Independents Push the Envelope

NEW YORK — In the face of the weak economy, independents are dramatically retooling their business strategies to focus on more grassroot events.

At the NSRA conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month, retailers shared tips about how they are beating the downturn by trimming costs and thinking outside the box — and in some cases, outside the store. The efforts can lead to increased store awareness and a jolt in sales, retailers said.

David Levy of Hawley Lane Shoes in Stamford, Conn., said his store partners with local radio station WEBE108 for a “Tuesdays are Shoes Days” contest. “No question it really helps build brand equity,” he said.

Though the initiative launched about two years ago, it is even more crucial for business now, Levy said.

“Every Tuesday during the morning commute hours, the station has listeners call in, and if they can answer a shoe trivia question correctly, they get a $108 gift certificate to spend with us. People in southern Connecticut really identify with it and it’s been great.”

Jim Sadjak, president of Stan’s Fit for Your Feet in Greenfield, Wis., said grassroots marketing is the primary way his stores are standing out and resonating with shoppers.

“Gone are the days when you can put a full page advertisement in the paper and sustain business for a week,” he said. “For one, no one can afford that right now, and second, it just doesn’t matter as much anymore.”

Even small changes to normal events, such as sales promotions, can make a difference, said Sadjak. From May 1 to 17, Stan’s hosted a “Balloon Blast” sale, where customers popped a balloon and retrieved a discount ticket inside, ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent off.

Last week, Sadjak had the locally beloved Milwaukee sausage racers — the mascots for the Klement’s sausage company in Milwaukee — visit his New Balance store, and shoppers came in droves.

“We had people pulling in from off the street and taking pictures,” he said.

Sadjak also has found success by partnering with the local Chamber of Commerce and is hosting its next event at his Brookfield, Wis., store. He expects it to draw about 200 top business leaders for an evening of food and music, shopping and an in-store massage therapist.

During Easter, Salisbury, Md.-based Vernon Powell Shoes put on an in-store event that helped spur traffic. President Joseph Wright bought an Easter Bunny costume, partnered with a local radio station and the crowds came.

“We did a live radio broadcast from the store, and the station announced on the air for weeks that the Easter Bunny would be at the store,” said Wright. “We took pictures with the kids and gave them Easter eggs. … It definitely drove traffic among the radio listeners.”

Wright said that radio partnerships are becoming increasingly beneficial in terms of reach.

“If you partner with a radio station, they will go a lot further for you. They’ll talk about you live versus just a recorded mention.”

For the Shoe Mill in Portland, Ore., which counts seven locations, local TV has been a great vehicle to boost store awareness and increase sales, said Josh Habre. The store has partnered with local ABC affiliate KATU, for a morning show segment.

“We do one show about every six weeks,” Habre told Footwear News, adding that the response is overwhelming. “We do a segment that ends at 9:35 a.m., and at 9:36 a.m., the phones start ringing at every store.”

The segments always feature a particular brand such as MBT, Earth or Ecco, and Habre said brands with wellness or technology features always result in the strongest response.

Store windows also can be a huge traffic driver during these times, said Danny Wasserman, owner of Tip Top Shoes in New York.

For Earth Day, Simple Shoes built a display in Tip Top’s window featuring sustainable product and eco-themed decor. Meanwhile, to promote its hybrid sneaker earlier this year, Nike dropped thousands of dollars on a unique window display in Tip Top’s neighboring shop, West. Its huge, hybrid creature featured the body parts of various animals and grabbed the attention of nearly everyone who walked by, said Wasserman.

“Tons of people stopped to look at this thing,” he said, “and when it’s a see-through window, they can see the product and want to come in.”

Wasserman also is teaming up with Stride Rite on an in-store contest for kids to design a shoe, though the details are still being worked out.

“The key is you really have to ask your vendors to participate right now,” Wasserman said. “A lot are willing to participate and promote their product. We can work together.”

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