Retail

Meeting The Challenge

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From staffing issues to supply chain headaches, retailers across the board have their hands full. But that has not stopped the best independent footwear retailers — like those honored with Footwear Insight’s Gold Medal Service Award — from finding ways to continue to thrive. Previously, in the November/December 2021 issue of Footwear Insight, where the full list of the stores honored with the 2021 Gold Medal Service Award for Customer Service was revealed, we asked retailers to discuss customer service best practices in today’s evolving retail environment. Here, several of those retailers talk more about the key challenges they have faced over the past several months, including supply chain, inventory and staffing issues. And they discuss how they are finding solutions.

What were some of the biggest challenges this past year when it came to delivering great customer service? How did you overcome those challenges?

“The biggest challenges for us have been not from the customer, but having team members to service them. A company’s culture is something that can make or break an organization so in order to not just hire team members but retain them we have to have the buy-in all the way down to the ground level or it just doesn’t work. We invest in our team just like they invest with us. Creating personal relationships with each member of the team will translate into an increased level of engagement that will not just benefit your business, but your customers as well.

As for the supply chain issue — it is not unique to our industry, and at this point most all consumers are aware of the challenges. Our team has done an incredible job of adapting and getting what products we are able to as soon as they become available. We are not stuck on specific stock numbers or brands, but we focus on the silhouettes that are needed to service our community and so far we have been able to find those from someone.” — Adam Beck, Beck’s Shoes

“Staying in front of the supply chain and keeping up with demand [has been hard]. Customers are going to get discouraged when a store is out of stock on the product they want. We have continually put a lot of emphasis on planning ahead and securing product to help keep our stock availability as high as possible. I keep finding myself saying that we just have to show up each day and do the best we can with the tools and resources that we have available.” — Dillon Dardano, Dardano’s Shoes

Helping out a customer: Comfort One Shoes.
Finding the right fit: Stan’s Fit For Your Feet.

“We saw a decrease in our business for the first time in over 12 years [during the initial COVID shutdowns], but we rebounded in 2021 and finished ahead of our successful 2019. The toughest obstacles we have been facing are the ability to keep our inventory at the levels we need. We are operating with a deficit of 25-to-30 percent... But these challenges have not affected our ability to provide great customer service as our staff have become more diligent in offering as much selection as possible. Also, we have stepped up our online presence by enhancing our website and adding weekly social media posts — announcing new product arrivals, staff introductions and footwear promotions.” —Terry Trentini, Terry’s Shoes

“Our biggest challenges have been ones that most stores are facing — receipt of inventory, slowed shipping windows, not knowing what will be received from orders placed, et cetera. We have been so fortunate because we have a fantastic sales team, some who have been in the shoe business for over 40 years, and a wonderful, loyal customer base. This has allowed our team to knowledgeably suggest alternate product selections that our customers are receptive toward, keeping them happy in comfortable footwear.” — Perry Calhoun, The Shoe Market

“Our home town, Houma, Louisiana, took almost a direct hit from Hurricane Ida and we were closed for several weeks. While we can’t control Mother Nature, we were lucky enough not to have roof damage while the remainder of our strip center had substantial roofing issues and many of the retailers here had water damage as a result. We even reopened before all of our utilities were back up and customers shopped to replace what they had lost during the storm.

Additionally, supply chain issues have been extremely difficult to overcome.  We’ve booked out our core products well ahead of when we thought we really needed them which made our Back-To-School season one of the best we’ve had in our 30-plus years in business!” — Brenda Felger, Felger’s Footwear

“Over the past year, a big challenge has been not having complete control over the sizes and styles in our inventory. Customers regularly see things on a display or come in for an item they’ve bought before and we simply have no way of getting their size. We combat that with always trying to lead them from our first interaction and doing their shopping with them as opposed to stepping back and letting them guide the process from shopping our displays… Overall, supply chain issues have been frustrating, but we viewed them as an advantage for us from the get-go, and have been able to keep our shelves full of great product and increased both our inventory and sales substantially.” —Adam Griggs, Soft Shoe

“Maintaining my core employees who have been with me over 25 years was the biggest challenge. I gave all of them new incentive commissions and raised their base pay. I also hired new part-timers to fill the gaps. We have recruited employees in person at career fairs as well. I have managed to put together an awesome team that has met the challenges.

The next big challenge of course was getting the right merchandise in our store and maintaining enough inventory to meet demand. We were fortunate to have a continuous flow of merchandise since we typically order shoes 6 to 8 months in advance. We also had great help from some of our core suppliers like: Birkenstock, Ecco, Wolky, and Fluchos-Dorking. Fortunately, only a few of our suppliers have had supply chain issues. It has probably affected our website more than anything. We still have to integrate our website on Shopify. This has been a big challenge that we are working on now.

Lastly, the most important thing was keeping our core audience coming back for shoes and reaching out to new clientele. We answered that by bumping up our social media presence, email blast, and offering curbside pick up from our website. We even had private shopping appointments.” — Bruce T. Wesley, Wesley’s Shoes

At your service: Felger’s Footwear.
Teamwork makes the dream work: Dardano’s Shoes.

