The Inside Stories of the Year that Was for Independent Retailers.
We spoke to independent footwear retailers across the country about the challenges they have faced this year, the strategies they’ve implemented, and how they envision the year ahead. Each of the stores featured on these pages is a past winner of our Gold Medal Service Award for Outstanding Customer Service. Here are some of their stories…
Like many other retailers across the country, Karavel Shoes owner Rick Ravel says his top priority this year has been making his customers feel safe. He and his staff have gone all in on safety, and it has paid off. The retailer, with locations in Austin and Round Rock, TX, is adding to its staff and expecting to see business grow in spring 2021.
“When we reopened in May it was by appointment only,” recalls Ravel. “We required a mask be worn, checked each customer’s temperature and made them use hand sanitizer. We built 16 cubicles with two chairs in each one, which we spray with sanitizer every night. In June we allowed walk ins and put a tent outside for customers to sign in and stay out of the sun and then put a doorbell on the desk to let us know someone was outside. Now we have the doorbell attached to the front door since it has gotten cooler.”
Why go through such lengths? “We sell service,” says Ravel. “The customer can buy the shoes anywhere but can’t get the service we offer. We still measure both feet and address the customer’s needs. That has not changed.”
“We are told all the time by our customers old and new how safe they feel and they thank us for doing what we do to make them feel safe,” says Ravel. “We have had one incident where a customer would not wear a mask and stormed out of the store. But only one since we reopened.”
Karavel is also offering curbside pick up and is working to turn its website into an e-commerce site. The store is also active on social media offering new product information and doing Facebook live sessions featuring the store’s sales associates.
Key categories keeping business humming include athletic and outdoor. “We were able to add additional athletic vendors which increased our athletic business from 30 percent to almost now 50 percent of our sales,” Ravel says. “We dropped 35 women’s vendors and concentrated on the top 15. Our men’s business is steady but moved from dress and casual shoes to outdoor footwear.”
While Ravel notes that the challenges of 2020 have made it difficult to plan for the future, he says he has gotten to the point where he is feeling comfortable with his spring 2021 budgets. And the retailer is looking to ramp up in the next year. “We are planning hopefully to remodel in the early part of 2021,” he says.
While Ravel says he doesn’t expect business to really take off until fall of 2021 once vaccines are potentially widely available and customers hopefully start traveling again, he is adding to his staff and planning for an upward trajectory of his business in the year ahead.
Reyers Shoe Store
It’s been a year of tough choices with an eye on survival for Sharon, PA-based Reyers Shoe Store. Forced to close on March 20 due to COVID restrictions, and unsure of when the store would be allowed to reopen, Reyers president Mark Jubelirer says, “we had to make some hard choices if we were to survive, one of which was cancelling as much spring product as we could if it had not already arrived. We knew that such cancellations might hurt us. Some did. But sometimes, you just have to listen to the accountants.”
In the end, Jubelirer notes that he has been able to retain every one of his employees. “Our buyers worked overtime to develop extended terms from our vendors, which allowed us to maximize our inventory levels in advance of reopening,” he says.
Upon reopening, the store followed CDC guidelines and added a couple of its own. Masks are mandated by Reyers and are provided for free if customers need them. “There were a few noncompliant souls unwilling to wear the masks,” says Jubelirer. “We turned them out. Sometimes the right thing to do is to miss a sale.”
While the vast majority of customer interactions this year have been positive, Jubelirer says some have resisted the mask mandate. “We have lost a couple dozen potential sales as noncompliant customers are shown the exit, but they are becoming fewer,” he says. “Early on as instructions came from on high for citizens to liberate themselves, several customers came in looking for a fight, but they only slung foul words and epithets. We had trained our team in tactics of de-escalation.”
As for the year ahead, Jubelirer says, “It will be good riddance to 2020. We learned nothing from it. We always learn from the immediately passed season. Take spring 2020 for instance; ordinarily we’d have some gut feel and metrics to go by, when planning our spring 2021 buys and marketing calendar; but not this year. Likewise for next fall 2021; this fall 2020 is again an aberration; fewer customers, much less scheduled inventory, and no financial room for fill-ins, a massive curb in marketing, and no way to maximize the season. We are living now just to get by.”
Jubelirer’s biggest concern for the year ahead is the uncertainty. He asks, “Will customers want shoes next spring? Will they be quarantined for some period of time between now and next June, if only for a week or two? Which week or two? If our advertising is planned in advance to run during those weeks, do we pull the ads in hopes that our customers keep us top of mind when they are set free again? Will Reyers have to close our doors for some period of time once more? How does one plan for the unknown?”
Still, as Reyers looks to celebrate its 135th year in business in 2021, the owner says, “The accountants say that we still have some fight left in us.” —CG
During a period of personal heartache and business upheaval, Bruce Wesley’s faith and focus has guided him through a difficult year for Wesley’s Shoes. Wesley suffered the loss of his 31-year old son Langston in early April.
“We are thankful to God that we have been able to stay focused and get through the turbulence,” says Wesley, the owner of the business that was founded by his dad, Alvin, in 1970. Wesley Shoes lays claim as the oldest ongoing African American-owned shoe store in the U.S. The store is located blocks from the University of Chicago campus in the tony, culturally diverse neighborhood of Hyde Park, some seven miles from The Loop.
Shortly after Wesley’s Shoes was faced with business issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including mandatory shutdowns required by the State of Illinois and foot traffic that had trickled down to less than a half dozen on some days, plans for a large 50th anniversary party for all past and present employees had to be scrapped.
“In terms of merchandising, [the pandemic] has made it very difficult,” admits Bruce. “I am not a fan of digital buying. I need to touch, feel, bend, flex and try-on shoes.”
Wesley, who fondly recalls his dad’s rise to specialty store businessman from a poor country boy growing up in Louisiana, says his perseverance, faith and vision has kept him and the business moving forward in 2020.
