Ready For Anything

Comfort Plus Shoes & Footcare, Leawood, KS.

The outlook for the year ahead is an optimistic one for many leading independent retailers. The past 12 months have been filled with plenty of challenges, but there are many bright spots to find as well, according to our recent conversations with several retailers honored with Footwear Insight’s Gold Medal Service Award for Customer Service. 

Previously, in the November/December 2022 of Footwear Insight, the full list of stores honored with the 2022 Gold Medal Service Award for Customer Service was revealed. In that issue, retailers shared “customer service secrets.” Here several of those award-winning retailers offer more insight — weighing in on business issues that they are facing and opportunities they are seeing in the marketplace.

A Return to Normalcy

“In the current brick-and-mortar retail environment the biggest challenge is supply, but that seems to be alleviating. It doesn’t seem like it will be a great challenge for much longer. We are nimble enough that we can pivot to other brands with similar shoes to cover us while the supply chain catches up. After that it’s the age-old battle of the vendor/supplier undercutting us. When a brand goes to 40% across the board on their DTC, no matter how short the sale, it’s killer to us little independent shoe stores. We don’t begrudge the brands as it’s part of business and inventory management, but it sure does put us in a bind.” 

— Matthew Gold, Comfort Plus Shoes

“We are optimistic that [in 2023] we will continue to move toward pre-pandemic normalcy. From the vendor side, we are looking forward to overcoming many of the shipping and supply-chain problems that have plagued us all over the last three years. And from the consumer side, we are certain that our customers will continue to want the in-person, human, individualized service that we deliver. Shoes are personal items and finding the right pair is best achieved through the in-person, professional brick-and-mortar experience that true shoe-fitting professionals can provide.”

— PJ Calhoun, The Shoe Market

“I am very optimistic for the coming year. It appears that the factory shutdowns are mostly in the past and that we will be able to get products in a timely manner. I detect an optimism on behalf of my clients that appears to be continuing. People want and crave the communication with others and my clients (and all of us) want to get back to whatever ‘normalcy’ is.”  

— Thomas Peterson, Foot Savvy Shoes & Custom Orthotics  

“Possibly the best highlight of the past year was receiving inventory! It’s a great feeling to have what you need at the time you need it. I believe 2023 will give us a chance to get our inventory balanced again.”

Michael Jones, A Proper Fit Reno

A Proper Fit, Reno, NV.

The Customer Connection

“One of my favorite highlights from this past year was a customer who brought a pair of shoes in to have them adjusted. I knew he bought them online and happily adjusted them for him. He also bought another pair from us. A few days later he returned with the box of shoes purchased online. I was with another customer, and he handed me the box and told me to put it in my office. In the box were two bottles of wine! He even made new labels with my name and a thanks to the Angel Pedorthist!” 

— Sue Orischak, Foot Solutions Scottsdale

“I am encouraged to see that the ‘shop local’ surge that began during 2020 has continued. Customers seemed to be refreshed by the opportunity to deal with kind and courteous associates versus trying to navigate the shopping process alone and online.

Even with looming possibilities of recession, I believe businesses that continue to pay attention to their customers and provide superior service will do just fine.”

— Loren Martin, ELM Shoes

“We love the internet, but shopping in-store can be a thousand times better. Picking something out online, and having it arrive, only to find that it doesn’t fit, can be frustrating. We’ve seen many customers become so frustrated that they feel the need to shop in-store, and that’s where we come in. Recently we’ve been able to rely heavily on the internet and social media to drive customers into the store for a proper fit. For a local family-owned business, obtaining new customers can be challenging. Luckily, with our website, social media, and other systems in place, we’re starting to reach a new generation with particular foot needs.” 

— Skyler Courtney, Mar-Lou Shoes

“It’s more difficult every day to have everything for every customer. Many customers come in with vague notions of what they want, and insist on designing their own shoes. Well, those days are over. Once upon a time, we could listen to our customers’ wish lists, and come close to fulfilling them next season, often relying on those magnificent factories in Spain.  We would work with our reps and put together shoes with various heel heights and colors and fabrics that would make your mouth water. Those factories are closed now.

The fact that we sometimes must tell a customer that we no longer carry their preferred style, kills us. No matter what, though, we still live our motto that ‘the fit, the fashion, and the prices are right!’” 

— Mark Jubelirer, Reyers Shoes

“[Customers] got comfortable with shopping online and many brands used their platform to generate a culture that drives direct-to-consumer and showrooming. Regardless of lofty ‘personal’ promises and Kool-Aid driven diatribes, most brands did it and we know it. We had to put up boundaries — no specials from those brands, take the hit, bang your head against a shelf in the back, don’t react when customers ‘just buy it online.’ 

