Hoy Shoe Co. Sees Boost for Two Classic Brands

Hoy Shoe Co. has proven a simple product concept can stand the test of time — and the fickleness of fashion.

For nearly 70 years, the St. Louis-based footwear firm has sold children’s leather sandals, offering a small, focused assortment that has changed little from season to season.

“Many of our core styles have been the same since the company started,” said Scott Downs, president of Hoy Shoe, which sells its sandals under the Salt-Water and Sun-San brands. “We don’t really believe in changing something that works.”

In fact, Downs said, the company’s simple, unembellished designs have helped it stand out in the crowded kids’ market. “There is so much trendy, glitzy stuff out there for girls that the classic look is refreshing,” Downs said. “People are looking for something a little more timeless.”

The company has seen its business grow steadily over the years, and in recent seasons has enjoyed a considerable uptick in sales as the fashion crowd has embraced its sandals. “We’re definitely having a growth spurt, and it’s difficult to keep up. But that’s a good problem to have,” Downs said, noting distribution has significantly expanded among apparel and catalog retailers in particular, including J.Crew, Tea Collection, Hanna Andersson and Modcloth.com. The sandals, priced from $26 to $36, also are sold by Zappos.com, Nordstrom and a range of independents.

Hoy Shoe was founded in 1944 by English immigrant Walter Hoy, who at the time worked as a shoe cutter in a St. Louis factory that manufactured military boots. Hoy had an idea to use the scraps of leather from the boots to make children’s sandals, and he created the original Sun-San sandal design by hand-sewing the leather pieces to a leather bottom. Other styles and colors soon followed, including a sandal that could be worn in the ocean, called the Salt-Water.

Today, the company offers a dozen styles between its two brands. The Sun-San shoes have been updated with water-friendly lightweight polyurethane bottoms, while the Salt-Water sandals are built on molded TPR soles. Top sellers include the 800, Salt-Water’s original style; and the Sun-San Sweetheart, detailed with heart-shaped cutouts and scalloped edges.

And color is an important part of the design story. Many of the company’s sandals are available in 13 or more hues. “Since we don’t change our styles often, color is the way we keep our line fresh and updated,” Downs said. “We get feedback from retailers on what colors they feel are important and of course we follow the ready-to-wear market very closely. Turquoise is hot this year.”

Roz Viemeister, owner of New York-based boutique Shoofly, said the color variety is a plus. “The designs are basic, but colors like gold, lime green and purple patent shout fun,” she said. “They keep spicing it up every year with new colors.” Citing best-sellers including the Surfer and the Original, Viemeister said Salt-Water’s sandals have been “all the rage” at her store for several years. “Once customers try them, [they’re hooked]. They’re inexpensive, no-fuss and extremely durable shoes.”

Although the kids’ business is Hoy’s focus, the company has a growing following among adults, with some of its most popular styles offered in women’s sizes up to 11. “It’s developed over the years, especially because we sell to a lot of booteries and family stores where teens and moms are shopping,” Downs said. “We have women who literally collect our sandals and buy every color we make.”

Still, he said, the company does not actively chase the women’s business. “Our niche is children’s shoes, and we want to keep it that way. We also find the fluctuations of the adult market, especially in the teen area, to be challenging. One year we’ll be up, then the next year we’ll see demand decline, and then we’ll have another big spike again.” The ebb and flow makes managing inventory difficult, Downs explained. “But one of the beauties of our product is [its classic nature], so we can stock larger sizes for when we get those unexpected spikes.”

As the popularity of its sandals has grown, Hoy has had to contend with its share of copycats. “It’s certainly frustrating, but in the end, they’re just copies,” Downs said of the situation. “People want the original. And we believe the quality we offer for the price sets our shoes apart.”

That’s why the company has no plans to expand beyond sandals. “We tried to do some closed shoes in the past, but ultimately it didn’t make sense for us. We want to focus on what we do well,” Downs said. “We’re happy with the niche we have, and we want to continue to improve it.”