“We have managed to keep our accounts current and negotiate terms with key suppliers,” stresses Bruce, who worked in the business through his high school and college years for his Dad, who pivoted into shoe retail from being an Army sergeant after migrating to the Windy City and working part-time for Chi-Town’s former third-generation, family-owned Devine Bros. In 1982, Wesley’s Shoes moved into its Hyde Park location, a 3,000-sq.-ft. former Devine Bros. store.
Situated near a Trader Joe’s and a U.S. Post Office with a college campus nearby, Wesley Shoes has never wanted for walk-by, walk-in traffic. But 2020 has obviously been different. Along with his mostly part-time staff of 6-8, Bruce initiated curbside pickup and private shopping by appointment as he stoked the store’s social media presence and upped the frequency of email blasts.
While admitting appointment shopping has added another level of comfortability and has been received well by customers and staff alike, Bruce adds, “our customers still enjoy the sit-and-fit personalized service we offer.”
With price not an issue with Wesley’s’ clientele and MAP pricing faithfully followed, the retailer’s most sought after brands are On, Hoka One One and New Balance. The business also generates a solid business from Blundstone and Birkenstock. On is commended by the owner for its work with small independents on merchandising and its evolving product line. Beyond footwear, masks have equaled hosiery as the second-largest accessory category in this COVID-19 year.
“We have masks that protect but don’t make you look like you have just been released from surgery,” offers Wesley. “It was an easy add-on, and we had clients who wanted 5-6 designs and styles to be worn throughout the week.”
One of the banner’s most well-known customers over the last two decades was former First Lady Michelle Obama, who first visited Wesley’s before 2008, most often with young daughters Sasha and Malia. During one family visit, Wesley remembers a pair of Kamik boots being purchased for Sasha and UGGs for sister Malia. Today, Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Shields Robinson, 83, still makes an occasional visit to the store, “but she likes to ‘fly under the radar,” Bruce says. —Bob McGee
In a year filled with customer service challenges, it is the customers and their needs that have helped Thomas Peterson and his staff at Foot Savvy persevere over the past several months. “Many of our clients are older and some are immunocompromised, so safety is a paramount concern,” says Peterson, a pedorthist and owner of the Greenwood Village, CO-based store.
While business has taken a downturn, Peterson says he is uplifted by his interactions with his customers. “We have very close relationships with our clients and it has been wonderful to see them again, even though sometimes it is difficult to recognize them with their masks on. We commiserate on the trials and tribulations of dealing with the pandemic and the perseverance it will take from all of us to get through this. Even though our revenues have taken a significant downturn and it has been challenging at times, it reminds me of why we are in the business we are in — solutions for our clients.”
Steps the retailer has taken to ensure a safe environment include a rigorous cleaning procedure and minimizing the number of clients in the store at any one time.
“Initially when we re-opened, we only were open via appointment,” says Peterson. “Then we moved to appointments in the morning and late afternoon and walk-ins mid afternoon. We still do appointments at our client’s request before and after our regular business hours.”
Continues Peterson, “We have adjusted our business to accommodate our clients. For some that means shipping shoes to their homes. Others prefer curbside pickup. Many still feel comfortable entering the store, being measured, receiving a foot exam and gait analysis, and trying on shoes.”
A memorable client interaction this year, says Peterson, involved a woman referred to him by a local wound care center — she had contracted sepsis while battling COVID and had lost eight toes to amputation. He and his staff have been working with her over the past several months with custom orthotics and various types of shoes to help her recovery and get her back to her prior activity levels.
“Our business is a little different than a ‘typical’ shoe store as we are C. Peds and have an orientation around foot, knee, back and hip pain relief,” says Peterson.
Key brands for Foot Savvy (which carries over 30 different women’s brands) range from Brooks and New Balance to Beautifeel, Naot, Sanita, Wolky and Gabor.
Looking ahead, Peterson says that while he had been planning on bringing in several new brands for 2021, due to the current business environment, “those plans are on hold.” — CG
The tried and true has always worked best at Lucky Shoes, an Ohio retail institution for 101 years. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Buckeye State earlier this year, prompting an eight-week shutdown statewide, the four-door chain (which also operates two Vionic stores and eight New Balance banners) turned to personal deliveries, curbside pickup and free shipping as new business necessities.
“But I can’t say that any of them worked particularly well,” says John Luck, president and fourth-generation family member to lead the operation. “What worked for pre-COVID-19 is what continues to work for us now — measuring feet, suggesting better, and leading the customer to a better outcome is what we did, and it is still what we do. The only difference is that now we do it wearing a mask, and we wash our hands more often.”
With Lucky locations in Fairlawn (the Akron market), Strongsville, Easton (the Columbus market) and Canton, OH, the biggest challenge for the 100-plus employee family shoe chain in 2020 “has been to greet every customer with a smile, making our stores a ‘shelter from the storm,’” says Luck.
That extra effort has resulted in both good and bad customer service interactions in the pandemic environment. Luck refers to them as “incidents” and “problems.”
“While both may leave you upset and shaking, a problem needs to be address and solved while an incident needs to be handled and put behind you,” stresses the great-grandson of Joe Luck, who founded the business by selling apparel and boots out of a pushcart in 1914 and opened his first store five years later in Akron.
Unfortunately, some of the worst customer interactions at Lucky Shoes this year have involved physical intimidation over masks with “some really good customers telling us they would never shop us again over a policy put in place to protect them,” recalls Luck.
But these episodes have failed to overshadow the patience, kindness and thoughtfulness expressed by clients and employees alike.
Through good and difficult interactions, there have also been disappointments such as the cancellation of the annual store party for the first time in decades. The business pivoted, opting instead to give its employees gift cards to local restaurants or grocery stores. But the banner’s “Lucky Bucks Auction” will continue this year as a virtual event.
“We couldn’t risk the entire company being in the same room together,” John says, before adding, “You better believe the Lucky Shoes Party in 2021 will be one for the ages!”
