Minnesota Retailer Marks 125 Years in Business

Schuler Shoes has a rare story. Founded in 1889, the family-owned footwear chain in Minnesota is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and doing what many independents aren’t: growing.

With nine stores across the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area — and a 10th set to open in February — Schuler has established a loyal clientele over its history, thanks to its focus on comfort and fit, while still offering performance and style.

Current owner John Schuler took over the company in the 1970s from his father, Emmet, and has an obvious lifelong passion for the business.

“You can make a real difference in a person’s life when you put them in comfortable footwear,” he said. “I want people to love the shoes they buy from us and find shoes that work.”

Now, the retailer is in expansion mode. Schuler bought land in the Highland Park area of Minneapolis and is building a new store location from the ground up.

He has also grown the chain’s merchandise mix to nearly 70 brands and initiated fresh marketing efforts.

However, Schuler remains committed to the chain’s core selling points: a wide range of sizes and a staff focused on fit first. He employs nine pedorthists to work in-store and has trained his sales team to properly assess clients’ needs.

“I look back now to when I started — it was when the athletic shoe business moved the industry toward comfort,” Schuler recalled. “Athletic was exciting and new, and comfort was key. Now when I look at the industry, comfort is such an important element [in every category]. Many vendors figured out that if you can give comfort and style, people will want [the shoe].”

New Balance EVP of North America Chris Quinn said, “What also makes [Schuler] unique is the focus on delivering the best possible fit and fit experience in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. They are dedicated to their customers and have deep relationships with their customers.”

Schuler Shoes has managed to stand out in the comfort crowd — and attract a more youthful clientele — by also highlighting fashion and style.

Marketing director Kari Palmer has debuted promotions to appeal to a range of shoppers. In addition to a logo refresh for its anniversary, Schuler Shoes hosted several in-store events this year, with vendors such as Cobb Hill and Clarks, and it regularly holds giveaways and in-store fundraisers for teachers. Additionally, an online blog features styling options for many of the shoes carried at Schuler.

New Balance’s Quinn noted that Schuler and his team have found unique ways to court shoppers, including one particularly memorable initiative.

“They did a promotion during the NHL playoffs that was very nimble and responded to the market’s interest in the Minnesota Wild and their performance,” he said. “It was real-time, actionable, and captured new eyeballs in the market.”

The ads and store expansions are paying off. Revenue in 2014 is up 8 percent over last year, a fact Schuler credits to better coordination between different departments on the product mix and promotions.

Another growth avenue is online. Schuler’s e-commerce business represents only a small component of total sales, but the retailer said he aims to grow that segment to at least 5 percent.

Overall, Schuler recognizes the need to evolve.

“We don’t want people to say, ‘It’s cool they have the history, but Schuler’s is old,’” he said. “We want them to see the new logo [and projects] and think of us as a new, updated option with a different image.”

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