NSRA Conference Offers Fresh Retail Strategies

How do independent retailers battle larger online competitors?

Small stores should focus on their strengths, such as customer service and strong knowledge of the footwear market, according to speakers at the National Shoe Retailers Association’s annual conference in Boston this week.

The NSRA hosted its fourth-annual national conference at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel last week, with 262 members from the U.S. and Canada in attendance.

“My personal overall goal for [the conference] is that retailers can learn something here that they can take back to their businesses on Monday morning. They [can put strategies] into play that will make a difference in their businesses right away,” said NSRA President Chuck Schuyler.

The three-day event, which ran Nov. 13-15, featured presentations by Jim Dion, president of retail consulting firm Dionco Inc.; and Joe Salzano, VP of sales at Clarks and a 56-year veteran of the footwear industry. The speakers focused on the increasing threat of online businesses.

“Don’t get so wrapped up in all this high-tech stuff. It’s here, it’s not going away, but neither will the independent shoe retailer go away,” Salzano advised. “Don’t overestimate your limitations. We underestimate our potential.”

Dion identified the “elephant in the room” — or Amazon.com — saying the company, which owns Zappos.com, “has declared war on brick-and-mortar retail.”

Dion outlined several strengths of independent stores over websites, including the ability to accept and process returns faster; overall lower prices when taking shipping into account; and top-notch customer service.

“[Customers] love to deal with experts,” Dion added, stressing the importance of knowledgeable and enthusiastic employees. He noted that if sales associates aren’t knowledgeable, customers don’t need them because they can gather their information online. “It is all about the ‘who’ today. It is all about the people in your store.”

Gary Weiner, CEO of Saxon Shoes, said he doesn’t worry too much about keeping up with the Internet.

“Business is not great, but worrying about it doesn’t help,” he said, adding that taking action is what matters. “We’re still much better than [online retailers] in many ways.” However, Weiner did point out that Saxon is working on its own website. “Not being in e-commerce is a real detriment to you today.”

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