Looking ahead, Luck is frank when asked about how this pandemic year might impact strategic plans for the footwear business in 2021. “Ha-ha, absolutely zero,” he offers. “The first rule, and the only rule for the time being is to do what it takes to survive. That is the mindset now, and it will continue to be the mindset until we are out of this. According to the smart people, the next few months are going to be horrible. We should start to the see the light at the end of the tunnel sometime in mid-March 2021.” —BM
Two years shy of its 40th anniversary as the go-to, full service specialty shoe store in Tucson, AZ, Alan’s Shoes opened its fourth door in a popular local retail center. At the time, president and CEO Alan Miklofsky thought the 4,400-sq. ft. location would be a perfect growth opportunity for his family-owned business given it was seen as popular destination for cross-border shoppers from Mexico.
This was March 2020, the same month that the COVID-19 pandemic began to alter life and business across America.
Ever since, Miklofsky, who owns Alan’s Shoes with his wife, Annette, has been working aggressively to get his customers, many of whom have been sheltering at home and reluctant to venture into his stores, to feel comfortable again. He has also worked to keep staff employed with an enhanced compensation system.
Miklofsky has started a weekly radio show to build a new audience; and produced a video for distribution on social media that reminds current and potential customers of Alan’s safety procedures and pleasant store environment.
And throughout it all, Alan’s Shoes has continued to advertise.
“In good times, you should advertise, but in bad times you must,” says Miklofsky, who confesses that all of the attempts to improve Alan’s sales during the pandemic “have largely been problematic.”
With the Holiday 2020 season upon us, Miklofsky projects that the business will not get back to 2019 sales levels by the new year. A huge obstacle for the banner was its overstocked inventory position at the beginning of the pandemic that has impacted its ability to show as many 2021 styles to its customers as it would like.
But what has left more of a sour taste in Miklofsky’s mouth over the last eight months has been the attitude of some customers, particularly in one door, who have complained to staff about having to wear face masks in his stores. —BM
Eneslow Shoes & Orthotics
One year removed from the 50th anniversary of the business under the Schwartz Family and 111 years as an independent specialty shoe store in metropolitan New York City, three-storefront Eneslow Pedorthic Enterprises, Inc. is facing a challenge it never has before — a lack of foot traffic in a city of more than 8.3 million.
“It has resulted in most customers ordering on the phone,” says Bob S. Schwartz, president and CEO of the business that includes a Park Avenue store and headquarters complete with a custom shoe department and the Eneslow Pedorthic Institute (EPI) classroom. There are additional stores on Manhattan’s Third Avenue and in Little Neck, Queens.
“While remote selling is okay, our specialty is on the fitting stool, guiding our customers to make the best, most informed decisions,” laments Schwartz, who serves on the board of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce that represents small and large retail businesses in the Big Apple. Earlier this year, Eneslow Shoes & Orthotics received Congressional accolades from Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney for its years serving the community.
Eneslow was founded in 1909 to help Type A New Yorkers navigate the city’s concrete jungle “pain free” with comfortable, properly fit footwear. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020 forced the retailer to adopt a new game plan to serve its customers, largely “problem solving” for those who do venture in and survive the turbulent times.
“This year, the focus has been on the phone, and our website has taken center stage to guide each customer through their shopping journey,” comments Schwartz, adding, “expecting customers to return to New York City or even go out shopping is unrealistic, and it will stay that way well into 2021.”
In the meantime, as the Eneslow specialty staff pivots to meet the special footwear 2020 needs of its customers, Schwartz says all involved in the business have been inspired by a steady stream of “thank you notes” that have flowed in, ahead of what all hope will be the start of an economic recovery next year.
Nonetheless, tough business decisions are already being made at Eneslow.
“When we leave 2020, we will have reduced our business by 70 percent or more. And our strategy is to make sure we reduce our overheads accordingly,” says Schwartz, who also serves as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Orthopedic Sciences at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. “We will do all in our power to bring our customers with us as we dramatically reduce our footprint.” —BM
The Foot Performance Center
Hands-on service is vital for The Foot Performance Center, but maintaining it during the COVID-19 pandemic has provided many tests for the Rochester, NY, specialty retailer that has sold prescription and non-prescription footwear since 1992.
“The biggest challenge has been adapting to the guidelines set forth by the CDC and New York State and maintaining our level of service,” explains Brian Ferguson, the store’s retail manager. “Our business is considered a DME/Pedorthic facility and has guidelines to follow that require us to check-in all staff, patients and customers.”
Despite all of the additional health and safety efforts implemented in 2020 — ranging from alternating appointment times for its pedorthist and orthotist and re-organizing the store floor to mask wearing for all and social distancing during customer interactions — The FPC has had to continually adjust to meet the various service needs of its customers.
“Stores like ours have to find a way to still provide customer assistance that often brings us closer than six feet,” offers Ferguson, who also works as a national ski patroller in Upstate New York. “When we first re-opened for retail, we were not assisting customers with fitting. But, for most of our customers that was not working. They had limitations that required hands-on service.”
So service adaptations ensued, all in the name of meeting individual needs and comfort levels.
Although the use of the Brannock foot measuring device and some foot evaluations can’t be done from six feet away, FPC personnel stand back that distance when asking questions and looking at a customer’s product choices. During the first months of the pandemic, the specialty store, whose portfolio of nearly two dozen brands includes Brooks, Lowa, Propét, Taos and Waldlaufer, offered curbside pickup and free shipping.
The business will look to grow its online presence in 2021, as well. “We have always expressed to our customers that shoes cannot be properly fit over the internet,” says Ferguson. “We will be looking at ways to face that challenge.”
The online sales effort will include providing more product information online and focusing more on the wholesale and medical shoe fitting segments of its broader business.
The retail manager, who vows “staying positive” is crucial while navigating persistent challenges with inventory levels, product delays and ongoing service and safety challenges, remembers a particular service experience with an older customer shortly after The FPC first re-opened for business earlier this year.
“He had severe physical limitations that required closer, more personal service, but at this point in the pandemic we were implementing a hands-off distancing approach to service,” says Ferguson. “After gaining permission from the customer to approach and evaluate his condition, we recommended a few shoes that would work, assisted with the fitting of a couple of choices and backed away so the customer could walk around to ensure a good fit.”
