Catching Up with Anthony Chiappetta of Chiappetta Shoes in Kenosha, WI.
Chiappetta Shoes, entering its centennial anniversary year, has a CEO in Anthony Chiappetta who is forward-thinking, optimistic yet refreshingly blunt about the present and future of U.S. independent shoe retailers. We spoke with “Chips” about surviving in a business climate dampened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Concerned about the need for shoe independents to stay connected to one another, he created and launched the ‘Shoe Dogs United’ group on Facebook in 2017 that now counts more than 4,000 members and has become a resource for shoe retailers to share ideas, ask questions and vent.
Anthony and his younger brother, Nick, operate the single-door operation owned by their parents, Frederick and Lori Chiappetta. The business was named Small Business of the Year in 2018 by a local Wisconsin business alliance and has been honored multiple times as a Footwear Insight Gold Medal Service Award winner.
We caught up with Chiappetta before the holidays to get his thoughts on a number of key issues and trends for his business and the independent shoe industry at large.
Here are some of his takes on different issues.
In 2020, Chiappetta’s retail strategy involved “three channels.”
“We have had a three-channel operation — brick-and-mortar, Amazon where we sell third party and our website. Right out of the gate when everything shutdown in March (due to COVID-19), we said, ‘Aww, crap, we’ve got to change gears and move forward.’ With Amazon specifically because with our website, there is only so much you can do on a short-term basis between ramping up ads and the like… We focused on Amazon and asked a number of shoe companies to allow us to sell on the platform. And gratefully, a lot of the sales reps and sales managers identified that we’ve got to help out our retailers as much as possible. A number of companies gave us a couple-month window to sell on Amazon that they normally would not.
With Amazon, we tried to do ‘Prime Fulfilled by Seller.’ Our play with Amazon is we want to inventory and ship out everything ourselves. That is a winning model as it helps us stock more inventory for our sales floor. We have one more channel to sell into, all pulling from one inventory location. I think that’s a winning solution…If you’re lucky to get into a brand (with limited online distribution) that’s where you can drive some serious sales. Find a vendor that has a limited Amazon presence. Then, there’s only so many people selling the same thing…But I totally understand it (Amazon) from the vendors’ perspective. If you have every retailer selling your product through the platform, there’s going to be many people screwing up pricing and violating MAP. But it’s a natural part of economics. I’m in favor of (shoe) companies being more proactive about limiting their operations. You can’t just set up on Amazon Marketplace. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to know how to sell, service the customer. It’s a business by itself so you have to understand that.”
Right out of the gate when everything shutdown in March (due to COVID-19), we said, ‘Aww, crap, we’ve got to change gears and move forward.
The Shoe Dogs Facebook group has fostered community in the independent channel.
(Editor’s note: Concerned about the need for shoe independents to stay connected to one another, Chiappetta created and launched the Shoe Dogs United group on Facebook in 2017 that now counts more than 4,000 members and has become a resource for shoe retailers to share ideas, ask questions and vent.)
“It’s been an awesome experiment… In this next year, we have an opportunity to help the independent shoe retailers out.
What I’ve notice with the group and independently with my business, there are a lot of things that retailers have to do, especially independents, that take up a lot of time — like entering SKU data and photography. There have been companies that have tried to create services and take that over, but nothing is ever uniform or standardized. With this group, we have the opportunity to do something and take away hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work from 500 different independents doing the same thing.
With Shoe Dogs United, [we could] potentially be forming a buying group. There are a lot of little services we can implement, so we are starting the conversations about these things now.”
Despite its challenges, the past year led to innovative retail ideas.
“In April 2020, we did a promotion offering half-off orthotics if you brought in your plastic molds. Normally, April is one of our biggest months. With the boost from the orthotic promotion, we were down only 40 percent for the month.
We actually had our best June and July (2020) ever, which is totally insane. People were getting out and eating outside. Life felt relatively normal. That was a huge part of it. In July in particular, we usually do a clearance sale with racks in the store. But this time, with the pandemic, we thought it would pack too many people close together. So, we ended up doing a tent sale for the first time, two weeks later than the annual clearance event so there was a lot of risk…Another part of it was the Chicago Tribune had this insanely, amazing, good deal where we got print advertisements for about 5 percent of the actual cost. So, we ran 14 full production ads every Sunday starting in May. It was a huge factor that helped spur demand.
We kept our foot on the gas. We were looking for opportunities.”
We actually had our best June and July (2020) ever, which is totally insane. People were getting out and eating outside. Life felt relatively normal.
Making ecommerce work is not easy.
“With the onset of the pandemic, a lot of businesses were scrambling to set-up a website. It’s taken us six years, and it’s still nowhere near perfect. It takes years to get it right, the processes. What works and what doesn’t. You really have to treat it as its own business. Why would anyone go to ChiappettaShoes.com versus Zappos? It’s what we do in-house that is special.
Our new mission is we want ChiappettaShoes.com and our brick-and-mortar operation to be the customer’s first stop when trying to resolve foot-related problems. We’re focusing on over-the-counter inserts, to be a marketplace for them, but also a resource for the customer if they need to add something to it like an extra metatarsal pad or arch piece. We will do that for them for free. We have plans for that exponential growth by June 2021 with a marketing plan in place by March.”
When it comes to trends, dress is not selling, athleisure is, but supply is an issue in 2021.
“Dress is dead. That isn’t going anywhere. It’s a sad fact.
New Balance, On and Saucony, plus athleisure products are selling well. A lot of the $150-plus European product has been tough to sell. People are still looking for the cheaper products.
A majority of our customers are women ages 45 to 65, and [in normal times] they would purchase all of our comfort/fashion-type stuff like Pikolinos, Gabor and number of other higher-quality comfort, fashion brands. These are the people who are most afraid of COVID-19, I think. And we’re not seeing that customer base out shopping. And a lot of these people would spend $1,000 a season buying a couple of pairs of new shoes and new colors.
Once the vaccine releases widely, I think we will be in pretty good shape. But going forward for the first 6-8 months of 2021, it’s still going to be athletic, at-home type wear like slippers and sandals [that will sell]. The tricky thing is we are in supply shock right now. A lot of the higher-end companies based out of Europe, it’s hard to get product.
We’re looking at Fall/Winter 2021 merchandise and I’m pretty bullish about a return to normalcy by Fall/Winter 2021. I’m buying normally for that season but will still be a little guarded on certain things. I do expect that customers will be out shopping by then with their normal buying behaviors.”