The New Baby Boom in Retail

After several tough years that saw many independent children’s shoe stores close their doors, the segment shows signs of a comeback.

Over the past year, a number of entrepreneurs have jumped into the business and opened boutiques to fill the void. However, they face a dramatically changed landscape. The growing dominance of e-tailers and big-box stores means these new mom-and-pop shops must work harder than ever to emphasize their unique strengths, including more personal service, fitting expertise and convenience.

Father-of-two Cataldo Urso, who opened Happy Feet in Short Hills, N.J., last August, said his own experiences shopping other area kids’ boutiques gave him eye-opening insight into the missed opportunities of today’s independent retailers.

“I found that some of these stores that have been in business for a long time haven’t adapted with the times. They’ve lost their edge and aren’t investing in their infrastructure, their décor, their service. They’re not trying new things. It’s not surprising to see why they are struggling against bigger competitors,” he said.

Now that he has launched his own business, Urso is determined to take a different tack. “I’ve created an inviting store, and I’m making it a point to market my fitting service and unique product assortment — [those aspects] that set a store like mine apart,” he said. “Independent retailers today have to be smarter and they have to offer more compelling reasons for people to shop them.”

John and Theresa Keith left long careers in the technology industry to open Hennie McPennie on Washington state’s Mercer Island in January. Like Urso, they said that being able to offer sit-and-fit service is one of an independent shop’s biggest competitive advantages.

“We spend the time to properly measure kids’ feet, and we keep trying shoes until we find the right fit. We’re finding that parents appreciate that expertise and reassurance, and they’re willing to pay a bit more for it. And it’s something that’s becoming harder to find,” said John Keith. “When you consider that, we don’t feel threatened by a Zappos, Amazon or some big-box retailer.”

Convenience is another edge small boutiques tout. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based mom Stacey Fritz-Fauci learned that firsthand when the neighborhood children’s store she frequented for her son’s shoes closed. “Suddenly there was no shoe shop serving the neighborhood, and I really felt that void,” she said. “I tried the Internet, but it was a nightmare. I also would drive to the mall in [nearby] Staten Island, but it was very inconvenient.”

Fritz-Fauci, who had always desired to start her own business, saw an opportunity and opened Runnin’ Wild Kids Shoes last August in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. “Getting your child new shoes is an errand, and parents work and are busy. They don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. They want a convenient place right in their neighborhood where they can stop in after work or on a Saturday morning,” said Fritz-Fauci.

Convenience also was a big motivation behind the Keiths’ decision to open Hennie McPennie. Before that, Mercer Island residents had to travel off-island to nearby Bellevue or Seattle to shop for kids’ shoes.

“It’s a huge effort to drive in, go to a mall and find parking,” said Theresa Keith. “I’ve spent many days in the past, right before school starts, in a department store with a number, waiting to get called while my kids get restless. At Hennie McPennie, we make the experience so much more convenient for local parents. And we provide instant gratification, which the Internet can’t.”

A unique and personal shopping experience also helps independent retailers distinguish themselves. Fritz-Fauci has made Runnin’ Wild a neighborhood gathering place of sorts, even inviting local preschool classes to tour the store and have their feet measured. The shop also participates in school fundraising auctions and charity shoe drives. “Being [entrenched] in the community is a way for us connect with our customers [in a more personal way],” she said.

The Keiths filled their store with kid-friendly features, including colorful wall murals, a slide, giant toadstools and a circus tent stocked with books and toys, to make it inviting for young children. A stash of snacks and juice boxes is always on hand. “Selling the child on your store is just as important as selling the parent. That’s something I don’t think all retailers take into account,” said John Keith. “We’re doing the real hometown, mom-and-pop concept — that full experience.”

Ken Proctor, founder of the kids’ shoe brand Twig, which is carried mainly by boutiques including Hennie McPennie, said these new boutiques take the right approach.

“The days of opening a store and waiting for customers are gone,” he said. “The new generation of independents must go get the customer and give people a real reason to come to their store — and it can’t be [just] selection or low prices. They need to be mindful of doing things the Internet [and bigger competitors] can’t.”

Proctor said even simple things such as calling customers to follow up after a purchase or sending thank-you notes with a certificate for a free ice cream can go a long way.

“Storeowners need to ask themselves, ‘Why should someone bring their child to my store for shoes?’” he said. “[It’s something] they must think of every single day if they are to survive.”