Shoe Zoo Caters to Kids’ Wild Side

Danielle Frye has traded in racing for retail.

A former communications manager for NASCAR, Frye last year opened Shoe Zoo, a children’s footwear boutique, in the lakeside town of Davidson, N.C. Frye, a mother of two, said she knew her town could benefit from a shoe store that catered to the younger crowd.

“When I needed new shoes for my daughters, I was driving 20 miles in horrendous traffic to nearby Charlotte, making it an all-day adventure they just dreaded,” she said. “There was nowhere in this area to shop for good-quality children’s footwear.”

After scoring a deal on a long-vacant storefront in a busy shopping center, Frye got things rolling. Wanting to make her store welcoming and engaging for young kids, she decorated the 2,500-sq.-ft. space with a zoo-inspired theme, complete with caged plush animals, bamboo stalks, artificial grass, a towering tree and animal-print display units. Park benches serve as seating for trying on shoes, while TVs play nature shows and movies. Defined worlds, including the beach, redwood forest, rainforest and Serengeti, bring an educational aspect to the store. “We want Shoe Zoo to be a destination, a shopping adventure,” Frye said. For help creating and executing the concept, Frye turned to a colleague from her NASCAR days, driver-turned-interior-designer Shawna Robinson. Frye said the lively space has been a hit. “Kids really get excited and respond to the environment. It’s almost like a big playroom.”

Anne-Marie Davis, sales rep for Livie & Luca, said that finding creative ways to engage and entertain young customers is important for children’s shoe retailers. “Kids have a lot to look at, touch and experience in Shoe Zoo’s animal-themed store, making the entire shoe-shopping experience fun and exciting,” Davis said. “It’s a place that kids actually want to go visit and that really stands out from the sterile mass shoe store environments.”

Chris Brown, sales rep for Keen, agreed: “The zoo theme creates a captivating environment, making the shopping experience fun. Without happy kids, it’s difficult for parents to spend the time needed to find the right shoes and fit. Keeping kids happy keeps parents happy, which means good business.”

Shoe Zoo is stocked with a range of casual and athletic brands, including Pediped, Kid Express, Kenneth Cole Reaction, Under Armour, Keen, Livie & Luca and Tsukihoshi. “Many are brands that are favorites for my own kids,” Frye said. “So far, athletic shoes have been our top category, so I’m looking to bring in more of the big sneaker brands.” Rounding out the footwear offering is a selection of accessories and add-on items such as backpacks, lunch boxes, leggings, socks, belts, watches and nail polish.

Frye said one of the biggest challenges in her new venture has been planning and managing her inventory mix. “It really has been a learning curve, with a lot of trial and error,” she said. “Some things I thought would fly off the shelves didn’t sell well at all, and I’ve found it’s easy to get carried away and overbuy. So I’m trying to be smarter with my orders and fill-ins.”

To help her navigate the process, Frye has tapped the advice and expertise of longtime friend Sonya Jones, who runs the successful boutique Sikes Children’s Shoes in Homewood, Ala. “I have visited Sonya’s store and taken tons of pictures and notes on how she does things. And I’m always calling her with questions,” Frye said. “She has been helpful in making sure I avoid those common rookie mistakes, and she has reached out to vendors on my behalf to make connections for me.”

That assistance proved valuable, Frye said, as she faced difficulties breaking into the market. “Trying to set up new accounts with vendors was a bit challenging initially because I had no history,” she said. “But at the same time, I encountered a lot of excitement and encouragement because I’m trying to start something new in a tough economy.”

Drawing from her years of marketing and PR experience in the racing world, Frye has been working hard to get the word out about Shoe Zoo. Much of her effort has been focused on grassroots initiatives that connect Shoe Zoo with the local community, from sponsoring children’s sports teams to participating in school fundraisers. “These are things people remember,” Frye said. “And I really believe parents today reciprocate: They support those organizations and businesses that support their kids.”

Frye also plans to host special events in the store to attract customers, including trunk shows, shoe-tying clinics and foot-health seminars with local pediatric podiatrists.

So far, business at Shoe Zoo has been brisk, although Frye declined to reveal sales numbers. “Before Shoe Zoo, people were either forced to travel to Charlotte or shop online, which is difficult with kids’ shoes. Now they can come here,” Frye said. “Our store has definitely filled a void.”