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Independent Spotlight: Canada's Ron White

A rebranding initiative is helping the retailer battle the economic downturn.

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NEW YORK — For Ron White, being an independent footwear retailer is a competitive advantage in the current economy.

“This business is all about change, and we can change on a dime,” said the Toronto-based store owner. “As the consumer’s vibe changes, they want to be less flashy, so the buy has to change and the stores have to change. Those big, Goliath [retailers] can’t react the same way [we can].”

It’s that ability to adapt that has kept White and his six-store chain relevant with his fashion-minded customer base. White launched his first The Foot Shoppe store in 1993, when he was 23 years old, with limited capital and a big cash advance on his Visa card.

Since then, the retailer has garnered a loyal customer following, appeared in countless local media and branded himself as Canada’s resident shoe expert.

“Ron White is a perfect example of the entrepreneurial independent retailer who uses creativity to get his message to the consumer and incorporates his personality into creating a brand image for his stores,” said longtime vendor Stuart Weitzman. “Our industry could use dozens more like him.”

Part of White’s reaction to the changing tide of retail and fashion included a complete rebranding of his stores. In 2006, White changed the name of his boutiques from The Foot Shoppe to Ron White-The Foot Shoppe, right around the time he launched his eponymous private-label brand, and as the stores’ merchandise mix evolved to include more fashion-forward product.

“We decided on the rebranding when my advisory board and I were looking at the business and we found that it was really starting to [slow],” he said. “Our growth wasn’t as significant as it had been a few years earlier, and although we had an amazing amount of loyal customers, we weren’t getting many new customers. When we first started, we didn’t even carry heels, but over time, our biggest sellers became Stuart Weitzman and Donald J Pliner. The product mix changed so much over the years and what was happening inside the store didn’t match the outside, with The Foot Shoppe’s orthopedic image. That was the disconnect.”

The image overhaul included a new logo and a redesign of the store interiors that incorporated sleek champagne and vanilla colors and rich chocolate-colored leather furnishings. White also took customer service to the next level, providing complimentary champagne, strawberries and shiatsu foot massages to shoppers in the store.

The gender product mix has changed as well over the years, now leaning much more heavily toward women’s product, White said.

“I find men’s to be a much more difficult business, and I only carry men’s in three doors now,” he said.

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