“We have experienced exceptional rudeness, anger, frustration and fear from our customers. I try to explain to our team, ‘it’s not you.’ People are really struggling with so many uncertainties. Another challenge this past year was making sure our team didn’t get burned out or frustrated with our customers when they encountered people with little patience based on product delays and supply chain challenges. Those two scenarios played a major part in our ability to provide great service as supply chain delays and time frames for products to arrive made us look like the bad guys. We even had customers telling us to call Vietnam and tell them to fix the problem.  

Having a stern mission in place, as well as a team who buys into the mission, allows us to overcome any challenges related to delivering plus one customer service. When in doubt, we refer to the mission and ask ourselves if that interaction created a long term relationship.” — Ted McGreer, Ted’s Shoe & Sport

“Staffing has been a challenge. As people started to return to the store we became much busier and sales help was hard to come by. We worked harder with less people and customers appreciated the effort and were kind enough to understand the challenges we faced. Staff found themselves helping multiple people at a time and we started calling this ‘shoe parties.’ Engaging with more than one customer sometimes benefited both the sales person and the customer. Done right, the customers would interact with one another and give advice and their opinions on what they were trying on. This created not only a fun buying experience but it was good to see people engaging with each other after being apart for some time.” — Steven Rueda, Sole Provisions

“Footwear availability and honesty from the vendors has been challenging. Special ordering has never been this difficult and frustrating for us and our customers. Footwear companies have created an online ordering system, simple enough for us to understand, that shows in real time what is or is not available to order. No longer must we wait two weeks just to hear that the shoes are on backorder for two months. Our customers are willing to change the color of the shoe in order to receive it quicker, but we never sacrifice the fit or quality. We have also explored new companies that can accommodate our inventory needs.” — Giuseppe Lombardo, Lombardo Comfort Shoes

“We have had to deal with the same supply chain disruptions that every other retailer has. To overcome these issues as well as possible, we have partnered with vendors in key categories that have a better in-stock inventory position. For customer special orders, we are able to access a vendor’s real-time inventory to see if the item is available. If it isn’t, we will find an alternative option while the customer is still in the store.” — Bill Smith and Althea Schlumpf, Althea’s Footwear Solutions

“The at times overwhelming growth of our walk-in traffic has presented some challenges in giving each customer a one-on-one experience. We try to encourage our sales team to multi-task as well as be more efficient with the time spent with each customer. We pride ourselves on typically having a very large inventory. This helps us keep our conversion rate very high. Unfortunately our team has been spending a lot more time lately fitting our customers for shoes they’ll be buying online from someone else.” —Troy Dempsey, The Heel Shoe Fitters

An inside look: Ted’s Shoe & Sport.
A beautiful sight: The Heel Shoe Fitters.

“Making sure our customers understood the importance we placed on maintaining a clean and safe shopping environment was one of the biggest customer service challenges we came across this past year. We continue to fine-tune our customer service experience to meet the needs of those who we welcome in our store, online, and via curbside pick-up. We have had to react to the ever-changing supply chain issues and how that has affected our ability to fulfill our customer’s needs.” — Jim Sajdak, Stan’s Fit For Your Feet

“The biggest issues we faced were COVID absences of our staff as well as traffic, which was down the first half of 2021, in our stores. While we had some supply chain issues, thankfully we also had a lot of future orders. We schooled our employees to offer alternatives to our customers.” — Alan Miklofsky, Alan’s Shoes

“Staffing is down 30 percent. Some of that is due to business, some due to people moving on. The challenge is being able to service more customers without the staff on a timely basis… However, most consumers understand. They see it everywhere they go, restaurants, hotels, et cetera. Myself as a consumer, I am much more patient when I don’t receive the service I am used to. This doesn’t mean we give less service, just that the customer has to be more patient waiting.” — Steven Rueda, Turnpike Comfort Footwear

“We have done our very best to comply with local health ordinances in all our jurisdictions, in particular, keeping our staff and customers safe. We have asked permission to measure and put shoes on the customer’s foot rather than automatically doing these things as we want our customers to feel comfortable with our process.  

As for supply chain/inventory issues, our strong commitment to training has served us well. In 2021 our sales associates know their No. 1 job is to help the customer and at the same time take them out of the market. About 20 years ago, we instilled a S.W.A.T. policy, which means Sell What’s Available Today. This past year we’ve seen a big increase in our large sales. Often, we see individual sales of $2,000 or more to a single customer. I think in October, we had at least eight individual sales over $3,000.” — Maurice Breton, Comfort One Shoes

“Regarding the supply chain, our buying team geared up to do more business in Q3 and Q4 anyway, since we [recently relocated or store] to a mall-based location. So we bought plenty of product and placed more backups. We booked earlier than usual deliveries… we have plenty of product. And we’re rarin’ to go.

Our habit has always leaned to doing business with vendors who are long-term partners. Who give us high quality product at fair prices and reasonableness in terms of discounts and dating; who have some degree of in-season stock inventory; who don’t keep screwing up shipments; who don’t themselves sell to my customers; and who treat us as fellow human beings should be treated.” — Mark Jubelirer, Reyers Shoe Store

CORRECTION

Shoe Fly of Harrisburg, PA is a 2021 Gold Medal Service Award winner. In the November/December 2021 issue of Footwear Insight, Shoe Fly was inadvertently left off of the listing of winners. Shoe Fly’s score was 93, making them one of the top 25 scoring stores this year.

For more information about the Gold Medal Service Awards for Outstanding Customer Service and to see a full list of the 2021 award winners, visit goldmedalserviceawards.com

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