Maurice Breton loves his Starbucks — and not just a cup of the coffee giant’s bold brews. He also appreciates the company’s approach to orchestrating rich retail experiences and commanding choice real estate.
Sure, Starbucks has thousands of stores, but Breton, the founder of Comfort One Shoes, has adopted a similar approach.
For one, he has targeted highly populated areas with generous foot traffic and wealthy patrons. For another, Breton has opened stores that are sometimes across the street from each other, like the two Comfort One doors and Mephisto shop he owns on Washington, D.C.’s Connecticut Avenue.
“Our first mission was to own this market,” said Breton. “We can deal from strength with landlords and vendors.”
The independent retailer, which now owns 22 stores plus an e-commerce site, admits it is an unusual and somewhat risky strategy for a shoe store. But Breton said his instincts (and meticulous research) led him to recognize that two different types of customers can exist on the same street.
Breton, 64, has made a career out of trusting his gut.
He gained his first exposure to retail at Summer & Putnam, a department store in Worcester, Mass., in 1970, when he was a high school student at Barnard. “The store buyer had two openings: one in furniture and the other in shoes. I figured shoes were lighter to move around,” quipped Breton.
He thrived on the energy he experienced on the sales floor. In 1973, after a short stint at a bank, Breton returned to footwear, working at a boutique called Hallie’s Airstep Shoes. A year later, he found himself selling shoes at Filene’s Basement in Boston. Before long, he was managing the shoe department, and with solid results, executives at the Federated-owned store sent him to Atlanta to run a 65-person footwear team for its newly acquired retail chain, Rich’s.
Rising up through the buying ranks, Breton became Federated’s VP of footwear in 1982. But it was his next job, at Hofheimer’s in Norfolk, Va., where he mastered merchandising (learning about Euro comfort sizing); saw the perks of personal customer service; and fine-tuned his business acumen (months after joining, he and others pulled off a management-led leveraged buyout).
After seven years at Hofheimer’s, Breton was ready to branch out on his own.
On July 1, 1993, he opened Comfort Zone, a tiny store at 201 King St. in Alexandria, Va. Soon after, though, lawyers from a wholesaler with the same name said he had violated a trademark. Rather than fight it in court, he simply dropped the letter “z.”
Sensing high demand in the area for Euro comfort brands, Breton opened two more stores within two years.
“We were pretty aggressive in that way. I had come out of several multi-store environments. Federated was 450 stores, Hofheimer’s was 157,” Breton said. “I knew that our store, at 800 square feet, wasn’t going to give me the lifestyle we were used to. I had to create enough critical mass. I always dreamed big. I told my wife and family we were going to build an empire when we started this. We still have a ways to go.”
As Comfort One continues to grow — Breton said he might look to snap up like-minded retailers along the Eastern Seaboard — the company still relishes old-fashioned retail charm.
Breton personally knows each of his 130 employees and gives them regular pep talks. (“Today’s going to be a great day for you,” he’s told associates on more than one occasion.) He also hands out business cards and, most important, interacts with customers every chance he gets.
Breton — who runs the company with his wife, Deborah, and son, Garrett, 37 — said harvesting customer loyalty is the foundation for success. In fact, it’s why all his store employees complete a rigorous 21-hour training course, called Comfort One University, and then shadow a seasoned salesperson for another 21 hours.
“Lots of stores say they have good service. That’s not even good enough anymore,” said Breton. “You have to have extraordinary service, extraordinary experiences in stores. Customers trust us for unique product, exceptional comfort and fit, and exceptional customer service.”
Brand executives agree the Comfort One team does just that.
“Maurice is committed to the store experience and provides a very high level of service. He is a passionate believer in training his staff, and he engages his brands in that training,” said Dave Quel, president of Ecco USA. “He’s not one to sit still — he’s constantly evolving his business, and in turn, he’s pushing his vendor partners forward. He’s always challenging us to make better, more innovative products and to [seek out ways to] maximize our business together.”
David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock Americas, added: “Maurice is the only retailer who has established fine European brands in the region. His customers are quite discerning, and they recognize true quality and craftsmanship. Maurice also is one of the only independents who has an extensive department store background, ranging from chain operations to buying. This gives him a perspective most independents don’t have: He understands the dynamics of the business across all channels and he is able to synthesize these insights into a strategy that makes Comfort One unique.”
While he embraces the tried-and-true salesman’s touch, Breton knows times are changing. Case in point: Earlier this month, the industry veteran gave Footwear News a tour of the nation’s capital, driving from store to store in his new Tesla. Breton, in the middle of talking, switched on the car’s enhanced autopilot system.
“It’s not something you get used to right away,” he said, his hands in the air. “But you adjust.”
Adjusting is what Breton has done time and again.
He’s dealt with the rise of big-box retailers. And he’s competed against e-tail giants such as Amazon and Zappos. But his greatest threat now is the companies he does business with: Many footwear brands deliberately jump over the mom-and-pop channel to open branded stores in the same market, as well as sell direct-to-consumers. It is a problem that plagues every independent retailer.
“It’s gotten much worse. It’s a major issue now,” said Breton, with a rare rise in his voice. “I get it: Brands are doing what’s best for them. And we need to do what’s best for us.”
He said discount pricing is another thorn. “I have way too much respect for what my sales associates and managers do on the selling floor, and the experiences they deliver to our customers that allows them to spend 45 minutes with someone who then shops the shoe elsewhere for $5 less. It totally devalues what they do.”
To win, Breton has been methodically planning a new course. Among his plans is a more aggressive push into exclusives with brands such as Hartjes and BeautiFeel, as well as more private-label offerings, which currently account for 35 percent of sales.
What’s more, Comfort One executives plan to buy commercial real estate across the D.C. region. The Bretons made their first big splurge buy last year for a historic building in Old Town Alexandria at 200 King St. — fittingly, it sits across the street from another Comfort One, the company’s first door.
“Rents in D.C. are very expensive,” said Breton’s son Garrett, vice president of merchandising. “Buying the building was a huge step. We’d been talking about it and preparing for years. This will be the flagship and will ensure the future of our company.”
The three-story brick building — it cost $3.3 million, plus $1 million to renovate — is expected to open in August. As the Bretons walked through the vacant space, with its rickety floorboards and drafty windows, they pointed out where the buying offices and stockroom will be and highlighted the possibilities for the main floor. The Bretons are aiming to create a 7,500-sq. ft. “shoe emporium.”
“We’ve reinvented ourselves a number of times,” said Maurice Breton. “Now we’re prepared to buy and sell a lot more shoes.”