Q&A With Hedi’s Shara Movahedi McIntyre

At just 32, Shara Movahedi McIntyre is a veteran of the shoe industry. She started working at Hedi’s, her father’s Carmel, Calif.-based chain of fashion-comfort stores, at age 14. Now, as part owner, she’s bringing a woman’s touch to the comfort business that her father, Hedi Movahedi, founded 20 years ago.

McIntyre officially joined the business in 2005, heading up buying and managing the four-store retail chain, which includes two Hedi’s locations, the Footsie shop in Carmel and an Ecco concept store in Monterey. A fifth door is set to bow later this month in Monterey under the Shu banner.

At Footsie in Carmel, the newest and most fashion-forward addition to the chain, McIntyre serves as the managing owner and has set out to bring comfort features to a fashion-conscious customer.

“The customers in [Footsie] are buying for the look,” she said, noting that the Hedi’s locations serve more practical shoppers. “The comfort is the icing on the cake here.”

Like her fellow independents, McIntyre said the chain has been battling the tough economy (business was down 15 percent to 20 percent last year). However, those numbers didn’t deter father and daughter from forging ahead with plans to bow the Shu store in Monterey’s Del Monte Center, their first mall location. This store will be devoted to a younger customer.

Movahedi credits his daughter with taking the business in a new direction. “She’s open-minded. She knows our [current] customer, and knows how to add new ones in the future,” he said.

Next up, McIntyre plans to overhaul Hedi’s online business, which accounts for less than 10 percent of sales. “We have not made any forays into Internet commerce, so it’s that sector of the business I’m really focused on growing,” said the former Ecco employee. “It could be 30 percent of my business.”

Such additions could be beneficial in the face of growing competition from online discounters and big-box stores. “We can’t lose our focus or get disheartened by what’s going on [in the market],” she said. “We need to continue to go forward providing one-on-one personal service, no matter how cheap shoes are on the Internet or in Target. Customers can’t get what we provide anywhere but in family-owned stores.”

Here, McIntyre weighs in on spicing up the comfort market, dealing with the economy and the father-daughter working relationship.

FN: How does Footsie reflect your point of view?
SMM: I’m bringing comfort features to a very fashion-conscious customer. For example, I can show her that with Sofft, she can get a 3 1/4-inch heel in fun colors with plenty of padding and good balance. That’s an extra selling point. I’m going after the sectors of Born and Sofft that have the most fringe, the highest heels and the brightest colors. The customers are responding really well. They understand that the brands in Footsie are often [presented differently] from what they see in department stores. They go to Macy’s and Nordstrom and see Sofft in low heels and a little more matronly. Then they come to my store and say, “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t know [these brands] made such high-style shoes.”

FN: Do you think the wellness category has a strong future?
SMM: It’s sweeping the nation. People want to do something for their health. MBT has been a huge addition to our selection in Hedi’s for the last three years. People are still asking for them. The challenge now is dealing with the lower-priced brands. How do we continue to sell a really high-quality product like MBT when people are seeing Skechers Shape-ups everywhere? I’m not sure how we’re going to navigate that. We make sure to let our customers know all the features and quality that go into MBT and Sano by Mephisto, which also sells well. But that’s going to be the biggest challenge going forward.

FN: How are you getting customers to spend in a difficult economic environment?
SMM: We started our sales a little bit earlier and have gotten more aggressive. In the past, we’ve had small sales and customer invitations. Now when we have a sale, we’re doing it on a larger scale and advertising it more. And we’re making sure we haven’t cut back on service or selection. Our customers come [in and say], “I went to Nordstrom, Macy’s or so-and-so’s shop and there’s nothing there.” I hear that over and over. Providing the selection and not skimping on the service, attentiveness and the number of [sales associates] has kept our existing customers coming back.

FN: Are comfort vendors doing enough to attract young consumers?
SMM: Not right now. Take Footsie: I really have to search for shoes that fit that [fashion-comfort] category — the type of shoes I want to buy. I need to have fashion and style. I really have to dig for shoes for myself and my store. Especially now, I feel vendors in this economic crunch are playing it safe. They’re not taking a lot of risks. Or if they do, there are not enough orders placed, so the fun shoes fall off by the end of the season. I have so many styles canceled on me. Going into fall ’09, there were things I wanted that companies couldn’t [sell well] enough. So I couldn’t get the shoe.

