Times Two

Wendi Szablewski and Susan Hooks opened Head 2 Toe, their children’s footwear business, with a definite disadvantage: no windows and no strong street signage.

In fact, the duo often resorts to directing traffic into their 650-sq.-ft. store, located in a historic building in the Chicago suburb of Frankfort, Ill., with a sandwich sign outside. So it goes without saying that Head 2 Toe, which opened in November, has relied heavily on word of mouth. But it seems those referrals, along with some smart promotions and an emphasis on service, have been enough to get their store off to a strong start.

“We’ve done very well considering our challenging location,” said Hooks, adding that they anticipate sales of between $60,000 and $100,000 this year.

Encouraged by their early success, the pair has just inked a lease on a larger windowfront space, located a few blocks away, that will double their square footage. They are scheduled to move next month. In addition, they also are contemplating opening other stores in nearby suburbs.

Head 2 Toe’s main competition comes from Stride Rite, located in the Orland Square shopping center some 15 miles away, and Nordstrom, in Oakbrook Center, which is a 45-minute drive.

Moms, like themselves (Szablewski has three young daughters, Hooks has two), appreciate the convenience of Head 2 Toe’s downtown Frankfort location and are eager to patronize local businesses, according to Hooks.

“They want to shop here versus anyplace else,” said Hooks, who attended the local high school. “They want to support Frankfort.”

Szablewski and Hooks met while working as surgical technicians and started talking about potential surgical inventions. That led to the idea of starting a business, and eventually they landed on kids’ footwear after the owner of a local children’s clothing store, Little Promises, told them she received regular requests for shoes.

To promote their business, Szablewski and Hooks frequently team up with other local merchants to run sidewalk sales and conduct special promotions, such as a Midnight Madness sale where discounts increase throughout the night. Head 2 Toe also partners with a nearby children’s boutique and women’s apparel shop to donate charity gift baskets that include gift certificates and a free evening shopping party at the three stores.

Forging relationships with other supportive businesses has been key to helping Head 2 Toe build its customer base, Hooks said. The store has received clients from the ballet studio in its building. And the owner of Little Promises provides referrals and even shares her mailing list.

It’s good, then, that they’ll have more space in their new location. Szablewski and Hooks said they plan to create separate sales and play areas for boys and girls. They’d also like to expand their footwear and accessories mix. “We want to have as many brands to offer people as possible,” Hooks said.

The store’s most popular lines include Lelli Kelly, Geox and Morgan & Milo, with prices ranging from $20 for Ragg woven sandals to $75 for Primigi pink moccasins. An average sale is typically around $100. Although Hooks said customers recently have been pulling back on their spending, there are still those who come in and spend as much as $300 without thinking twice.

“I am surprised at what people will spend on shoes,” Hooks said. “They’re worried about their kids’ feet and their development, and they’re willing to pay for [quality]. They don’t want to go to Target.”

Customers also have not shied away from Head 2 Toe’s selection of high-end European brands, even as import prices continue to rise. That’s what they come in for, Hooks said. “People will pay for the name.”

Though Head 2 Toe has launched amid a challenging economic climate, Szablewski and Hooks’ vendors say the pair’s savvy business sense should serve them well. Ken Proctor, founder and CEO of Twig, which Head 2 Toe has picked up for back-to-school, said Szablewski and Hooks’ hands-on approach has played a big part in their sales so far.

“They work the floor and really listen to what their customers are asking for,” Proctor said. “They are also moms, so they know the importance of good fit. They’re very dedicated.”

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