of them victims of COVID. The COVID pandemic accelerated some things that we were seeing signs, some cracks, so to speak, and it’s a strategic decision that we took to strengthen the company overall.”

Consumer Shift

“Our consumers essentially have been born with a digital device in their hand, and we know that they engage with us digitally all the time. So the level of digital engagement, certainly from breadth of engagement, certainly ramped up. But even before the pandemic, 98, 99% of our consumers were starting their journey with us on a digital device. Prior to the pandemic, 15 and 16% of them chose to to shop by clicking on their mobile device. During the lockdown, obviously that accelerated — we got up to a high of around 30% – but we’ve now started to see that moderate. That was going to continue to accelerate, I think that COVID probably accelerated that even more. But the reality is that our customer likes being in our stores, they like engaging with our stripers. That behavior that’s coming back, so we’ll have to try to find a balance. What’s the investment in digital versus the investment in engaging in-store experiences? And how do we create that omni world that allows our consumers to shop however they choose to shop, whenever they choose to shop?”

Social Responsibility

“Recently was the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, which was that event that caused or helped us find our voice. The thing I truly am most proud of is the way our organization came together. We have to work for change, and we’ve already we did a lot of things. Last June, we announced our LEED program, which is our economic development and educational opportunity to support the Black community, [including] a $200 million commitment across a five-year time period. In the middle of June this year, we’ll provide a report on the progress that we’ve made. I’m thrilled with the work that our team has done and the voice that our company has found as we talk about the social injustice that exists, whether it be in the Black community that we continue to experience day after day or the Asian hate crimes that have started to elevate. All of those things cause us to realize that we still have a lot of work to do. I’m [also] really proud of our efforts around our Rock the Vote last election where we turned all of our stores into places for people to register [to vote] — it’s how we make a difference in this country.”

A Responsibility to the Black Community

“I look at the sneaker world as one ecosystem, and I think that whether it’s retail, wholesale part or DTC, we are all trying to make things better. And I think people taking a public stand, people who are willing to contribute the energy and the effort and certainly the dollars to make a difference in this place, the social justice world that we’re all striving for, it’s incumbent on us. The Black community is so integral to the city and the stories and the history, and I just commend the whole industry, quite honestly, for their stance and their contributions in so many different ways to try to elevate and keep the message going and keep working toward this justice we’re all looking for.”

The Return of New York City

“I’m a firm believer that New York will bounce back. My feelings right now are anecdotal because I haven’t been back to the city since March 2020. I expect to get there this summer as we reopen our office in September, but there is no doubt in my mind that the city of New York will bounce back and be stronger, it will be better and there will be things we learned through the pandemic that I hope will make it better. [Our reopening] will be a bit of a hybrid opening. Not everybody will be back at once, and not everybody will be back in the office on the same day again as we look through the personas of work and work from home. Can you function? Do you need to be in the office on an abbreviated basis? Or do you need to be effective a person in the office?”

Summit sponsors include presenting sponsor PayPal and event sponsors Aetrex, Caleres, FDRA, K-Swiss, Riskified, SkyPad, Sperry, Two Ten and Zappos.

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