The FPC staff also suggested the elderly customer consider OTC inserts and therapeutic socks to go with his new footwear. Once the transaction was completed, the customer expressed gratitude to personnel for the store’s commitment to service, level of service and the steps it was taking to ensure all customers’ safety.
“After weeks of curbside pickups and shipping products, it was nice to have customer interaction,” recalls Ferguson. —BM
Being flexible and focusing on service has helped to keep Bryce Anderson and his three Utah-based Walking Comfort stores focused over the past several months.
“Obviously the biggest issue we have faced from a customer service perspective is the concern and uncertainty around safety related to the ongoing pandemic,” says Anderson, who has stores in Draper, Centreville and Salt Lake City. “We have customers across the spectrum in terms of the level of caution they want to have or not have. Luckily we have an amazing staff that has been able to customize service based on the needs and desires of the customer.”
Anderson notes that he and his staff make adjustments based on each customer’s comfort level. “If a customer wants limited interaction or large amounts of interaction, we can do that,” he explains. “If the customer wants to call in an order and pick it up curbside, we can do that. If a customer just wants us to ship them shoes to test out, we can do that. The biggest thing we have tried to do is to allow for as much customization to our service and sales process as possible.”
He credits his staff: “This [year] required flexible processes and systems and an amazing team of people to accomplish.”
Anderson says the staff has received an increase in hand written notes and positive online reviews and that “most customers appreciate our staff and understand that our level of service is not easy, especially during a pandemic.”
On the business side, the retailer has ramped up its system and software integration between its physical stores and its online sales channels in order to serve customers better. “We have also worked to update in-store processes to make sales quicker and with less interaction if needed,” says Anderson. “These were initiatives that we had already planned, but we have increased investment to complete them much more quickly.”
Anderson sees a challenging year ahead. “Retail will continue to be challenged,” he says. “The internet, changing buying behaviors, vendor strategies, etc. — all of these things will continue to impact retailers. The good retailers will be flexible and nimble and willing to change, or they won’t be around much longer.” —CG
Hurdling obstacles and thriving is nothing new for Schuler Shoes
Four generations of the Schuler Family, all descendants of an Austrian immigrant who began a shoe business in 1889, have survived world wars, depressions, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic to become the oldest family-owned and operated shoe retailer west of the Mississippi River. Recent annual revenues hit $50 million from nine stores that stretch from Greater Minneapolis to other markets in the Gopher State.
But in 2020, Schuler Shoes, like many small, independent businesses across America, has been forced to confront new threats to its longevity and livelihood — most brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. But there were also the May protests centered on the death of George Floyd that prompted a sudden closure of its Highland Park/St. Paul store for a day as a precautionary measure.
At 75, CEO John Schuler has had first-hand involvement in Schuler Shoes for 60 years.
Schuler Shoes has re-structured its pay program for store managers and floor sales people this year. Despite a sales volume drop estimated at 25-30 percent, it is working to remain profitable. The family owns three stores but has leases at six others where re-negotiating with landlords is underway with an objective of securing rents based on a percent of sales volume.
Early on in the pandemic, Schuler Shoes was forced to furlough more than 50 of its 250 employees and later faced some employee pushback about returning due to “comfortability” levels as other staff balked at helping customers who would not don a mask in-store. Besides making plastic face shields available in-store, staff compromised with those customers who wanted to walk throughout the store mask less, offering to let them come back before the store opens and other customers are present.
Besides offering curbside pickup, changes at Schuler Shoes this year have included dedicating one staff member to man a “chat line” with customers; renewed product focus on the three “hot” categories of athletic, slippers and boots; and nearly 1,000 percent growth in the chain’s website business. Once 5-6 percent of total sales, ecommerce is now more than 10 percent. Still, driving foot traffic to stores remains the primary objective, Schuler says.
As of early November, Schuler Shoes was still aiming to meet with more vendors about their respective business plans for 2021 and hoping to snare “markdown dollars” for its fashion boots so it can purchase new products for the next season.
The Schuler Family presence in the business extends to John’s wife, Nancy, whose responsibilities include dispatching shoes to in-need customers; son Mike, president of Schuler Shoes, son Scott, the IT manager; and daughter Jennifer Schuler Heaton, who manages the chain’s warehouse. —BM
A year removed from its 100th anniversary, fifth-generation-owned Beck’s Shoes is moving forward with confidence despite impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We slowed our thought process, but nothing has changed for Beck’s Shoes,” says CEO Adam A. Beck who operates the Silicon Valley-based chain of 19 shoe stores that specialize in safety footwear but also offer a range of lifestyle and athletic styles.
“We are very confident in our business model, and know consumers need our niche-type service and products,” adds Beck, who leads the chain with cousin and chain COO Julia Beck-Gomez. “We sell between 2-5 percent of the population within each of our trade areas, and we know that we can improve on that .50 to 1.0 percent within the next 18 months, which is a lot of shoes sold.”
Beyond mask wearing, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Beck’s to alter its service approach. “The mask has really been challenging when servicing consumers,” admits Adam. “Not being able to read the non-verbal cues has forced us to really take it to the next level with charisma and energy while still adapting quickly to the consumers ultimate needs.”
Throughout 2020, the CEO says the chain’s staff has been among its most important assets.
“Our commitment to always find the best talent has not let us down,” says Adam, adding a chain strategy to “double down” with recruitment expenditures has paid dividends.
“We owe so much to the amazing people that work for us,” he says. “Julia and I are motivated to grow internally as well as externally to support the team members/families that have sacrificed to make it happen for us. Words cannot describe how indebted we are to them.” —BM
Foot Solutions – Lehigh Valley
When Mallory Casciole stepped into a new role as the general manager at Foot Solution – Lehigh Valley this past January, she says, “I never expected it to be in the middle of a pandemic!”
