Southern Stores Adapt to Changing Economic Conditions

ATLANTA — Despite slow sales during the summer months, retailers at the Atlanta Shoe Market were maintaining a positive outlook for spring ’12.

Most storeowners said their buying budgets remain the same from the previous year, though rising wholesale prices are forcing them to adjust when and how much they are ordering. “At the end of the season, our open-to-buys will be about the same, but we’re not going to commit to as many shoes as before,” said Cason Williams, owner of Country Cobbler in Valdosta, Ga.

Ed Padgett, owner of Walking Shoe Shop in Tallahassee, Fla., added, “We’ve started booking fewer future orders. Instead, we’re trying to buy closer to the season because we’ll have a better feeling [about what will be selling well].”

Lately, Toms Shoes and Vibram FiveFingers have been best-sellers for The Outlook in Pulaski, Tenn. “Everything else has been slow,” said storeowner Jeff Harwell. “The customer is fickle and they are so educated now that it’s hard to get ahead of them.”

In addition, retailers reported sales traction for brands such as Kavu, FitFlops and Naot, as well as Chinese Laundry and Steve Madden, which are popular with younger customers. And Williams noted that if a trend is hot, it defies any price resistance. “If you have it and they want it, it doesn’t matter what the price is,” he said.

However, most owners said their businesses are getting squeezed by outside pressures, including the economy and Internet competition.

“We’ve seen some improvement in our [local economy], but it’s not enough to where the consumer feels comfortable going out to buy,” said David Norris, owner of Norris Shoes in Douglas, Ga. “Until the economy gets better, they’re not going to feel secure.”

Harwell lamented that the recent troubles with Wall Street and Congress are prompting customers to stay home and shop with a click of a button, he explained.

Phil Perlis, owner of The Big Store in Tifton, Ga., said, “The Internet is the competition I fear the most.” However, he encouraged fellow retailers to make the most of online programs such Facebook, to promote new products and events.

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