What Independent Retail Really Thinks

Looking inside any storefront, it might not be obvious how much the landscape has changed for independent footwear retailers over the past few years.

So Footwear News decided to take a behind-the-scenes look to find out what’s really happening within those walls in a year when competition has escalated and pricing pressures have intensified.

We asked owners to reveal their biggest challenges and concerns. From staffing and increased competition to securing the product mix they want for their stores, they candidly offered insights into their daily operations as well as their thoughts on what they would like to see from vendors and customers.

Christine Campbell, owner, Crimson Mim, Palo Alto, Calif.
My biggest problem: “Finding great sales associates. Unemployment is very low here.”
How I’m addressing it: “We offer health insurance, which a lot of small businesses don’t, and other perks for our employees.”
The trouble with vendors is … “No flexibility with colors and materials. The more we can customize our offering, the more appeal that has for our customer, and that differentiates us from other stores.”
My top issue with consumers: “I wish they wouldn’t use this as a showroom. We try to cultivate loyalty by going above and beyond, and there are people who come in here, try things on and then shop online.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I would make samples in size 9. It’s very frustrating when nobody can try on the shoes when we go to market. If I could put my foot in the shoe, I would be a much better buyer.”
What I do day-to-day: “It’s amazing the number of errors we get with deliveries. Every day, something comes in wrong or doesn’t fit. I spend a lot of time dealing with vendors trying to resolve fit issues, shipping issues and mis-shipments.”

Mark Goldstein, owner, Madison, Los Angeles
My biggest problem: “Overdistribution has become more of a challenge.”
How I’m addressing it: “We’re not trying to be all things to all people but instead are focused on being strong in the categories we’re successful in. We don’t buy as many high-end designer brands as we used to and we try to find items that are not subject to markdowns. We’ve built up our core business in footwear that we can continue with for long periods of time without being subject to the markdowns of a department store.”
The trouble with vendors is … “Some are sensitive to the issue of oversaturation, while others aren’t.”
My top issue with consumers: “There are so many options for them. They can come in and shop and then go online to hunt down things for less, and they’re getting smarter.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I would make better product than my competitors and be sensitive to distribution. I would try to build my core and the backbone of my brand with continual items that don’t get marked down, fluff in some fashion and then place them well. If something works, I would stay with it until it doesn’t work anymore.”
What I do day-to-day: “I do a lot of the buying while also dealing with employee issues and problems with vendor shipments.”

Wayne Olivier, owner, Vault, New York
My biggest problem: “Getting new brands into the store.”
How I’m addressing it: “I’m building relationships with vendors … by letting them see what we’re doing, how we’re building our brand and how we run our business.”
The trouble with vendors is … “I no longer have a Nike account because they would ship products I didn’t want or didn’t order. I don’t like having to bring in product to get other product, and I’d like vendors to stop shipping me product I didn’t order.”
My top issue with consumers: “When we get a new brand that’s unfamiliar, we can have a hard time educating them and getting them to have open minds.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I would scale back on the number of models that are made. If I had a heritage company, I’d stick to what has done well, and if it were a new company, I’d bring out a few core shoes, play with the materials and introduce new models every six to 12 months with a lot of different fabrics.”
What I do day-to-day: “I spend most of my day budgeting, working on inventory and dealing with paperwork.”

Jay Gordon, co-owner, Bodega, Boston
My biggest problem: “Getting exclusive product.”
How I’m addressing it: “I’m solving that by making it myself. The fun of going to a small independent retailer to search for new product that not everybody else has is sort of gone. The only thing we could do to guarantee that we have exclusive product is to make it and sell it ourselves.”
The trouble with vendors is … “We want what every retailer does, which is product that no one else has, good pricing and good terms. For the most part, we get it.”
My top issue with consumers: “When we started, we grew with our customers, who were very forward-thinking and adventurous, and we’d try new things together. As we’ve grown and the market has changed, I see less of that.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I’d get the key influential retailers to sit down with my designers when it actually matters. I’d take advantage of that because we’re on the front lines every day.”
What I do day-to-day: “I spend it putting out fires when I should be doing more planning for bigger projects, and not be on the retail floor, but sometimes I can’t help it.”

Jason Brown, CEO, Thom Brown, Boston
My biggest problem: “Finding areas of profitable growth in the footwear industry.”
How I’m addressing it: “It’s a work in progress, and we’re always looking for new opportunities.”
The trouble with vendors is … “When a line becomes strong and vendors start looking for real estate near our retail stores and then open company stores right on top of us.”
My top issue with consumers: “There’s not as much customer-retail loyalty as there used to be. It’s hard to retain customers because [other retailers are] playing their A game right now.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I’d look very carefully at the heritage of the brand and at the core styles that the company was founded on and would build off that base instead of going to radically different merchandise than what the customer has come to expect from that brand.”
What I do day-to-day: “I spend a lot of my time managing inventory and doing back-office analytics work and looking at sell-throughs and margins, but I’d prefer to be out in the field looking at new merchandise [and] getting out on the street to see what people are looking for.”