But Casciole, a pedorthist, kept the PA-based shop running. Even while it was closed from March 17-June 4, she was there answering calls, offering curbside pickup and providing customers with free shipping.
“By far the biggest challenge was not actually having our customers be allowed to come into the store,” says Casciole. “It’s hard to guess what style might work for your customer when you aren’t allowed to have them come in and be properly fitted.”
However, while the store was closed it did a “tremendous repeat style business,” notes Casciole. And the store adapted its strategies in order to meet its customers’ needs. That has continued after the store reopened, too.
“We’ve always been able to take phone orders, but now we mention it regularly as an option to customers when they call or come in,” says Casciole. “We’ve been open since June and we still receive a steady flow of phone orders. Offering curbside pickup while we were closed and continuing it when we reopened gave customers the peace of mind that we had a contactless pickup option. We also remodeled an extra room we had in the back office area and converted it into a private fitting room. That room has been a great option for anyone who needs a more socially distant atmosphere.”
Despite the challenging year, the shop’s customer base has been uplifting. “The most memorable customer interactions we’ve had are the customers who come in now that we are reopened and are so thrilled we are reopened and ready to help them,” says Casciole. “It’s a strong sense of community here. They ask how we are doing, how are families are doing. Many of our customers were worried we might not reopen and couldn’t be more excited we are back.”
In April, the store sent out a letter to its customers thanking them for their continued support and enclosed a mask with every letter. “We sent out hundreds of masks,” says Casciole. “We didn’t see it as a marketing approach, but rather just a way to let our customers know we were thinking of them, hoping they were faring well, and we would look forward to seeing them again as soon as restrictions were lifted. We got such a great response from that! I heard over and over how impactful it was to our customers.”
Says Casciole, “Overall, if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that sometimes you have to pivot your approach on the fly. What was working yesterday may not work tomorrow. Being flexible on all operational aspects is the key.” —CG
In this year like no other, one thing Tim Ricket says he is definitely grateful for is his staff.
“I have the best staff anyone could ask for,” says Ricket, owner of Matthews, NC-based Comfort Footworks. “They have all stayed with us through out this ordeal. We need each other and we need to be successful so we all can make it through this.”
While the store’s longtime manager, Jim Smith, recently decided to become a part-time rather than full-time employee, Ricket is grateful that Jim had been preparing his daughter Madi to take over for him. “We had the pleasure of promoting Madi to manager last month and she has been awesome,” says Ricket. “We could not have made a better choice — and we still have Jim around for difficult cases.”
Staying committed to customer service and being stringently COVID-safe have been key for the store. “We limit the number of people in the store as well as require face coverings for staff and customers,” says Ricket. “We have lost a few customers due to that policy, but the safety of my staff and customers is paramount.”
The store shut down per state mandate in March, but was able to open back up in late April after Ricket petitioned the state to consider it an essential business due to selling orthotics and orthopedic shoes. “The best experience was having customers stop by and say they were so relieved that we were back open and that our business survived,” says Ricket. “The support we have received has been phenomenal.”
Still, the business challenges are real. Prior to COVID, Ricket says he was seeing steady year-over-year growth, but his business is down 40 percent this year.
“The main initiative for 2021 is to get back to 2019 levels,” he says. “Unfortunately I think that will be tough given that the retail landscape has changed dramatically with more people shopping online. We will work on having an online shopping presence in 2021 to offset the lack of foot traffic.” —CG
Turnpike Comfort Footwear
Navigating a new normal has defined the past year for Queens, NY-based Turnpike Comfort Footwear, says VP Steven Rueda.
Pandemic safety protocols at the store have included creating three curtain-walled cubicles with two chairs in each cubicle — an idea Rueda says he got from fellow independent retailer Rick Ravel of Karavel Shoes in Austin, TX.
“We also implemented a cleaning process where we sanitize each cubicle’s chairs and fitting stools after each use,” says Rueda. “We mandated all customers and staff to use masks and gloves. We implemented curbside delivery. And we do zoom meetings and free shipping for those customers that would not or could not come in the store.”
Rueda says these steps have been key in retaining customers, but he notes that business is still down 35-to-50 percent monthly. He says that many consumers are still reluctant to shop in person, while some who have suffered job losses might not have a budget currently for buying new footwear.
Looking ahead to 2021, Rueda says that like many other brick-and-mortar shops, he is still sitting on spring inventory, so his spring buy for 2021 has been affected — it will be much lighter and much of it will be from domestic vendors. — CG
Necessity is the mother of invention.
If you don’t believe the idiom, just ask Adam Griggs, a store manager at the Roy family-owned Soft Shoe in Richmond, Kentucky.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a retail shutdown in the Bluegrass State earlier this year, Soft Shoe decided the time was right to develop an e-commerce strategy. The banner’s web store was built in April.
“Before we opened the web store, we tried to have customers call our store and explain what they were looking for so we could take a few items out to the parking lot for them to choose from,” remembers Griggs. “We sold some products that way, but it was far more labor intensive, and customers didn’t have any opportunity to see what we had available for them to purchase. The web store has been a game changer and we will continue to operate it after COVID.”
The pandemic has given the Soft Shoe staff time to reflect and strategize on their consumer interactions going forward and be appreciative of their loyal customer base.
“Most customers are very much sensitive to what we might be going through as a business,” offers Griggs. “A big part of our mission as a store over the past decade has been to engage our community in a positive way. Our investments in local causes and events has rewarded us with incredible customer loyalty in 2020. It has shown me that the community-driven efforts are definitely worth our time, and while we might not have done them solely for monetary gain, they can be very lucrative for our business.”
In 2021, Soft Shoe is doubling down on staff training efforts.
“Everyone’s personal story has changed so much, and a lot of people who come in our store have completely re-assessed their own needs and priorities. I see that as an opportunity,” comments Griggs.
“We have more chances to engage them and share the benefits to their lives for products like an orthotic insert, compression sock, or a more substantial shoe for everyday use,” Griggs says. “In 2021, we hope to master the process of greeting, engaging and getting to know our customers better than before. That’s something we already knew we should be pursuing, but the changes in the world have pushed it into our forethoughts.”
