Q&A with The Athlete’s Foot’s Matthew Lafone

The retailer’s president and GM of North, South and Central America talks scaling its operations and championing Black-owned retail and entrepreneurship.
Elizabeth Christenson
Editor, Retail Leader
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The Athlete’s Foot retails athletic street style, rooted in its local community and often with an inspiring storytelling experience. Retail Leader Pro tapped Matthew Lafone, The Athlete Foot’s North, South and Central America President & GM, to chat about the company’s growing international business, the importance of local community engagement and the retailer’s mission to support Black-owned businesses.

Matthew Lafone
Matthew Lafone, The Athlete Foot’s North, South and Central America President & GM

Retail Leader Pro (RL Pro): Can you share a little about how athletic footwear retailing is changing? 

Matthew Lafone: The athletic footwear retailing space is an incredibly dynamic environment right now. Not only given challenges in the supply chain, which are now further driven by inflation, fuel prices and social unrest, but I don't think we could have a more challenging environment. The other challenge is that consumers want more meaningful connection with brands and social responsibility is critical to success in this industry.

RL Pro: As a global retailer, what do expansion plans look like for The Athlete’s Foot, particularly in the U.S.? 

Lafone: The Athlete’s Foot is targeting 20% door growth per year. (We don't divulge regional or targeted locations.) 

RL Pro: The Athlete’s Foot parent company Arklyz has made two large acquisitions this year. How do you expect these acquisitions to benefit The Athlete’s Foot? 

Lafone: Arklyz’s acquisition of Asphaltgold, one of the leading European omnichannel players for pinnacle sneakers and streetwear, along with Shoe City, a Baltimore-based sneaker and streetwear lifestyle retail chain, allows each business to be able to expand and thrive from economies of scale while continuing as leaders in the athletic specialty footwear and lifestyle category. Both Shoe City’s and Asphaltdgold’s values align so well with ours and further helps The Athlete’s Foot to expand, grow and increase local community engagement and commitment in underserved neighborhoods.

RL Pro: What plans do you have for The Athlete’s Foot’s omnichannel strategies?

Lafone: The Athlete’s Foot omnichannel business model allows us to fulfill ever-growing customer needs and to continue scaling its operations. We are able to provide innovative and engaging experiences for customers and improve results for its franchisees. Over the next 12 months, The Athlete's Foot will solidify its central fulfillment plans and launch U.S. e-commerce. 

RL Pro: With consumer behavior continuing to shift rapidly, how is The Athlete’s Foot evolving the physical store experience to engage with today’s consumers?

Lafone: The Athlete's foot is a franchise model, owned and operated by local partners, focused on underserved communities where we can uplift our neighborhoods and make a real difference in the community. In some sense, the stores are more like community centers where we continue to focus on a premium consumer experience and convenience of shopping in local neighborhoods. In April of 2023, we will be opening our first 3.0 Concept store in Greenville, South Carolina, with Tasha Cobbs Leonard.

RL Pro: Can you describe any immersive, digital and/or social-sharing elements of the store experience?

Lafone: As we expand 3.0 and refresh our stores in 2023, we will be adding multiple digital components, including community digital billboards, click-and-collect touchscreens, and high resolution LCD screens for video content and storytelling moments.  

RL Pro: Why is a program like StAART, the Strategic African American Retail Track, important to your company?

Lafone: The StAART program is so important to our company, because it further reinforces our mission to increase African American representation and ownership within the sneaker industry, particularly through franchising, while championing Black-owned retail and entrepreneurship within the Black community at large. Through StAART, The Athlete’s Foot directly recruits, develops and mentors Black entrepreneurs through its retail franchise model. The program provides StAART franchisees with access to resources, systems, relationships with its strategic brand partners and a mentorship network — directly addressing many of the barriers that typically prevent Black entrepreneurs from launching and successfully sustaining their businesses. 

RL Pro Rapid Round:

For this last segment, we asked Lafone to fill in the blank for these rapid-fire questions below…

The future of in-store experience is: Digitally driven, modular approach, hyper-focused on local consumer.  

The best career advice you ever received:  “Always deliver.” — My Dad.  

Piece of media (podcast, book, movie, etc.) that’s inspired you recently: “Emotion By Design” by Greg Hoffman and the Black Footwear Forum Detroit Homecoming event [held Sept.16-18]. Since its first year, the Black Footwear Forum has evolved into a major industry gathering to celebrate, inspire and acknowledge Black creatives globally, who are responsible for the culture of our industry.