Working as the kids’ shoe department manager at Nordstrom Fashion Valley in San Diego, Markee Lashley noticed that a large percentage of his customers came from the Eastlake, Calif., area, roughly 25 miles away. When he and his wife, Bebe Lashley, also a Nordstrom veteran, moved to Eastlake, they knew they had found the spot for the children’s shoe boutique they’d always planned to open.
“Eastlake is a growing community that’s attracting a lot of young families, but it had no kids’ shoe store. There was obviously a real need,” Bebe said.
Their boutique, Marc & Mimi, debuted last November in The Marketplace at Windingwalk shopping center. To win over parents, the Lashleys are focused on offering unique product, more personalized service and a fun shopping experience for youngsters.
Eventually, the couple hopes to expand the retail concept to other parts of Southern California.
“Our goal is to make Marc & Mimi a destination for kids’ shoes in the area,” Bebe said. “We’d like to open another store in San Diego’s North County area and possibly in Los Angeles.”
The Right Mix
Wanting to make Marc & Mimi an affordable option, the Lashleys stock mostly moderately priced brands, including Tsukihoshi, See Kai Run, Pediped, Skechers, Puma and Lacoste. Because they are only in their first year of business, the retailers have chosen to start with a small selection of lines, but plan to expand the roster as they gain a better understanding of their customer base. “Right now, we’re just trying to establish ourselves and get to know our customers and what they’re looking for. We don’t want to only bring in stuff we love and not have it sell, so their feedback is critical,” said Bebe, noting that they plan to add several new brands for back-to-school, including Ugg and Keen.
The store also carries a selection of socks and accessories, a category the Lashleys intend to grow in the future. “We obviously want to keep the focus on the shoes, but we think it’s important to have cool add-on items,” Bebe said.
The Lashleys’ main objective was to make the store inviting to children. They collaborated with Bryan Stirle, principal of Creative Store Solutions, a San Diego-based retail design firm, on plans for the nearly 1,300-sq.-ft. space. Shoes are organized by gender and displayed on slat walls and a large center table. A row of swivel chairs shaped like sports balls serves as seating. The store also features a treasure chest-themed play area stocked with toys and crayons, as well as a TV that keeps kids entertained while they are fitted for new shoes. “For some children, having their feet measured feels like being at the doctor’s office, so we try to make the process as fun as possible,” Markee said.
The Lashleys keep detailed records on their customers and follow up every purchase with a prompt thank-you e-mail. “Much of our business comes from repeat customers, so we make a point to build those relationships and make sure they know we appreciate their business,” said Bebe. The store provides a sit-and-fit service, which Markee said is a big draw, particularly as much of their competition is self-serve. “Many parents who come in admit their child hasn’t been measured in a long time, so they appreciate the service,” he said.
Prior to opening, the Lashleys, with the help of a local marketing agency, conducted a grassroots promotion for Marc & Mimi, making the rounds at area schools and businesses with fliers in hand. They are active on Facebook and participate in the coupon book produced by their shopping center. Marc & Mimi also hosts its own events, from an Easter egg hunt this past spring to regular shoe-tying clinics for kids.
For the Lashleys, launching a new business in a difficult economy, which has hit California particularly hard, has been challenging. “Just being an independent is a struggle in itself,” Bebe said. “Now, we’re not only trying to win customers’ trust but trying to get them to spend their hard-earned money when budgets are tight.”
So far, though, Marc & Mimi seems to be hitting its stride, she said. The store has seen steady sales gains each month, even in the typically slow winter season.
Chris Rogers, Pediped’s California sales rep, said one of Marc & Mimi’s biggest strengths is its sit-and-fit service. “Many retailers today don’t offer a fitting service because it is expensive. So having this [expertise] is critical to the success of a neighborhood boutique. It creates an invaluable opportunity for personalized service.”
Matt Butlett, U.S. brand representative for Tsukihoshi, agreed. “Service needs to be No. 1. It’s even more important nowadays to ensure that good customers have a positive shopping experience and come back,” he said. “This is what Marc & Mimi is all about.”
The Eastlake Scene
Neighborhood vibe: Located in a shopping plaza in Eastlake, a master-planned community with many families, the store’s neighbors include a pediatrician’s office, preschool and martial arts studio, all of which supply a steady flow of customers.
Customer base: Marc & Mimi draws a diverse mix of locals, ranging from new moms to grandparents.
Competition: The boutique’s nearest competition is another independent, located 15 miles away, and Nordstrom Fashion Valley, which is 25 miles away.