Within its current business, the 37-year-old independent has seen a dramatic rise in athletic shoe sales, particularly at higher price points. Griggs describes Hoka One One, Brooks and On as brands that are “on fire.” The store plans to increase their brand presences in 2021. —BM
Flexibility and adaptability are needed by all retailers, large and small, whether it’s a pandemic-laden year or not. Perhaps no one knows this better than the staff at Felger’s Footwear in Houma, LA, some 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.
“Our store has been around for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve seen this year between COVID and the hurricanes taking aim at Louisiana,” says owner Brenda Felger.
Six of eight Gulf of Mexico storms in 2020 have put Louisiana in the crosshairs of Hurricanes Cristobal, Marco, Laura, Sally, Beta and Delta. A category 4 when it landed, Laura was the most devastating to the region when it arrived on Aug. 22.
Felger’s was forced to shutter its doors for nearly eight weeks during the pandemic’s early months and rely on a personal phone for customer interactions. That period was followed by the string of storm impacts this summer and fall, prompting Felger’s to continue making modifications to its business and customer service models. Beyond instituting new safety protocols such as curbside pickup, no contact delivery within a 15-mile radius of the store and special appointment shopping, the independent also began developing an e-commerce strategy.
“I know I am late to the [e-commerce] game,” admits Felger, “but I have never entertained the idea of selling online because there is nothing that sets us apart from other sites except price. Now, I am looking into it for those who would prefer to not shop in store.”
As of early November, the business was in the process of adding a web page for selling products as it adopted a more cautious approach to seasonal buys going forward, largely due to an overhang of 2020 styles for 2021.
Felger fondly remembers one consumer interaction during this crazy year.
“One gentleman was desperate for some new shoes,” she recalls. “After we advised of the store closure and that only essential businesses could be open, he remarked, ‘You’re essential to me, my feet hurt!’ I couldn’t argue with that, so we ended up meeting him at the store and got him what he needed. Helping people is always a good feeling.” —BM
The third- and fourth-generation-owned Montano’s Shoes in upstate Saugerties, NY, is facing many of the same challenges as other independent retailers across the country. Montano’s successful strategies in 2020 have included remaining open full-time, spacing out its customers in-store, offering curbside pick-up and shipping to customers.
“The biggest customer service challenge we have faced this year is how to allow customers to visit us in-store and for us to provide the same experience for the customer that he or she is accustomed to receiving,” says president Ed Montano, a pedorthist.
The retailer, which has been offering footwear and pedorthic care to its community since 1906, intends to be more cautious buying in 2021, focusing keenly on the categories that are currently performing well. That should include more focus on outdoors and athletics and less on underperforming categories such as dress shoes. — BM
Ted’s Shoe & Sport
Located on Main Street in the college town of Keene, NH, Ted’s Shoe & Sport is described by owner Ted McGreer as “a run specialty store with a medical twist.” In addition to its running customers, the shop, which works closely with podiatrists and local doctors, sees “lots of customers with challenging feet.”
When Ted’s was forced to temporarily close in March due to COVID stay-at-home orders, McGreer collected letters from doctors he works with to ensure he could get approval to open as an essential business. Once the store got approval to open, customers were not allowed inside at first, so McGreer and his staff implemented curbside service and online fulfillment offerings as well as local deliveries.
The retailer also developed a virtual fitting system that involved not only video conferencing, but also taking images of customers’ feet and matching them with shoes that would be a good fit. “We would do a 30 minute consultation,” says McGreer.
Using the virtual fit system, which the store promoted online, McGreer and his staff sold 500 pairs of shoes in two months, none of which were returned.
“During the time that we were selling virtually, business dropped 50 percent in March, April and May,” he says. “But it didn’t drop 80 or 90 percent. We were able to be creative and do things contactless.”
Now that his store is open to customers, McGreer says it is challenging not being able to consult with people to the degree his staff is used to. “Another challenge is people who feel their freedom has been stripped by the mask mandate,” he laments. “It sometimes rises to a challenge for some people when we tell them they need a mask to be in the store. That has not been easy. Some people have been a little grumpy.”
Since reopening, McGreer has reduced the hours that the store is open and is now closed on Sundays, a change he intends to stick with. “It has been a relief to wake up on Sunday morning and not feel retail fatigued,” he says. “Our customers have learned the new hours and they just come in when we are open.”
Running and athletic footwear sales have been strong at Ted’s and have met or exceeded last year’s sales over the last few months.
“We are seeing new running customers come in and our existing customers are buying more frequently because many of them are running more than they were before,” says McGreer.
The shop owner says he is proud of his staff and their ability to pivot and innovate during tough times.
“Looking ahead, I am cautiously optimistic,” he says. “With product, we are focused on being narrower and deeper. We’ll be careful about bringing in new products and will focus on what we do best.” —CG
In a year full of obstacles and uncertainty, Shoe Mill is taking an aggressive path forward. After acquiring two stores earlier this year, the Oregon-based business has its eyes on potentially acquiring more.
The retailer currently has nine stores under two brands in the Portland and Eugene areas — Shoe Mill and Burch’s (acquired in February).
“We have accelerated our growth plans,” says president Josh Habre, noting that he has recently fielded calls from other independents looking to sell. “We see enormous opportunity. We are well funded and we have been fiscally careful over the years.”
That is not to say that the year hasn’t been a struggle. “The biggest challenge right now during COVID is that the customers who are coming in to shop do not want to spend a lot of time in the store,” says Habre. “They just point at what they want and when you can’t do a full fitting service you can’t create the big sales that really make days. A customer who might buy three or four pairs will only buy one, and that has affected the add-on sales of things like insoles and socks as well.”
The retailer is taking precautions with masks and sanitizers and has Plexiglas barriers available, though not all customers like that, says Habre. The staff has gotten comfortable doing sales via FaceTime or similar apps and having customers set up appointments on the website before coming in — though the demand for that has tapered off.
