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10 Year Valentine

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Summer Allen is a footwear retail lifer. She grew up in the business and this year is celebrating 10 years of owning and running Valentine Footwear, a women’s boutique in Bangor, ME.

Valentine Footwear has an airy vibe, with large windows. The shop is designed to be a place that people can walk in and feel welcome, says Allen, whose family owns Winterport Boot Shop in Brewer, ME.

We chatted with Summer about her love of boutique, independent retail, why she loves sales reps, and the joys and challenges of today’s retail environment.

Here are 10 soundbytes from our conversation.

1. “I believe in specializing. We are a women’s footwear boutique.  (Competition in the area comes from a family footwear chain.) So we focus on women’s footwear that is fun and functional. My average customer is aged 40-60, and is a woman who wants a comfortable, quality shoe. Maybe something to go with fun outfits and to wear to fun places. It’s about expressing themselves.”

2. “I grew up in a footwear store, playing and running around in the aisles with my brother, trying not to be too underfoot. The footwear business is what we talked about at the dinner table — from business to crazy customer stories, that was our family conversation.”

3. “We have recognizable brands but it’s also about discovery. I want the store to feel like it’s someone’s living room, cozy and fun. I want people to come to my store even if they don’t need shoes. They just want to stop in. I love the experience of being someone’s favorite shop.”

4. “When you find good sales reps you want to hang on to them. They are a great resource. When I first opened, I had been going to trade shows with my dad for a few seasons just for fun. I started out with a healthy dose of brands through my dad’s connections. Then I found reps that I liked talking with at shows. I gravitated to people I liked working with and found that I liked their products. There are many reps who I have switched lines with through the years. I love building connections with sales reps.”

5. “I believe in independent, brick-and-mortar retail. There is no way shopping online can replace going to a shop you love where the person who works there knows you and knows ‘your’ shoes. I try to focus on bringing in shoes that I know my customers will love. I want them to love coming in and I want them to bring their friend or their sister in when they are visiting. At boutique retail, you can get a connection that is unique. For me, if I have a busy day and I get my favorite people coming in, it is so rewarding to help them get fit in amazing shoes. I love helping the customer get what they want, and also what they didn’t even know they wanted.”

Summer Allen owns and runs the boutique women’s footwear shop Valentine Footwear.

6. “A big lesson I have learned over time is to remember to have fun and to have a customer-focused mindset. A shoe store is a fun place. We’re here to help. We try to be very service oriented and open. If you really listen to your customers, you can have amazing interactions. A customer could leave and not buy anything but because of a good interaction maybe their cousin comes in a few weeks later and you make a huge sale. I love the networking and how things come back around. The more you focus on your customers and creating relationships with customers and your community, the better.”

7. “This year I learned what you could do when you have to change everything you’ve been doing for the past nine or 10 years. The impact of COVID was pretty terrible initially when we were closed for 10 weeks. But it was a formative experience. It was awful, but good things came out of it — we implemented curbside service, home deliveries, I was dropping off mystery bags of socks and spa products to people’s porches.”

“Our marketing has shifted. It had always been aimed at having people come to the store. We had never done ecommerce before. Well, we got ecommerce up and that was a major shift and a heck of a lesson. At the very least, even as a small boutique, you have to have your best sellers on your website. Your customers are expecting there to be something on your website. But it is a constant battle to keep it current and updated.”

8. “Over the past year, we have kept most of the same brands. Early in the pandemic, we had to cancel so many orders, and the brands that were understanding — we tried to give those brands our business going forward. Right now there are some products I just have not been able to get. Then there are products being sold by brands direct to consumer, and some of that has been really hard, especially when some of my top brands I can’t get and won’t be able to for months, or until next year. But my store is small, so I can say ‘let’s find something else.’ I just figure out who I enjoy working with and who has product and I go with it. I don’t think all my customers get it and some of that has been tough. I want to help my customers when they want something I normally have. It is hard when a customer asks for a product and you just don’t know when you can get it — and my sales rep might not know either.”

9. “We saw a big jump last year into comfy and cozy styles like house shoes and slippers. And this is a category I love. But every time I had tried selling slippers in my store over the years, once the price point reached $100, I had to discount. So I had tried to be successful without luck, but this year peoples’ priorities changed, so that shifted, and the slipper category was hot! Athleisure, walking, and more casual styles were also strong. I have customers wondering if they’ll ever go back to heels again.”

10. “I feel good about the rest of the year. People are not afraid to leave their houses, so that’s not a bad thing! Being able to open our doors and have people come in and have the store be a place to come and spend time in rather than just some place to come in for three minutes, is huge. We are now having in-person happy hours in the store, rather than virtual ones. It’s great to be able to have people come in and hang out.”

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