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At a time when consumers are navigating an ever-expanding range of retail formats and experiences, traditional shoe retailers might seem a thing of the past. But for many independents in the kids’ market, an old-school approach — measuring, fitting and logging plenty of face time with consumers — is proving the best strategy in a difficult economy. These three shops show that a personal touch perseveres in the Internet age.
Wesley’s Shoe Corral
Owner: Bruce Wesley
Address: 1506 E. 55th St., Chicago
Square footage: 2,500
For 30 years, Wesley’s Shoe Corral has done things the old-fashioned way.
“We’re kind of like an old gas station, where they check the oil and the gas and run over the car,” said Bruce Wesley, owner of the Chicago-based shop. “We sit [the kids] down, size them up and fit them to make sure the shoe is right.”
It’s that commitment to service that Wesley said has made the children’s market the “backbone” of his business and allowed him to compete with online retailers such as Zappos.com. “We aren’t going to beat [e-tailers] on price, but we certainly can do a lot more on the service end,” said Wesley, adding that the complexities of the children’s market often deter potential competition. “In that environment, when the mother and the grandmother are there to buy shoes for the child, you’ve got a real committee looking at you. If you screw up, it’s a big deal, but if you get it right, you’ve got [their business].”
With more-upscale vendors, such as Tsukihoshi, Primigi, Keen and Ugg, filling out the bestseller list, the children’s category makes up about 25 percent of the store’s total sales. However, Wesley said his kids’ merchandise helps bring in shoppers who buy in other categories.
“A lot of times we’ll fit the kids and sell them a pair of shoes and then go ahead and set up the mom and dad,” he said. “The store becomes a one-stop shop that way.”
Owner: Barbara Heschle
Address: 1003 Macarthur Blvd., Mahwah, N.J.
Square footage: 2,650
Barbara Heschle, owner of Giblings Footwear, knows that the best things in life take time. That’s why every child who walks through the door of her Mahwah, N.J., store is personally measured and fitted. For first-time customers, this old-style approach sometimes requires a little education.
“People don’t always feel that their children need to be fitted anymore, and many times they’ll go to Payless ShoeSource or Wal-Mart, try to do it themselves, find out that it doesn’t work and then come back here,” Heschle said. “We know what customers need, and we advise them in terms of what is best for their children.”
Today, children’s makes up about 75 percent of sales at Giblings, which stocks higher-end brands including Pediped, Merrell, Nike and Adidas. It’s a category that has changed dramatically since the store first opened in Ramsey, N.J., in 1954, as discount stores and e-commerce have altered the retail landscape.
“Everything is going toward self-service as the big trend,” Heschle said. “There are fewer full-service shoe stores that really want to take care of the customer and make sure everything is right.”
As independent competitors have fallen away, Giblings has picked up business left in their wake. Since the recession hit with full force last year, Heschle has noticed some resistance to children’s shoes priced at more than $60, but, she said, her customer base is less averse to such prices on more unique product.
“A lot of our customers are name-brand oriented and price point does matter sometimes,” Heschle explained. “But if they know they’re getting a good product and they know we’re standing behind it, they don’t mind paying a little bit more.”
Ped-Agree Shoe Co.
Owners: Catherine Mattei, Luanne Rush
Address: 637 Wyckoff Ave., Wyckoff, N.J.
Square footage: 1,500
Ped-Agree is more than a retail experience; it’s a piece of footwear history. First opened as a shoe repair shop in 1895 to service Paterson, N.J. — at the time a burgeoning industrial center — the store has since seen three generations of families at the helm. As decades have passed, consumer demand for the shop’s well-curated assortment of footwear has grown.
“Back in the 1960s, there wasn’t much choice in children’s shoes and it was easy because you didn’t need a lot of inventory,” said owner Catherine Mattei. “But today, kids want a big selection. They’re buying more shoes than they used to, and the trends are changing so quickly that every six months there’s a different look they want.”
That demand has translated into serious sales. Today, the kids’ business accounts for about 80 percent of the store’s total sales. And unlike in previous years, success is largely driven by athletic and fashion-athletic styles from vendors including Nike, Pediped, Geox and Crocs. By contrast, the once-bustling brown shoe business has slowed.
These days, the store services well-to-do neighborhoods in Bergen County, N.J. “I must hear three times a day that mothers hate going to malls,” Mattei said. “They’d rather come to the local store, get what they need and get out.”
A growing market for Ped-Agree has been the tween segment. According to Mattei, 8- to 12-year-olds are helping drive business. And thanks to the shop’s location in an affluent area, tweens tend to be less price resistant than adults. “They are very brand and style savvy,” she added. “We do very well with them, and there’s a big hole that needs to be filled in that segment of the market.”