How a 50-Year-Old Small-Town Retailer Is Winning Over Denver Consumers

Like many sisters, Lauren Polk Brown and Zoe Polk are on the phone multiple times a day. However, their conversations are mainly about business. The two run day-to-day operations for Boulder, Colo.-based Pedestrian Shops, a fashion comfort store founded by their father, Richard, 50 years ago that now counts three locations.

It was Zoe Polk, 27, who last fall encouraged her family to open a third door in nearby Denver. “We weren’t actively scouting a location,” said Polk, who found a circa-1880s building to house the new 1,400-square-foot store. “As a young person in my role as the store’s [operations manager], I wanted to grow the business into something that would be my own as well as a legacy for my dad.”

Richard Polk began selling Earth shoes out of a bookmobile in 1969, opening his first storefront on Boulder’s Pearl Street the following year. The second location debuted at the city’s Village Shopping Center in the early 1980s.

With encouragement from his daughters, the retail veteran was finally ready to take on Denver. “We wanted to know if what we do is unique to Boulder or if it would translate to a more urban environment,” he said. “We wanted to know if the brand had value.”

To the family’s surprise, Denver consumers responded well and were even interested in the same products as their suburban counterparts. “The first season, we bought everything identical to our other stores,” said Zoe Polk. “We found our best-sellers were the same.”

Although 2018 was a transition year for Pedestrian Shops with the addition of the Denver location, same-store sales increased 5 percent, and VP Polk Brown predicted similar growth this year.

While the company is expanding its footprint, it is emphasizing e-commerce with the launch of a mobile-friendly website this spring.  “We look at our website as complementing our brick-and-mortar business,” said Polk Brown, 35, noting the site could eventually account for 10 percent of sales. “A lot of consumers pre-shop before they come in, giving the site a marketing purpose.”

Some of the store’s key brands include Birkenstock, Lems, Dansko, Blundstone and Merrell, with a focus on casual and outdoor-inspired lines. “Coloradans have active lifestyles, and their footwear reflects this,” said Polk Brown. “They seek versatility and want each pair to serve multiple purposes. Our customers are not trend-driven, and we can have the same top-selling styles for multiple years and sometimes decades.”

She added that the stores attract a core audience of 30- to 60-year-olds but also tap into Boulder’s large college crowd as well as soccer moms. “We have something for everyone,” said Polk Brown.

Tim Engel, national sales manager for Blundstone, recalled that Pedestrian Shops was one of the first stores in the Rocky Mountain region to carry the brand. “They started slow with the line, and [business] grew every year,” said Engel. “They started small, gauged demand and saw what customers wanted.”

Pedestrian Shops has also helped local brand Lems, known for its minimalist footwear,  expand its customer base. Steve Perna, Lems’ director of sales, said the label considers the store the next best thing to having its own flagship. “Pedestrian Shops has a very curated selection of footwear, so to be included is [important],” Perna said. “Our shoes may not be for everyone, but having stores that show faith in the brand means that trust starts to resonate with customers.”

Over the decades, the store has become more than a destination for comfort shoes, said Richard Polk — it also has taken steps to benefit its community. “We were one of the first stores to be powered by solar and support carbon-free mobility,” he noted.

Additionally, the retailer chose to advertise with a bus wrap on an electric vehicle operated by the city of Boulder and a local nonprofit social enterprise. “Boulder is a socially conscious place,” he said. “We have always shared the values of the community. We care about what they care about.”

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