A direct-to-consumer model can run numbers till the algorithm becomes stale, but it’ll never know why Gertrude’s narrow heel doesn’t fit — I do though, and I get to fix that problem.”

— Alex Maltezos, Tenni-Moc’s Shoe Store

“We have seen a large increase of new customers wanting to shop local. It has been wonderful seeing so many people really being conscientious about spending money at local shops… And I am most optimistic that with the inventory getting better and people supporting small business, that we will continue to see business grow. As long as we continue to strive for that amazing service experience for our customers.” 

— Karly Trease, Hudson Shoes Store  

“The number of customers that seek me out and thank me for their experience in the store is a highlight for me. When I look at them and notice that they have five-plus pairs of shoes, insoles, and other products in their bags, I think to myself ‘they just thanked me and spent $600 plus in my store.’ It shows that my team cares about the customer and wants to wow them with amazing customer service.” 

— Chris Bentvelzen, SHOES-n-FEET

SHOES-n-FEET, Bellevue, WA.

“Our best highlight is the overwhelming support we’ve received from the community during the pandemic. We have customers coming in every day saying they are so glad we survived and how they wanted to continue to support us. Our customers choose to come in and enjoy the personalized service we offer. It’s not just about shoes, it’s about our community and what we can do for them.” 

— Alicia Murray, Murray’s Shoes

Solving the Staffing Situation  

“Finding people who love selling shoes in the ‘sit-and-fit style’ is challenging, as is weekend staffing and the strange loss of the college age person. They are not working. Not only us, but quality restaurants and breweries are having the same problem. Also, it is hard finding people to stick with a job for more than a couple of years.

To deal with the staffing issue, we are constantly looking for new employees especially those with a background in shoes. We are trying to be more open to a few more weekends off for full time staff and we are paying a lot more for new employees out of the gate and have raised the current wages of employees we don’t want to lose.” 

— Greg Augustine, Brown’s  Shoe Fit Co. Ft. Collins  

“Two challenges are training and time. As a small business owner, the number of hats we have to wear is always a balancing act. Spending time and having an onboarding game plan for new sales employees is essential to setting expectations and setting people up for success. Create a hybrid of training with your existing salespeople mentoring new employees and have weekly sessions with the top dogs for the nitty gritty.” 

— Anthony Chiappetta, Chiappetta Shoes

“We do not have enough staff to fulfill the needs we have in my business. We give the customer as much time as they need and want. We like to be able to spend time and get to know our customers and what issues they are trying to solve so we can help them accomplish their goals by guiding them to the correct footwear. Some days we are so busy, I feel we do not serve people like we would like. To solve this problem is what everyone is dealing with — the difficulty in hiring good competent help.” 

— Melissa Walker, Walker’s Shoe Center

“We know being in the industry that we are always going to be hiring. We attend local job fairs. We also like to snatch up young talent, typically kids of customers that we fit from the time they were kids. For example, the Hicks family who owned a Caribbean Restaurant here in Chicago brought their daughter Ivvy in since she was a child to be fitted for shoes. Well one day, I decided to check out the new restaurant they opened not far from our store. When I arrived, the place was packed with customers. Little Ivvy who was probably about 12 years old was running around. Ringing the register, servicing clients and directing the traffic like a conductor in an orchestra.

A couple years later I noticed that the restaurant had closed so I gave the Hicks family a call and asked how their daughter Ivvy was doing. They told me she was in honors classes and she was now about 15 years old. I immediately said ‘she’s got a job here… part time.’ She is now one of our top performers on the floor and is attending the University of Chicago.”

— Bruce Wesley, Wesley’s Shoes

Finding the Right Fit

“One of our biggest challenges is finding shoes for customers with unique fitting concerns and challenges. These customers simply can’t walk into any storefront or order shoes online because a standard width or style simply will not work for them. 

Back in the day, we could easily find widths for women from 5A to D and sizes for men from 3A to 3E. A large percentage of our customer base struggles with narrow feet, and they feel like the footwear manufacturers have abandoned their shoe needs. We are seeing fewer options for our narrow-feet customers. 

To overcome this challenge, we attend buying market conferences at least twice a year to search for new options and remain a loud voice for our customers in need. We intentionally seek out conversations with shoe manufacturers to express our customer’s needs, concerns, and goals for the future.”  

