In the Age of Coronavirus, Shoppers Aren’t Browsing, They’re Buying — And That’s Good News for Struggling Retailers

Consumers returning to stores as COVID-19 regulations relax, are on a mission — and that’s to buy. According to independent shoe retailers, customers willing to risk a visit to their brick-and-mortar stores are purchasing rather than simply browsing.

The trend, they hope, will help reinvigorate business to pre-pandemic days, with stores reporting that sales since reopening began in May are down 50% to 60% compared to last year.

According to Beth Goldstein, executive director and industry analyst, fashion footwear and accessories for The NPD Group, consumers who do go into a store are less likely to browse than they might have been prior to the pandemic, particularly given they may have to wait in line to get into he store in the first place, and — once inside — they need to be taking safety precautions. “It’s not the best experience,” she said. “So, they are more likely to have a purpose for going in, and as a result, retailers would be seeing higher conversion rates.”

“We’ve seen more people coming into our store who are very serious [buyers],” said Braden Parker, co-founder of direct-to-consumer athletic-inspired brand Casca, which operates a companion store in its home town of Vancouver, Canada. “We used to have more people come in, browse and check things out. Now, people who come in usually have done their research online. They know what they want.”

According to Parker, even customers who stop into the store on a whim, have a higher intent to purchase. “They’re not just coming in for fun,” he’s observed.  “People want the experience of trying shoes on. It’s still important.”

Lester Wasserman, president of Tip Top Shoes, New York, agrees customers shopping in store these days mean business. “They want to buy shoes,” he said. “In our case, it’s [also] our level of service. They come to be fitted properly.”

In Charleston, S..C., one of the first regions to reopen, Phillips Shoes has also seen a wave of serious-minded shoppers, particularly more mature customers. According to Ray Kitchen, general manager, if they’re venturing out from the safety of their homes, they’re not shopping around. “If they’re out, they’re looking for [something] specific,” he said. “They’re not browsing to buy a wardrobe of shoes, but have specific needs in mind.”

Athletic shoes have recently been a top seller, said Kitchen. “We had many brands in the athleisure category, but now instead of buying a Dansko or Vionic [version], they’re buying Hoka and Brooks,” he said.

Like Kitchen, Don Miller, director of sales at Alan’s Shoes in Tucson, Ariz., said the high percentage of athletic and walking sales has helped spark business. “Those customers are coming for a need and typically replacing the same or a similar pair they bought previously. That’s helping to keep our sale conversion percentages at a higher rate than before.” According to Miller, the store’s sale transactions vs. non-sale have increased by as much as 15% each week since its reopening on May 8.

Shoppers stopping into Selby Shoes Etc. in South Portland, Maine, are also out on a mission. “People are tentative and don’t want to spend a lot of time in store,” said Ed Lechner, owner, also noting a focus on casual looks. “No one wants dress shoes since they’re not going anywhere. They’re buying athletic shoes and sandals they can walk and exercise in.”

At Boutique MMM in Franklin, Tenn., co-owner Mari Molnar credits the loyal support of its customers for risking a visit to the store. “We have a lot of local supporters who have a heart for small businesses,” she said. “Even though business is slow, our loyal clientele will get us through the hump. Even if they don’t need shoes, they’ll buy a pair on sale or at regular price to support us.”

Even during these uncertain times, there remains a few spontaneous buyers, according to Anna Mastroianni, owner of Sole Shoes in Westfield, N.J. “Going into a store is one of the only things they can do these days,” she noted, about the return of consumers to the town’s shopping area.  “We have a walkable downtown. They come to walk around and pop in.”

Still, majority of the customers stopping into the store are serious buyers, she said, particularly when it comes to kids’ shoes since children continue to outgrow their footwear. “We saw more kids business this week and I’m hoping it is a trend,” she said.

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