Jennifer Kennedy, co-owner, Kixx, Charlotte, N.C.
My biggest problem: “Keeping our inventory under control.”
How I’m addressing it: “We’re getting rid of some brands that just don’t fly out. They might be cute and trendy, but we had a little epiphany that we can’t offer everything, so we’re picking up some better movers and getting [rid of] those that aren’t moving as well.”
The trouble with vendors is … “Getting our shoes shipped on time. The factories are slowing them down, and I honestly don’t know what they can do about that.”
My top issue with consumers: “They expect shoes to last a whole lot longer than they are intended to.”
If I owned a shoe company …
“I’d make sure I was making a shoe that I knew a child could spend all day in and be comfortable in.”
What I do day-to-day:
“I really enjoy being on the floor creating relationships with customers, and I tend to do that.”

Tom Park, owner, Leather Soul, Honolulu and Beverly Hills, Calif.
My biggest problem: “Increased competition and accessibility of products worldwide. Even 10 years ago, there weren’t too many shoe stores that were easily accessible to customers throughout the world, but with the Internet and various websites, there’s so much more competition.”
How I’m addressing it: “We’re combating that with selection and service.”
The trouble with vendors is …
“I would like to see them take better care of their better accounts. Don’t treat me like a website that sells your shoes. We should be getting the new releases first. We shouldn’t hear about new products second-hand and we shouldn’t see product online before we have it in our stores.”
My top issue with consumers: “Their ability to shop elsewhere. The allure of the brick-and-mortar store has definitely weakened in the past five years, but we’ll keep our focus on providing the best service and the product they want, as well as collaborations with brands they can get only at our store.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I’d be very selective about where I sell my products and limit it to very reputable firms that do business the right way and that will represent my brand well.”
What I do day-to-day: “I spend most of it handling the back-office details.”

Allison Krzych, co-owner, Kick, La Crosse, Wis.
My biggest problem: “Finding new and upcoming companies that offer a mid-price [product].”
How I’m addressing it: “We’re solving this by continuing to look for new companies and smaller companies that cater to small businesses like us.”
The trouble with vendors is … “These days, companies have [fewer] sales reps who have to cover more territories, so they don’t have time to give us the service they want to provide. We would like to get back to having a closer relationship with the sales reps.”
My top issue with consumers: “People aren’t shopping anymore [just because] it’s fun, so we’re trying to focus on how different our in-store experience is.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I’d offer a wider range of styles and color options for every season.”
What I do day-to-day: “I spend a lot of it working on marketing and our websites.”

David Zaken, owner, David Z, New York
My biggest problem:
“Rent costs.”
How I’m addressing it: “I solve it with volume. We have to sell a lot to survive.”
The trouble with vendors is … “They need to sustain themselves as well and find growth, too. This is a game, and I’m a player. They have to do what they have to, and I have to do what I have to do.”
My top issue with consumers: “When you deal with volume, they need to come and see what they are looking for and pick it up.”
If I owned a shoe company … “Innovation can never stop.”
What I do day-to-day: “Mostly, I analyze what’s selling and look at the market.”

Gabe Garcia, owner, The Brooklyn Circus, San Francisco
My biggest problem:
“Sizing, and trying to get a general idea of ordering based on reviewing [a brand’s] past [sales] history. I want to serve the general population, but I’m a boutique and I just can’t carry an array of sizes.”
How I’m addressing it:
“I do a lot of custom orders and have built good relationships with my vendors.”
The trouble with vendors is … “It’s so tough to make a decision based on a line sheet. The majority of the time they’re PDF files that are not high-res photos, there are not that many angles and it might not necessarily describe the detailing of the materials on the footwear. I appreciate the door-to-door salesguy more than anyone else. A more modernized ordering and payment process would be great as well.”
My top issue with consumers: “It’s hard to know what they expect out of the store. I’m paring back and being more precise with my offerings. We’re saying we’re going to be leaner and meaner, and this is how we think we’ll do best at it.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I’d make sure I have on-the-ground sales reps who can show up to at least my top-tier accounts to ensure that presentation is correct and that the salespeople on the floor are educated. I’d also generate exciting events around a brand, bring that brand to life and invite customers to get involved and excited about the product.”
What I do day-to-day: “I wear a lot of different hats, and ideally, I’d like to focus on projects that I feel I excel at and then hire other folks to manage projects that take my time.”

Danny Wasserman, owner, Tip Top Shoes, New York
My biggest problem:
“Keeping exclusivity of brands.”
How I’m addressing it: “I’m addressing that before we negotiate with a new brand.”
The trouble with vendors is … “Turnaround time is a problem. We order early on Monday, hoping to have product by Friday.”
My top issue with consumers: “Keeping people coming back to our stores rather than shopping on the Internet.”
If I owned a shoe company … “I’d be in the stores more often, listening to my customers. I’d have line-builders go to stores that sell our product and learn what they can do to improve the product and bring customers what they’re looking for.”
What I do day-to-day: “I spend most of it writing emails, chasing down late deliveries, etc.”