E. Edwards Work Wear Reports Strongest Year Yet

Kansas City, Kan.-based E. Edwards Work Wear thrives on competition. The independent retailer successfully took on both shoe trucks and the Internet to have its best year in 2011, posting 12 percent gains for a record $3.5 million in sales.

The trio of work wear stores, founded in 1998 by Eric Edwards and his father, Ed, and brother Ryan, has benefited from some growth initiatives. In 2010, its Lansing, Kan., location moved to the more trafficked city of Olathe, Kan. And to meet growing consumer demand, more than 2,000 square feet was added to the flagship in Kansas City last summer. (Its third location is in Grandview, Mo., and E. Edwards also operates a 46-foot gooseneck trailer serving as a shoemobile.)

The retailer caters to local workers in light manufacturing and warehousing, employed by Procter & Gamble, Harley-Davidson, Hallmark, Honeywell and General Electric, in addition to construction and utility companies. “We serve almost all industry in the Kansas City area,” said co-owner Eric Edwards. “There aren’t many we don’t touch.”

Shopping ease, said Edwards, has been key to the chain’s success. All stores are strategically located off major highways, while its shoe truck brings footwear to customers at job sites within a 250-mile radius. Customer service gives the retailer confidence. “The Internet doesn’t phase us,” said Edwards. “I know that when it’s raining out and [guys] have a hole in their boots, they need a new pair today.”

And, according to Edwards, e-tailers don’t typically accept the annual $100 stipends that employers provide toward workers’ safety shoes. Though some online sites have an edge when it comes to selection, he conceded, customers should be able to find an appropriate style to fit their needs at one of E. Edwards’ 6,000-sq.-ft. locations, which each stocks 6,000 pairs of boots.

For added convenience, E. Edwards’ shoe truck operates four to five days a week, carrying 1,500 pairs of shoes. These days, the only on-road competition comes from Red Wing, so mobile sales account for 18 percent of the chain’s total.

“We pull up in a big, fancy, 46-foot semi-trailer,” said Edwards, “and we’re more like a store. We can have 10 to 12 people shopping at a time.”

Mike Langfeldt, account executive with Timberland Pro, acknowledged the importance of E. Edwards’ mobile operation. “A lot of manufacturing and warehouse facilities like to have someone come [directly] to them,” he said. “There’s a uniformity [then] of what guys and gals are wearing, and they’re getting the best possible pricing.”

Footwear makes up two-thirds of sales for the chain, with apparel accounting for the remainder of the business. Timberland Pro, Wolverine, Keen Utility, Converse, Carolina, Red Wing, Rocky, Thorogood and Dr. Martens are among the retailer’s top-selling footwear brands.

For newer safety shoe players such as Keen Utility, a work-focused retailer like E. Edwards offers an opportunity to showcase a broad assortment at retail. “They represent each brand very well,” Keen Utility account executive Jim Hansen said about the wide range of styles displayed. And, he added, the stores fill in product twice a week, so customers are rarely disappointed.

“Eric Edwards is a savvy retailer who is in tune with work product trends,” said Jeremy Starks, VP of sales at Rocky Brands’ work division. “This is reflected in the [store’s] merchandising. Collaborating with Eric has been beneficial to both the Rocky and Georgia brands. His feedback has been shared throughout our organization and has been incorporated into various products on the shelf today.”

While E. Edwards manages to dominate mobile retailing, competition still comes from other brick-and-mortar stores, though none are work focused, said Edwards. Walmart caters to a more budget-conscious work consumer, while Dick’s Sporting Goods, Bass Pro Shop and Cabela’s carry only a small selection of workboots.

E. Edwards regularly seeks out new business through advertisements on cable and network TV, targeting shows such as The History Channel’s “American Pickers” and “Swamp People.” “There’s more visibility there,” said Edwards. “It was the smartest move we ever made. Men are visual. We show them a good-looking boot on TV and where to buy it.”

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