When Kate Blake was laid off from her sales job at Diesel footwear in 2005, she had an epiphany. She realized it was the perfect opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream of starting her own business. In short order, she opened Shoo, a men’s and women’s boutique devoted to funky, comfort-driven footwear, in Milwaukee’s historical Third Ward.
With a degree in clothing, textiles and merchandising from Western Carolina University, coupled with a footwear industry background that included stints as a buyer for Belk and sales rep for Steve Madden, Blake found that opening the store was a natural move. “Once you’re in shoes, you can’t get out,” she said.
She has since been joined in the business by her brother, Patrick Blake, CFO, who offers a man’s perspective on the comfort category. After yearly sales increases of 20 percent to 30 percent, business at Shoo has slowed somewhat due to the recession, but the Blakes are confident it will turn around in 2010. In the meantime, to meet customer demand for more affordable product, the two have eliminated some of Shoo’s higher-priced lines and are in the process of revamping the store’s Website to more aggressively pursue online sales.
THE RIGHT MIX
Shoo’s assortment emphasizes unusual, well-made, fashion-forward footwear. And everything must be comfortable, insisted Kate Blake. “Our customer is looking for comfort, but not orthopedic-looking stuff,” she said.
The store focuses on heels for women, mostly in the 2-to-3-inch range. In choosing styles, Blake, who is an official wear tester, said the real comfort test is how the shoes feel after four hours. “I think about myself: Will I want to wear it?” she explained.
Popular women’s brands include Cydwoq, Trippen, John Fluevog, Corso Como, Biviel, Fly London and United Nude. Fiorentini & Baker, Art and Neosens will be added for fall ’09. Prices range from $80 to $300. On the men’s side, key brands include Ryan Rowe, Timberland Boot Co. and Blackstone, as well as Cydwoq, John Fluevog, United Nude, Fly London and Trippen, with most product retailing for $100 to $250.
Aside from footwear, Shoo also stocks women’s handbags, belts, jewelry and other accessories, which combined account for nearly 20 percent of sales. A top seller is knitwear made by one of Shoo’s own sales associates. “We sell a ton of the stuff,” said Blake.
According to Blake, every customer who walks through the door is greeted within five to 10 seconds of arrival. Both owners also make a point of being on the sales floor at all times. And while Shoo prides itself on keeping detailed records of customers’ shoe sizes and style preferences, Blake stressed, “They’re also in my brain. I want customers to come back, and because of that connection, they will.”
Currently, 10 percent of Shoo’s sales are done through its Website, Shoostore.com. However, the Blakes expect that online sales could eventually account for half of their overall business. To meet this goal, a revamped site will be unveiled later this year.
“It’s a tool for marketing,” said Patrick Blake. “People can access us around the world. It’s grassroots and effort free.” To complement the site, the Blakes use Facebook and Twitter and pen their own blog.
More conventional marketing efforts include advertisements in local magazines and hotel shopping guides, as well as postcard mailings for upcoming sales. According to Kate Blake, customers look forward to the mailings, which feature childhood photos of the siblings taken by their photographer mother. The snapshots also are hung throughout the store.
Shoo’s décor is as comfortable as its footwear. The 1,000-sq.-ft. shop is housed in a century-old warehouse and shares space with an art gallery. Customers must first pass through the gallery to get to the store, which is separated by a wall.
The shop was designed by the Blakes and friend and stylist Melanie Seckinger. It is filled with antique tables serving as display units, with colorful rugs warming the wood floors and eclectic knickknacks that once belonged to the Blakes’ grandmother scattered throughout. “You want to be here,” said Kate Blake. “It’s not pretentious.”
Men have turned out to be a tough audience for Shoo, accounting for just 15 percent of sales. While women love the store’s funky styles, “men in Milwaukee are much more conservative,” said Patrick Blake. “They need a little more time to accept these looks in their wardrobe.”
To better serve men, the store has adjusted its mix to focus on more traditional styles at lower price points. “Men are cheap — they don’t want to spend the money,” added Kate Blake.
Mark Nason is one brand that Shoo customers found too expensive and too directional. The Blakes now are searching for more cleaned-up, conservative looks that can go casual or dressy. And going forward, the emphasis will be on shoes in the moderate, $120-to-$150 price range.
Michael Belgue, wholesale director for John Fluevog, said that as a buyer, Kate Blake instinctively knows what works in her market. “Kate is hands down one of our favorite clients to meet at the WSA Show. She starts selling our shoes to others in the booth before I even get a word in,” Belgue said.
Myles Matias, an account executive for Timberland Boot Co., praised the Blakes’ knack for merchandising. “Shoo is a store that seeks to carry the most unique, well-made shoes a customer can find anywhere,” he said. “Our brand performs extremely well there.”
THE MILWAUKEE SCENE
Neighborhood vibe: Milwaukee’s Third Ward district, home to an eclectic array of boutiques and art galleries, is undergoing a renaissance. In addition to independents, major chains such as Anthropologie are moving in.
Customer base: Men and women between the ages of 35 and 60, with plenty of disposable income. “[They] are artsier, funkier and want to be individuals,” said Kate Blake.
Competition: Shoo is the only footwear store in the area. Should competition spring up, however, Blake said she is committed to offering brands other Milwaukee stores don’t stock. “There are no price wars. We want to be the only store that carries a brand.”