— Rodger Sieb, Esmond’s Shoes

“Product availability still continues to be one of our primary challenges, especially wider widths. We continue to look towards other brands to fill holes and offer products that work for our customers. We are working with our existing vendors developing better working relationships.” 

— Brian Ferguson, The Foot Performance Center

“Variety is a particular challenge for brick-and-mortar stores, and it’s a fine line we walk to ensure that we have sizes and widths in options to accommodate every foot. Notice how we used the word ‘options.’ There are often multiple avenues we could go down in helping someone find their perfect fit, but having ‘options’ is not the same thing as having endless styles and colors. Sometimes it’s hard to explain that on the fitting stool — we just don’t have that shade of indigo in the stockroom, and to order it in, it might take 10 business days. So, if a customer’s heart is set on indigo and two-day shipping, we lose them to an online purchase.”
— Lauren Klapper, Shoe Fly 

Things Are Looking Up

“[For us], women’s apparel sales are up significantly. Craig from Craig’s Shoes here in Chicago suggested we try giving women’s apparel a significant part of our sales floor. We love the margins, and it brings in an entirely different audience. Ironically some days I forget that we are a shoe store.

Also, our athletic footwear business has been incredible.  

I’m also excited to find new lines that fit into the formula that has been working: Euro Comfort & Fashionable. Price is our least concern. I subscribe to the fact that it’s easier to sell a $395 shoe than it is to sell a $39.90 shoe! Here’s why: The $395 shoe probably has lots of features like Gore-Tex, calfskin leather or kidskin leather, better support, light weight, and most of fits like a glove. It’s the same effort and time you would use to sell a $39.90 shoe which probably has very few features, and you are competing against Amazon, DSW and even Walmart. So why not carry the best stuff? I always encourage our team to bring out the most expensive items and work down.

We are in the early stages of planning a relocation of our store within the same shopping center. The new location is only about 30 yards away from our current storefront, however it will provide us with double the selling space and double the inventory space. Most importantly, it will give us better street exposure and we will be prime to get impulse shoppers from traffic flow from Trader Joe’s and Walgreens. Our target date is spring 2024.” 

— Bruce Wesley, Wesley’s Shoes

“In 2022, Shoe Fly opened a new Appalachian Running Company (AppRunCo) store in Camp Hill. AppRunCo is Shoe Fly’s sister athletic company and we’re working hard to expand and build our brand. 

We’ve enjoyed working with new and smaller vendors to fill gaps in our inventory that the supply chain/COVID issues brought about. We’ve added new brands and styles that we’re excited to showcase in the spring and fall. 

This year, we’re optimistic about growing both brands — Shoe Fly and AppRunCo — and expanding our selection across all 16 doors.” 

— Lauren Klapper, Shoe Fly 

“Chiappetta Shoes is entering our 102nd year of business and to celebrate, we are moving into a new location three times the total square footage we are operating in now! The new shop (4820 75th St. Kenosha, WI) will have a 4,000 sq. foot salesfloor and approximately a 70,000 pair capacity. We would rather have one huge headache versus a bunch of little ones with multiple locations. It’s going to be a beautiful shop, very little slatwall. Make sure to stay tuned.” 

— Anthony Chiappetta, Chiappetta Shoes

“Growth in athletic shoes was a highlight for us this past year. We had tremendous growth in athletic in 2021 and were pleasantly surprised to see 2022 not just hold up, but even surpass it. HOKA and On Running are just absolutely on fire and Brooks is still very strong. 

I am very optimistic about the footwear industry in 2023. Inflation and potential recession conditions are undoubtedly a concern, but shoes and boots are never not needed. In our community, employment is growing and there is no reason to believe there won’t be enough money for people to enjoy great shoes and accessories.” 

— Adam Griggs, Soft Shoe, Richmond KY

“There are many things that we can look back on and be proud of from 2022, but we were especially excited to welcome four new locations to our family of shoe stores. We added two iconic locations in Alans Shoes in Tucson, as well as two new Sole Provisions (formerly Shoesters) stores in Virginia.  

As a company overall we rely on many things to allow us to succeed, but the two things that stand out are consistency and communication. We’re all using the same platforms internally to manage inventory, projects, tasks, etc. and we strive to create simple workflows that allow us to go about these everyday operations with consistency. If we’re all using our systems in the most effective way possible, checking off the same steps to get to our end goal, then we’re able to create a level of consistency that leads to efficiency and success.” 

 — David Casamassa, The Sole Provisions Family of Stores