Habre says he likes the idea of appointments because they can create the type of personal interaction where a salesperson can hand over a business card and invite the customer to come back for another personalized shopping session.
During the initial COVID shutdown, Shoe Mill kept its store managers on staff to handle curbside service and pull orders for the web, and to have the stores ready to hit the ground running once they reopened. “We were able to rehire our furloughed employees when we reopened,” he says. “We have invested a ton of energy on our best of class staff, so when we reopened we wanted to make sure we had no hiccups.”
Habre also notes that Shoe Mill’s e-commerce business has been particularly strong this year.
Like other retailers, Shoe Mill reports declining sales in “anything dressy,” but Habre says his clientele has always been a little more casual, so Shoe Mill was not over inventoried in dress. “We’ll be focusing on more casual, more walking, not a huge shift, but we’ll be shedding fringe categories and focusing on our core of walking and comfort.”
Habre says it is “worth noting how many vendors were great to work with during this time, helping us through when we had invoices due and our stores were closed. It felt like as an industry when the times got tough, some of the vendors really stepped up and helped us not be crushed under a burden we just couldn’t pay.” —CG
Becker’s Best Shoes
For Amy Becker, owner of Florida retailer Becker’s Best Shoes, it’s been a year of challenges and change. Beginning the year with two stores, the retailer closed one location and relocated its remaining store to a larger space.
Forced to temporarily close her stores in March and April, usually her busiest time of the year, Becker says the store ramped up its website to offer e-commerce options and also focused on upgrading its VIP customer list and its social media interactions and posts.
The current trend away from fashion and towards more athletic styles has been tough for Becker’s, which traditionally does a lot of business in sandals and colorful, fashion-oriented styles, says Becker.
The DeLand, FL, Becker’s Best location struggled once it opened back up and Becker made the decision to close it. She says, “The DeLand store was barely making it before COVID hit. When it opened back up, many merchants in that downtown did not come back. You can’t sell two pairs of shoes a day and survive.”
The decision to close that location was done in conjunction with the decision to move the remaining Becker’s Best store in Mount Dora, FL, to a bigger space — increasing the selling space from 550 square feet to 1800 square feet. The new store fits six couches, all socially distanced, and allows for more breathing room. “We had been planning to move to a bigger space,” says Becker. “We decided to go big or go home. And dealing with COVID now, people do want more space.”
After losing a few months of sales and being “stuck” with a lot of inventory, Becker says it has been “frustrating to see vendors discounting shoes on their websites but not discounting our invoices.”
Says Becker, “We ended up with way more inventory than we could sell as we had ordered for the whole season. We had a few vendors that worked with us, but it will affect our future orders — they won’t be as big.”
Since reopening after COVID, Becker says she has focused on marketing “kindness” and a “we’re all in this together” message. She has also connected with her VIP customers, doing things like sending out thank you notes offering $20 off of a $100 purchase. —CG
Brown’s Shoe Fit Co., Fort Collins
Located just down the road from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO-based Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. does a strong business in comfort and athletic shoes, with a steady stream of doctor referrals enabling the shop to serve customers with various foot problems.
“We are a traditional sit-and-fit retailer that analyzes feet and gets down and dirty with the customers,” says owner Greg Augustine. “That has changed with COVID, but it is still the DNA of what we are trying to be.”
Masks are mandatory for consumers who want to shop in-store and Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. has implemented safety procedures, but Augustine says that with his customer base being the 50-and-older crowd, it’s still been challenging to get consumers to come out and shop in-store. For those customers who do come in the shop, Augustine says social distancing means that “we don’t get as much information as we normally would in the fitting process.”
New strategies he’s implemented this year include curbside shopping and local delivery, private appointments, and a beefed up focus on an online business. “It has been hard to get traction online, but we are in the early stages and will continue to do it.”
With athletic styles trending up, Augustine says he will continue marketing to walkers and beginning runners with events such as fit nights and educational interviews with brand tech reps. The store also plans to schedule group walks and hikes. “If we need to do it virtually, we will,” says Augustine. “It will encourage people to be healthy and active.”
Sales of Hoka One One and Brooks have been equal to or greater than the year prior, says Augustine, while sales of more casual and fashion-oriented brands have been down.
“We’ll be going into spring cautiously,” he says, noting that he sees his “new core” merchandise base as work, hike and athletic. While Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. is generally staying away from fashion, Augustine says, “Dansko is a huge brand for us and we will rely on them as part of our fashion piece.”
Currently, the store is setting up private appointments for shoppers and Augustine says customers have been appreciative. “Last week we had a lady who had not been out of her house for three months,” he says. “This is one of the first places she came. She called and quizzed me about safety beforehand. If I were in my 80s and had some underlying health issues, I’d be just as concerned about COVID. I’ve been reminded that in the shoe business we are like the bartender or the barista — some customers come out to shop and they also want to spend time just talking to us. Customers feel safe here and it feels special that they trust us with those things.”
Moving forward, Augustine says, “We aren’t defeated or barely hanging on, but we can’t predict much beyond what happens in the next 2-3 weeks. It is very difficult to project anything right now.”
Still, he is confident that people will continue to be more athletically oriented in their purchases, and he is planning his buys accordingly. —CG
Ahh Comfort Shoes
“The things affecting our business right now are not in our control,” says Jeffrey Seidman, owner of Arlington Heights, IL-based Ahh Comfort Shoes. The retailer is levelheaded and serious about the current challenges, but sees a brighter future ahead.
While the store was closed for business due to COVID restrictions in April, Ahh Comfort offered curbside service and was “running at about 10 percent of sales,” according to Seidman. Now the store is serving customers in-store by appointment only.
“We take COVID very seriously and we have the store set up in pods so customers are apart,” he says. The pods in the store include three chairs for a customer, a table for showing product and a chair for a salesperson that is six feet away. “The feedback we get from customers is ‘wow, I feel very safe here.’ That’s our goal. We are here for the people we can help and we want them to feel safe.”
