Tootsies Targets Women & Kids

As a children’s shoe retailer, Doug Pekarek faced a common problem: His customer base was constantly outgrowing his store and moving on. So he decided to make a bold move.

Last November, Pekarek, who has operated Young Tootsies in Barrington, Ill., since 2003, relocated his business to a significantly larger space, allowing him to add teen and women’s shoes.

“Our customers were hitting the age of 9 or 10, and then we’d lose them. We felt that to continue to grow our business and hold onto our customers, we had to do this,” said Pekarek, who has renamed the store Tootsies Women’s & Children’s Shoes. “We tried in the past to carry shoes in bigger sizes, but the tweens and teens didn’t want to shop in a children’s store. We also tried unsuccessfully to add women’s shoes, but it just confused customers. There was a disconnect.”

The new space, which at 3,500 square feet more than triples the previous location, is situated in Barrington’s historic Ice House Mall, a former ice plant converted into a retail center.

The shop’s spacious interior, which features three adjoining rooms, has allowed Pekarek to create separate, distinct environments for the children’s and women’s product, as well as introduce a large clearance area. “Keeping the kids’ and adult merchandise separate is key,” he said. “We want our different customer groups to feel comfortable shopping here.”

So far, the store is drawing a wide audience, whether moms coming in for kids’ shoes, customers from the restaurant next door or local high school students. Tootsies’ status as the only independent shoe store within 15 miles helps, Pekarek explained. “We’re filling a real need, so we’re attracting everybody,” he said.

The new shop has proved particularly popular with mothers who take the opportunity to browse the women’s offering while their children stay occupied in the store’s play area. “They appreciate the convenience of it,” Pekarek said. “We’re seeing a lot of multiple-pair purchases from them.”

To help matters, the retailer makes a point to buy women’s brands not available at the local chains and discount stores, including Clarks, Ahnu, Sanuk, Poetic Licence, All Black, OTBT, Vaneli and Nicole. “I’m aiming for a mix of more casual, comfort-driven lines for the moms and trendier fashion stuff for our teen customers,” Pekarek said.

The children’s area features Umi, Geox, Stride Rite, Saucony, Ugg Australia, Lelli Kelly and Merrell, among others. “Rather than focus on takedown brands [that] we could carry in both the kids’ and women’s sections, we felt it was important to offer unique selections for each,” Pekarek explained. “But we do try to carry some of the kids’ lines — like Nina, for instance — up to the largest kids’ size for those ladies with small feet.”

Matt Feiner, SVP and GM of wholesale for Stride Rite Children’s Group, said Tootsies’ decision to expand its merchandise mix is a smart move and a great way to build customer loyalty. “I have seen several independent children’s stores add offerings for moms, and it is a great strategy. Moms are there, so why not take advantage of it?” Feiner said. “The key is knowing who is shopping your store and offering the right styles so parents can get excited and think of your store when they need shoes for themselves.”

Interestingly, Pekarek said the expansion never would have happened if he had listened to the guidance of his financial advisers, who urged him instead to scale back — to cut his expenses, reduce his inventory and trim his staff. He chose to do the exact opposite. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to do a bigger space, advertise more, bring in more shoes and hire more people,’” he explained. “To do business, you have to be in business. You have to take risks. If you don’t, you’ll never know whether you can reach [a certain] level with your business. There are so many independents disappearing today because they are playing things too safe.”

Still, Pekarek has his moments of doubt about making such a major investment, especially in a difficult economy. “On a day when business is slow, you start to question things,” he said. “But then you have a really busy day, when you could have used another salesperson on the floor, and you feel confident again. Ultimately, though, we know this was a necessary step for the future of our business.”