FN: Is your clientele willing to try a new brand?
SMM: Our customers look to us to bring them things they’ve never heard of. There’s an intrigue and excitement every time we bring on a new brand. They want to know all about it. They’re very savvy. They want to know where it’s manufactured, what the materials are, what the comfort features are and what caused us to buy it. [New brands] create a little frenzy. Larger, more established brands start seeking larger channels of distribution and become a little more ho-hum and less exciting because they’re everywhere. So we have to continue to find new brands.

FN: Are vendors open to suggestions from a young retailer like yourself?
SMM: Everyone likes to hear feedback from someone my age. I’m the emerging spending group. I like to see people follow my suggestions because a lot of times brands will take feedback under consideration, but it won’t translate into any sort of tangible change in the product. Smaller brands, however, are really able to take suggestions and translate them into a forthcoming collection.

FN: What is the most valuable retail lesson you’ve learned?
SMM: Pay attention to your customer. It’s absolutely necessary for me to be on the floor as much as I can, not necessarily serving customers but listening to them, finding out what products they respond to and being in a position to provide them with what they want. We’ve been in the same location for 20-plus years and our customers make no bones about telling us exactly what they want. If they see brands they like [elsewhere], they bring [in the names] and ask if we can get [them]. We’re in a position to be able to respond to some degree. I will go look at the brands my customers are suggesting. If you don’t have a customer, you don’t have a business.

FN: What are the pros and cons of working with your father?
SMM: There are two big pros. One, I get to spend time with my dad. I love working with him. The second is benefiting from his knowledge. I’m not out here doing it on my own. I have someone who has years of experience. He’s a combination of a safety net and a sounding board. The biggest con may be a genetic trait, that we’re both very stubborn. When we disagree on something, we both have to compromise. We’ve gotten much better at it.

FN: Who’s the Hedi’s customer today?
SMM: Over the last five years, the customers have changed. At the original Hedi’s in Carmel, the customers are getting younger. It’s the main store and locally supported. It’s where we try out new brands. In Carmel, regarded as a retirement community, our core customer is between 50 and 70. Twenty years ago, when my father opened the store, a 65-year-old woman was [seen as] older than she is now. Younger-minded customers are now demanding a younger product. She may dress more age-appropriate, but she wants fun accessories, colorful handbags and the kind of heel she can manage without hurting herself. On Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the main shopping street in the downtown area, it’s an interesting mix of people. There are some locals and a lot of tourists. When the tourists come, there’s a big age range. We have everyone from teenagers to retired folks there.

FN: What retailers do you consider your competition?
SMM: It’s everybody. So many of our customers [shopping] Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea come from the Bay Area. There, Nordstrom is the competition, even though we don’t have one anywhere near us. But the ladies who shop [at our main store] are often Nordstrom shoppers. [At the other locations], our only real competition is the Internet. If we can translate [our store experience] to the Internet, the potential is huge.

FN: Where do trade shows fit into your buying?
SMM: Right now, with the economy the way it is — gas prices, etc. — we’ve seen fewer vendors, so it’s more necessary to go to more shows. We’ve really enjoyed the TRU show [in San Francisco]. It’s been best for working with our existing vendors. We still need to go to the larger shows, such as GDS and probably FFANY, to look at new vendors.

FN: What has been the stores’ biggest growth category?
SMM: I would call “elevated casuals” the biggest growth category. Right now, what’s selling in shoes is being able to get extra mileage out of them — those cross-over or dress casuals. People are watching their pennies. They’re willing to buy something, but they want to know they can wear it for as many occasions as possible. Dress casuals are also the biggest category in men’s. Right now, men’s is only about 20 percent or 25 percent of our business. It has declined in the last few years. It had been about 40 percent.

FN: Is there a pricing sweet spot today?
SMM: In the last five years, we had zero resistance to $100 and up. Suddenly now, I’m hearing tourists hem and haw about $129 shoes and $109 shoes. Our core and local customers are de-sensitized to anything under $200. But that’s because they know what they’re getting from us. They know we stand behind our shoes.

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