Comfort Retailers Sound Off on Staying Competitive

Comfort independents reveal how they’re staying competitive—especially against big e-tailers.

 

“You can find anything cheaper if you look on the Internet hard enough. And consumers can go back and forth [buying and returning] free of charge from Zappos.com. But we can help them with much more. We do custom Birkenstocks. We can take a customized orthotic [and add] a Birkenstock sole and upper. We also have an informational website. Since [launching it], we have business we never had before. People from the area call us to order shoes. Because we also do custom-made shoes, people fly in from other states without [having been to] us before. They like that we’re a family business and there’s someone they can talk to.”
— Marc Rosen, manager of Best-Made Shoes, Pittsburgh


“We’re trying to expand [our offering] with more unusual colors, limited-edition styles and made-to-order looks people won’t find everywhere. We need to be more [specialized] to be competitive, but we’re a small organization. We carry [well-known] brands and try to break in new ones. It’s been difficult because [those names are] not easily recognized and people are more hesitant to try them. We tried e-commerce, but couldn’t do the volume of Zappos and Amazon. [Via the site] we wanted to increase business in upstate South Carolina, but instead we got orders from Connecticut or Alaska. It was hard to regulate our in-store and Internet inventories, and it became a big hassle.”
— Michael Kessinger, owner of Barefoot Comfort, Greenville, S.C.


“We always do a price-match guarantee. We’ll match Zappos and do free shipping [on phone orders]. We also push customer service. That’s our big thing. If customers have an issue with their shoes, we can take care of it right [at our store]. We’re also working with hospitals, doctors and nurses and offer medical discounts of 15 percent. We go to medical trade shows and attend vendor days at hospitals. We advertise on hospital intranet sites. Our e-commerce site is still new and mainly directs traffic to our stores. We also do a monthly newsletter and are on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, we [did a promotion] in which the first person to say hello to our associate Megan got 10 percent off.”
— Traci Goodnough, owner of For Feets Sake, Milford, Mich.


“We have a website, but it’s mainly informational. While our shoes may be a few bucks more [than elsewhere online], people come here knowing they’ll deal with someone one-on-one. We’re an old-fashioned store, sending postcards and advertising in local papers. We also have a customer referral program. If someone refers a friend, we credit [both parties] with a [credit toward] our 10th-pair-free program. [For comparison shoppers], if customers find a style online for $10 cheaper, we’ll help them out with $10. We’re not about price gouging, [even though] we’re a small business and don’t get the pricing discounts of a Zappos or a shoe warehouse.”
— Pam Mundy, manager of The Comfort Shoe Source, Glen Burnie, Md.


“We’ll match any price. We will not lose a sale. All [associates] have the authority to do whatever it takes for a sale. [Because e-tailers] have liberal return policies that have affected us, we follow suit. We can’t blink at a refund.”
— Max Hanberg, owner of Solvang Shoe Store, Solvang, Calif.

“We try to be better than every competitor, whether it’s [on the] internet, a fashion store, DSW or Payless. We have the best selection possible, and treat our customers better than anyone else. We have fun on the sales floor. [Recently], my wife had just come back from playing tennis and still wearing her tennis outfit, waited on customers for 2 1/2 hours, selling $4,000 worth of shoes. We do special things for customers. We include fitting devices free of charge. We [also] repair shoes for free by taking them to an outside shoemaker. When customers come to pick them up, they might buy something else.”
John Weingarten, co-owner, The Shoe Spa, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“We have an informational web site. Since the [Internet], we have business we never [had] before. People [from our] area call us to order shoes from any [of our] brands. We [also] custom-make shoes, so people fly in from other states without knowing us. You can find anything cheaper if you look on the Internet hard enough, [so] we’re also on Facebook and Twitter. We advertise on radio and T.V. [Consumers] like that we’re a family business and there’s someone they can talk to. They can go back and forth [buying and returning] free of charge from Zappos, but we can help them figure out something more. For Birkenstock’s Arizona, Zappos [may] still be limited since we can do custom Birkenstocks. We can take a customized orthotic [with] Birkenstock sole and upper.
— Marc Rosen, manager, Best-Made Shoes, Pittsburgh

