NEW YORK — On a recent afternoon at Dr. Jay’s flagship on 34th Street, the second-floor shoe section was abuzz with shoppers, but veteran footwear buyer Manne Gonzalez wasn’t very happy.
“It is very, very difficult right now,” said Gonzalez, who has been working for Dr. Jay’s since 1982, first as a sales associate, then as head of the stockroom and now as the footwear buyer for all men’s and athletic styles. “But my job is to keep us profitable no matter what condition the market is in, because we will be around. We’re staying in the game.”
The retailer has navigated through tough times before.
Dr. Jay’s was founded in 1975 by president Elliot Betesh, who had previously run a discount retailer with his father and brother and later an army and navy store. The first location opened in the South Bronx section of New York. Still family owned, the retailer has grown to 16 Dr. Jay’s stores and eight Dr. Jay’s Ladies stores across the five boroughs of New York and into New Jersey. But the merchandise mix has seen a notable shift over the years, said Gonzalez.
“In the very beginning, we sold Christmas trees during the holidays, bicycles, even Cabbage Patch dolls right around the time that craze hit,” she said. “But the store always had a sneaker history.”
Today the stores stock 40 percent footwear — a percentage that fell as the market became more challenging — and 38 percent apparel. Accessories such as hats and bags account for the rest of the sales.
When it comes to apparel, Gonzalez said there is no standout brand, though Levi’s and Champion have been selling well. In footwear, however, the top performer is clear: “Nike is the one with the most crayons in the box. As a retailer, you don’t want to be forced to put all your money into one vendor, but that’s what [the customer wants].”
Outside of Nike, Timberland, Converse, Adidas and Reebok also ring up sales, and Gonzalez is always looking to add more names to the mix — she scouts new product at shows such as Bread & Butter and WSA — but it’s sometimes a challenge.
“I’d like to add Ugg, but they won’t sell to us,” said Gonzalez, mainly because Deckers Outdoor Corp. doesn’t see Dr. Jay’s clientele as its target audience. Coach, she believes, would also do very well in the stores, as well as Fit Flops, which will likely hit shelves next fall.
Gonzalez also wants to sell more exclusive product, but she said it’s difficult for an independent retailer of Dr. Jay’s size to ink deals with cutting-edge vendors. “Smaller brands focus their collaborations on boutiques that may do 12 to 24 pairs. They don’t really put the emphasis on working with stores like our’s.”
Despite these obstacles, Gonazlez works hard to maintain strong vendor partnerships — even if a brand struggles for a season or two.
“Whoever is on bottom today could be on top tomorrow,” she said. “I may say to a company, ‘We need to work together in a smaller way, but I’m still here for you.’ Footwear is about the relationships.”
Right now, those relationships are especially important, as the retailer works to restart sales across its stores.
Gonzalez said the children’s business is holding up amid the weak economy, but that both the men’s and women’s categories are suffering, as many customers, particularly at stores in the Bronx and Queens, continue to curb spending.
One pocket of strength has been the influx of European visitors flooding the city. Tourists from the Dominican Republic and Russia also frequent the stores, said Gonzalez.
Overall, she said, the customer has changed dramatically during her time with the company. “For many years, we were basically considered an ‘urban’ store. Urban is almost not even a category anymore, and it’s almost offensive to refer to consumers in that way. There was that whole fashion movement that was made for them, but it’s changed. The customer that shops us now also shops H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch.”
Gonzalez said she’s also seen a notable shift in the shopping preferences of the primarily teenage and young adult demographic that shops the stores. “They’re like chameleons,” she said. “Customers are more aware of materials and recycling, and there is more available to them today.”
In that regard, Gonzalez said it is paramount that she buy the right product.
“Our customer has evolved so much that we need to be all things to all people, whether their taste is expensive or they’re on a fixed income,” she said, adding that $175 Jordans sell just as briskly as $39 Marc Ecko closeouts. “You can’t afford to be off the ball. You have to watch your customers and know what their interests are and walk around with eyes open all the time.”
Still, even after 15 years on the job, Gonzalez said she sometimes misses the mark.
“Last year was one big mistake [on my part],” she joked. “I thought color was going to be amazing, and it looked like Walt Disney threw up on my [shoe] walls. Kids and women loved it, but men totally rejected it. They wanted basics.”
To avoid those missteps, Gonzalez spends a lot of time on the floor watching customers and also shops at rival stores regularly. Competitors, she said, range from stores such as Shoe Mania to electronic companies including Apple and Nintendo. “Electronics have taken away a lot of the disposable income we used to have for footwear,” she explained.
One way the store tries to stand apart is by offering top-notch customer service, but finding strong sales associates isn’t always easy. “It’s like changing underwear,” joked Gonzalez about the challenges of the revolving door. At the same time, Dr. Jay’s has plenty of “lifers,” such as the manager of the Fordham Road store in the Bronx, who has been there for 18 years.
“We’re like a family within a family, and everyone counts,” said Gonzalez. “The guy selling sneakers is just as important as the guy sitting next to me writing purchase orders.”
Looking ahead, Gonzalez envisions Dr. Jay’s stores being successful in other parts of Manhattan, such as Times Square, and in other cities including Chicago.
But she said now is not the time to expand. Instead, the company is focused on renovating its existing locations to create a more uniform look and promoting the stores through word-of-mouth recommendations and online advertising.
“It will take about two years for everything to work itself out,” said Gonzalez. “[Some vendors] are closing people’s accounts [if they] aren’t doing $50,000 a year, and that has closed out a lot of mom-and-pop stores. Whoever shakes out at the end of these two years will be the ones left standing. It’s almost like a cleansing.”