The athletic category is selling well — Ahh Comfort’s New Balance sales are particularly strong, along with Spira, Hoka and a few others — but business overall is down about 60 percent this year.
“Anything that has to do with style or looks is getting killed,” says Seidman. “We aren’t a fashion house, but nothing cute is selling.”
While the shop owner says he is selling less, what he is selling is going for full price. In fact, he says his margins this year are better than last year’s.
For the upcoming seasons, Seidman says he is purposely buying more athletic than he needs, knowing some vendors may have fulfillment issues. “We decided to be positioned heavily on product,” he says, noting that he wants to have more than he needs once things open up.
On the brand side, Seidman says, “We need to work together with vendors and everyone needs to listen to everyone else.”
Looking ahead, Seidman says, “I can’t tell you what I am going to do in April until March, and anyone who says they can, I don’t believe them. It depends when the vaccine comes out and how many people get it. When will people be traveling? When are people going to go out and do their regular activities? Until I know that I cant bring in certain products.”
Despite the current uncertainty, Seidman says he is optimistic. “I think the future is very bright and I don’t think that is pie in the sky, unicorn thinking,” he says. “Once this ends, psychologically people will be ready to party. They will be ready to travel. Once the masks come off and it is safe and we are through it, people are really going to be excited to get back into the world.” —CG
Comfort Plus Shoes & Footcare
Establishing a safe in-store environment for its clients, many of whom are older and in the high-risk category for COVID-19, has been a customer service challenge in 2020 for Comfort Plus Shoes, but an even bigger challenge has been having to price match with vendors who sell off MAP or promote key products in their respective Direct-To-Consumer businesses.
“These situations are understandable as vendors try and navigate these times. But those discounts are a real problem for a store like Comfort Plus Shoes,” comments Matthew Gold, whose family has owned and operated the store in Leawood, Kansas near Kansas City since 1983. “I would have anticipated a reciprocal discount provided to us, the same that is being provided to the D2C customer. It’s been a year that has provided tremendous clarity as to who our true vendor partners are and who are not.”
While some vendors were difficult to work with, others did a better job as partners. Gold has praise for brands such as Finn Comfort, New Balance and Naot, who worked hand-in-hand with the single-store business during the pandemic.
Impacts from the ongoing COVID pandemic have made planning for 2021 difficult at Comfort Plus, including prebook buys, events and staffing.
“The uncertainty has really made everything difficult to forecast,” contends Gold. “We have taken a ‘wait-and-see’ approach and decreased our pre-bookings and increased our open-to-buy.” —BM
Stan’s Fit For Your Feet
South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said, “Hope is being able to see there is light despite all of the darkness.”
That’s exactly how Jim Sajdak, CEO of Stan’s Fit For Your Feet, sees 2021 for the shoe business following a topsy-turvy nine months that has forced his third- and fourth-generation family-owned company to pivot almost daily. The retailer operates six stores across Wisconsin, an online business, two New Balance Athletic and one Vionic store.
“Going into March 2020 [and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic], we were coming off our best year ever,” recalls Jim, whose grandfather emigrated from Poland to work in local tanneries. It was his dad who started Stan’s after serving in World War II. Jim would join the retail business after college. “We were strong as a management team and financially [in March], and we already had an e-commerce infrastructure in place. It is this great family and non-family team that has helped us get through these nine months.”
But the ride has not been without bumps in the road, including a nearly two-month state-required shutdown through mid-May that required a furlough of 60 staffers and later, the quarantining of some store personnel after contact with COVID-stricken customers. One Stan’s store manager was forced into quarantine in late October after being informed by a customer at checkout that she was only in day six of her quarantine period.
“We can be good dealing with COVID within our walls,” comments Sajdak, “the challenge is what’s being brought to you.”
Stan’s hasn’t spared expense in making its customers feel safe. Pandemic-related expenditures have ranged from PPE to Plexiglass panels and in-store signage and decals. Stan’s has also used “shoe zaps” that use UVC light to sanitize shoes. And the staff now measures customers’ feet from a distance. Upon re-opening in mid-May, Stan’s only allowed five customers in the store at any given time due to state restrictions and curbside service was offered.
“Sit-and-fit is a pretty high touch business and we’ve had to back off of that,” says Sajdak. But the Stan’s senior executive team — which includes son Andy as director of operations; son David as head of merchandising; daughter Megan Holtan as marketing director; and son Ben as community outreach director and buyer — has worked to keep staff safe and “glued together.” The retailer created an employee handbook offering details about financial and mental health resources that are available during the pandemic.
Monthly Zoom calls with 60 employees have become the norm and the new way for Stan’s staff to stay bonded.
“I think there is a yearning for everyone to have contact again,” suggests the CEO, “but I think we can be more efficient by leaning on some of this technology that we’ve used.”
Meanwhile, Stan’s efforts to stay connected with customers during the pandemic have ranged from those one might expect to the unusual during this health crisis. Chat and phone lines have been manned regularly to field all sorts of questions. And earlier this year, Ben, a certified pedorthist, was dispatched to a local nunnery to provide personalized shoe service to its residents.
“We’ve all had to wear a lot of hats this year — unpacking shoes, fulfilling orders and making deliveries,” Jim stressed.
From a product standpoint, Stan’s main category drivers during the COVID-19 crisis have been athletic shoes, house slippers and hikers. The retailer has had to pivot away from its once significant travel footwear business. Casual and comfort are the current primary market drivers that will impact buyers’ Spring 2021 and Fall 2021 decisions.
“If it was a casual society before, it’s even more so now,” says Sajdak, who adds that he thinks the dress shoe category is “going down for a long time.”
Considering all that has occurred in 2020, the senior Sajdak remains optimistic about the ability of the family business to continue adapting into next year.
“You have to be light and intuitive on your dancing feet,” he says referencing a line he picked up recently. “You have to be flexible every day… Our people, they are a plucky group. We’ve made it this far and we have a lot of stamina. I think [independent footwear retailers] can make it through this, but it’s important that we keep talking to each other.” —BM