California Retailer Sole Comfort Is on the Move

Earlier this year, Sole Comfort turned a common business challenge into an opportunity. After losing its lease, the Newport, Calif.-based comfort retailer found new quarters that allowed it to double in size.

Owner Karen Lazarus, who launched the business in 2002 with daughers Ashley and Cayley Lazarus, said the now-3,500-sq.-ft. corner location in the Newport North shopping center is just a mile away from the previous space, so the existing consumer base has stuck with the store. And it has attracted new customers as well, thanks to its position at a busy intersection and additional window space. The service-oriented retail center also has a steady flow of traffic to its nail salon, dry cleaner and restaurant.

In fact, business continues to be on the upswing for Sole Comfort. Despite a tough economy, overall sales jumped 30 percent in 2012 over 2011, even before the move, with year-to-date results up another 20 percent. According to Lazarus, while some consumers had been buying more conservatively, transactions of $800 to $1,000 are once again more common.

Currently, 80 percent of the store’s business is in the women’s shoe category, with the $200 price point being the sweet spot. Key brands include Beautifeel, Finn Comfort, Think, Pas de Rouge, Eric Michael, Gentle Souls, Arcopedico and Naot. While fashion continues to drive sales, Lazarus is committed to stocking footwear with enhanced fit features.

“If a shoe has great comfort, but a fit issue, it will not sell,” she explained. “I’m constantly on the lookout for a really comfortable high-heel shoe, but it’s in a category of its own.”

And, Lazarus said, she makes sure to explain to customers that not all comfort shoes are created equal. “Some are ‘cobblestone shoes,’ while others might be ‘dinner-out shoes.’ High heels are neither for cobblestones nor Disneyland,” she said.

To drive home the comfort focus, Lazarus routinely reaches out to local podiatrists for patient referrals — helpful for a clientele of women 40 and older (though the store sees an increasing amount of younger shoppers as well). “We get approval beforehand,” Lazarus said about styles that meet the needs of those with such issues as plantar fasciitis. “[These women] won’t wear ugly shoes; they want to look good.”

The store’s expanded space has allowed it to enlarge its gifts selection, accessories business and men’s footwear offering. And those categories have proven lucrative, according to Lazarus. “There’s more profit margin in gifts than footwear, and we don’t get the same [customer] returns,” she said, noting that add-on items account for 12 percent of sales, though the goal is to grow that number. Included in the diverse assortment are handbags and hosiery, as well as novelty items such as cookbooks, steak knives, door stoppers and Hanukkah menorahs. “Once [customers] are here, they find something to buy.”

To go after male consumers in a bigger way, the store now features a designated area stocked with men’s styles from such brands as Deer Tracks, Pikolinos and Hush Puppies. To keep guys in the store even longer, there’s a big-screen TV with video games and a bar.

The so-called “man cave” is just part of the store’s comfortable atmosphere, said Dan Simas, manager of Simco Imported Shoes in Reno, Nev., which distributes Arcopedico. Simas said he expects Arcopedico’s business with the store to double this year over 2012. “Their new location, innovative displays and customer service give consumers a great place to shop, relax and enjoy the buying experience,” he said.

Ben Cornwell, COO of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Marchez Vous, said the store’s commitment to customer service has made it an ideal partner. “[The Lazaruses] have done a wonderful job taking a unique piece of real estate [to create] a one-of-a-kind shopping experience,” he said. “I like to visit the store just so I can hang out in the men’s lounge, have a drink and watch the game.”

But amenities like those are not always enough to compete with the Internet, said Lazarus, for whom comparison shopping online has become an increasing problem, though some relief may be in sight. “It helps now that [consumers] are charged tax for [some] Internet purchases in California,” said Lazarus, “but it [remains] a battle.”

The Internet is not the only challenge Lazarus faces as she builds her business. She regularly works with vendors to stop what she considers to be preferential treatment given to stores with more buying clout. “Vendors need to treat me better than the big guys,” she said. “It’s the small independents who introduce and build up a brand. The survival rate is low among small retailers. I don’t want to be penalized because I’m small. I can sell anything.”