Meet the Shoe Store That’s Expanding in Manhattan — Even With High Rent & E-Com Competition

Bob Schwartz takes a small-town approach to big-city retailing. The owner of comfort chain Eneslow, which celebrates its 110th anniversary this year, opened a fourth location this summer on Third Avenue on New York City’s Upper East Side, just blocks away from a sister store on Second Avenue.

Schwartz, whose family acquired the business 50 years ago, said he is constantly adapting to changing demographics and neighborhoods. “We went uptown because we saw revenue going down in our Park Avenue location and thought the Upper East Side was a good market for us,” said Schwartz, who made his first move to the neighborhood a decade ago. “It meant more rent and labor costs, but a neighborhood where the demographics are a good fit.”

Although two locations so close to one another might compete, they each draw a distinct clientele. “If you talk to customers who walk into the Third Avenue store, they don’t shop on Second Avenue,” said Schwartz. “New Yorkers are provincial. They don’t go two blocks past where they live to buy food or do their dry cleaning.”

While Eneslow is fluid when it comes to real estate, it’s been consistent in a product offering focused on European brands not readily available in the U.S. In addition, three of the store’s locations are equipped with shoe modification labs staffed by a team of craftsmen.

“Eighty percent of our business is problem feet,” said Schwartz, referring to the steady referrals from doctors who send patients requiring custom footwear and orthotics to the store.

The retailer is currently wrestling with a year-to-date business that’s down nearly 5%, but remains optimistic. “We’re still here, but it’s hard. I don’t lose sleep over it because every small business owner knows that it’s about cash flow. You have to have an intimate knowledge of your business and know your product inside out,” Schwartz said.

Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, where Schwartz serves on the board, agrees it’s a tough time for small businesses, particularly in New York. “It’s the cumulative impact of high rents and the increase in people who shop online,” Walker said. “We live in an expensive town with all sorts of mandates, taxes and fees. These things make it tough to stay here.”

Here, Schwartz talks about negotiating rents, the challenges of the internet and what he looks for in a brand.

What’s the biggest challenge facing independents today?
BS: “There’s really no growth in brick-and-mortar stores. It’s about how much we’re losing this year versus last year. How do we generate profitable revenue? One way is going to Europe to find vendors that aren’t available here. We can work on three or four times cost and give a better value to our customers since we don’t need a distributor or middleman. We’ve been successful in this approach for the last six years.”

eneslow
Two Eneslow employees outside the former Brooklyn store in the 1950s.
CREDIT: Emeslow

With an emphasis on therapeutic footwear, who is your customer base?
BS: “Everyone who lives in Manhattan walks on concrete. They’re walking up and down stairs getting on the subway. Their feet break down. Younger people are demonstrating they want quality, value, service, skills and retail know-how. Birkenstock, which is hot, is [attracting] young people all day long in all our stores.”

In a competitive retail environment, what has been your most effective marketing tool?
BS: “Our windows. People walk by all day and we can show the world we have Birkenstock. We do email blasts and direct mail to zip codes in

our geographical area. [We benefit] from word- of-mouth and medical referrals. I am a member of the Manhattan and Queens Chambers of Commerce. When we run an event, they come. If these groups need to host education or training seminars, I will do it in our stores and bring people in. Grassroots has been the key in each neighborhood.”

As the athletic footwear category continues to attract comfort customers, how does it fit into your merchandise mix?
BS: “We have increased our athletic shoe business, with brands including Hoka One One and New Balance. But more than that, it’s about European orthopedic footwear vendors that make beautiful walking shoes and are now making sneakers in wide and extra-wide widths. I have a stretch upper shoe from Berkemann in Germany that blows out.”

How are you finding craftsmen for your customization workshops?
BS: “They come from other countries with skills. It’s a unique niche. They may have made handbags and will now be an upper maker. We’ve brought people into the country, although it’s always been hard to get a green card and legalization. I have six people that we’ve sponsored.”

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