Former Saks CEO Bets on Shoes

Christina Johnson’s new accessories store in New Canaan, Conn., has been open barely a month and already she’s planning to open four more stores over the next two years.

The former CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue said the boutique, Walin & Wolff, was conceived after seeing how many independent shoe and accessory retailers did not survive the recession. She wanted to fill a niche and make designer footwear, handbags and accessories readily available in affluent communities, and so far sales have so far exceeded expectations.

“There is definitively a consumer in these affluent neighborhoods who will shop locally and who chooses to shop locally [rather than at a] mall,” said Johnson, who co-owns the store with Kim Walin, a former partner at Ducane Capital and ex-retail analyst.

“We also live in these communities. I live in Greenwich. Kim lives in New Canaan. We realized nobody is servicing this client for this category of merchandise and we think there are many other markets like this throughout the country. We think we have an opportunity over time [to open] 10 to 15 stores within the metro New York region. And if we get very lucky, we would then proceed from there,” said Johnson, whose maiden name is Wolff.

Walin & Wolff’s second store will open later this year in Rye, N.Y. Stores also are targeted for Greenwich and Westport, Conn., and Scarsdale, N.Y., by 2014.

“Eventually we’d like to come to New York [City], but our immediate [goal] is to fill the suburban market,” Johnson said.

Focusing on shoes and other accessories was also a no-brainer for the duo, partly owing to the current strength of those categories.

“Shoes, accessories and handbags give a very nice round-out in terms of what [consumers] may be using for ready-to-wear,” said Johnson, “[although], we didn’t build this business on the technicalities of the marketplace. We are building a brand and a business model based on the fact that our consumer has the ability to be discerning and understand quality brands that can be brought to them in a local shopping environment.”

Walin explained that because their target consumer is typically pressed for time, the store offers customers an “enhanced presentation and assortment that they would probably [otherwise] have to find in the city. We’re bringing that home to them, if you will.”

Walin & Wolff carries such brands as Tory Burch, Kate Spade, Stuart Weitzman and Ferragamo. This summer, it will add Valentino and Manolo Blahnik.

Johnson and Walin also aim to have an e-commerce site up by next year. “It will be a significant part of our business, but brick-and-mortar will continue to be larger,” said Johnson.

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