“The Internet’s a very difficult adversary. As for brands like Dansko and Birkenstock, once you get fit they are standardized. Once you know your size you can order them on the Internet. We do local campaigns and ads to try to keep the money [here]. We’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce and downtown business association. We advertise in a local monthly paper. [To get customers] into our store, we carry basics but e trying to expand by carrying more unusual colors, limited-edition styles and made-to-order looks people won’t find every place. We need to be more [specialized] to be competitive. We’re a small organization. We carry [well-known] brands [and] try to break in some new ones, but it’s been difficult. Since they’re not easily recognized, its been hard in this economy. People are more hesitant to try them. We tried ecommerce, but couldn’t do the volume [of a] Zappos and Amazon. We wanted to increase business in upstate South Carolina, but [instead] got orders from Connecticut and Alaska. It was hard to regulate our in-store inventory with our Internet inventory and it became a big hassle.”
— Michael Kessinger, owner, Barefoot Comfort, Greenville, S.C.

“We always do a price match guarantee. We’ll match a price on Zappos, and do free shipping [on phone orders]. We [especially] push the customer service aspect. That’s our big thing. We’re also working with hospitals, doctors and nurses [for brands such as Dansko]. We offer medical discounts of 15 percent. We go to medical trade shows and attend vendor days at hospitals. We [advertise] on [hospital] Intranet sites. If customers they have an issue with their shoes, we can take of it right here. Our ecommerce site is still new, mainly directing traffic to our stores. We want to become full-service. We [also] do a monthly newsletter and are on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, we [did a promotion] where the first person to say hello to our associate Megan, got 10 percent off.”
— Traci Goodnough, owner, For Feets Sake, Milford, Mich.

“We have a web site, but [mainly] informational. We let to get people in here. Our shoes may be a few bucks more, but people come knowing they will get customer service and deal with someone one-on-one. We’re an old-fashioned store. We send postcards and advertise in local papers. We offer a tenth pair free. It can be a shoe of their choice, We [also] have a customer referral program. If [someone] refers a friend, we credit [both parties] with a pair. We have a lot of repeat customers. We know a lot of faces. [For comparison shoppers] we’ll write down a price and style. If customers find it online for $10 cheaper, we will help them out with $10. We’re not about price gouging [even though] we’re a small business and don’t get the pricing discounts of a Zappos or shoe warehouse.”
— Pam Mundy, manager, The Comfort Shoe Source, Glen Burnie, Md.

“People come in [who’ve purchased shoes online] trying to exchange sizes, colors and seconds. Some sitess sell seconds. Others want their kid’s feet measured. We have a feeling they’re ordering shoes [online] aftewards. Or, they try something on [themselves], then order online. We will match any price. We will not lose a sale. All the [sales associates] have the authority to do what it takes. [Etailers] have liberal return policies that have affected us. We follow suit. We can’t blink for a refund.”
— Max Hanberg, owner, Solvang Shoe, Solvang, Calif.

“We match prices and order shoes we don’t carry to compete with [etailers]. However, it’s important [to try shoes on]. Lots of shoes are hand made and may vary pair to pair. Even though the customer may want the same shoe, they want it to fit and there is someone here to help them. We emphasize trying things on, then try to motivate customers to buy. We corporate this into our advertising. We do direct mail, email blasts and advertise in local papers. Our email does lots of things, but getting new customers is key. Our direct mail introduces new brands and [invites] new customers. We are launching a web site in the next two or three months that offers free shipping, ability to shop by foot conditions — such as heel spurs, neuromas, key foot ailments people face these days. Have product sorted by foot condition. We are also going to spend money to come up high on search engines.”
— Mike Gravitte, owner, The Foot Traveler, Buford, Ga.

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