Though a favorite pastime for many women, shoe shopping always posed a challenge for Sydney Pringle, who has petite, size 4 feet. For years, she had to resort to cherry-picking the children’s department or scouring eBay and Etsy for the odd pair of small shoes.
“I had accumulated all these shoes that didn’t quite fit me right, and I just thought, ‘Let me put up a website and offer my finds to others in the same situation,’” said Pringle, who is among the reported 7 million U.S. women with a shoe size of 5.5 or smaller. Her website, launched in 2010, eventually led to weekly pop-up shops in a New York gallery. And last spring, Pringle made the leap to a permanent space on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The 500-sq.-ft. Little Shoe Store stocks footwear in sizes 3 to 6, attracting women of all ages, as well as teenage girls. A large portion of the boutique’s inventory is by The Odd Slipper, a brand of petite shoes founded by fashion industry executive Sindy Sagastume, who partnered with Pringle in her retail venture. The store also carries private-label shoes that Pringle sources from factories in Spain and Italy. A small selection of vintage looks is being phased out to make room for more contemporary designs. “Vintage shoes also have a very particular fit, and we’ve found they don’t work for everyone,” noted Sagastume, also a size 4. In addition, The Little Shoe Store does consignment, allowing customers to sell new and nearly new pairs from their own closets.
Later this year, the shop plans to debut its own house label to further round out the assortment. “Our Italian and Spanish offerings focus on timeless, great-fitting basics, so the idea is for The Little Shoe Store brand to encompass those trendier, more affordable, one-season styles,” Pringle explained. “We want [small-footed] women to be fashion-forward and have all the latest styles they see on the street.”
Shoppers also have the option to order custom designs from The Odd Slipper, with a turnaround time of two to four weeks. “We have customers who have not worn heels in years because they gave up trying to find them in their size,” said Pringle. “But now they can come in and say, ‘OK, I want a peep-toe pump in purple suede with a 3-inch heel.’ It is very liberating for them, a real luxury.”
Dr. Marlene Reid, a spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association who sees female patients with small feet in her practice, said shops like The Little Shoe Store fill a much-needed niche. “These women are very hard to fit, particularly because smaller feet are usually also narrow in the heel,” Reid said. “Specialty stores have a real opportunity to address the situation.”
To connect with and engage their customers, Pringle and Sagastume have made crowdsourcing an integral part of their business model. They regularly post styles on the store’s website, inviting women to vote for their favorites. The winning shoe is then put into production. “Our customers are very passionate about voting and commenting every time new styles are posted,” Sagastume said. “It has been a great way to keep the conversation going and get feedback.”
With a limited marketing budget, The Little Shoe Store relies mostly on social media and old-fashioned word of mouth to draw customers. The shop also works closely with the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, a nonprofit economic development organization that provides marketing assistance, grants and other services to local merchants and property owners.
Already, The Little Shoe Store has seen healthy repeat business, and Pringle said some out-of-town customers even plan vacations in New York around a visit to the store. “We’ve been hugged; we’ve been thanked profusely. People are so happy to have found us,” she said. “Some of our customers haven’t bought new shoes in years.”
And soon shoppers will have even more motivation to stop by: Sagastume plans to launch petite apparel at the store this fall, starting with pants. “We’re working with patternmakers now to create five basic silhouettes, from skinny to wide-legged,” she said, noting the business could expand by offering a range of fashion items for smaller women. “There is this whole market of petite women who don’t have many shopping options — they are completely neglected. We want to address this niche, with everything from apparel and shoes to accessories.”
Although the store’s e-commerce site reaches customers around the globe, Pringle said a future goal is to open additional brick-and-mortar locations in other cities. “We already have people asking about other stores, but right now we want to focus on broadening our shoe selection and introducing the apparel,” she said. “But I would definitely love to open more stores one day. I like to think we’re building The Little Empire.”