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Supporting Independents: Why Hawley Lane’s Dave Levy Is Opening Another Store + Getting Aggressive on Marketing

In the wake of the pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, independent retailers are facing serious challenges. In a new series, FN will spotlight store owners who are taking smart steps to weather the storm. 

Dave Levy, co-owner of Hawley Lane Shoes doesn’t want the coronavirus to stand in the way of growing the business his family founded in 1975.

So, on April 7, he went ahead with the signing of a lease on a fifth store in Connecticut.

According to the retailer, he’s proposed a plan he believes will allow both his stores and landlord partners to stay afloat.

While the brick-and-mortar chain remains closed, bringing business to a standstill, Levy has suggested continuing to pay landlords’ common area charges in strip centers and applicable taxes for each location. When the chain reopens, he’s offered to pay landlords 50% of monthly rent charges over the following six months, then 75% for the next 12. There is a caveat: For the months the stores remain shuttered, Levy is asking rent forgiveness.

“I came up with this formula since the landlords have to pay their bills, and we [need] it to be digestible,” said Levy. “If a landlord has a mortgage, they can get it deferred for three months through [government subsidies].

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Levy is also getting aggressive when it comes to marketing, taking advantage of discounted advertising opportunities as other businesses pull back. He’s also creating a series of online educational programs for his 65 employees when they return to the job.

Although Levy expects it could take a year for business to resume fully after the store is up and running, he remains optimistic. “I think a lot of people will slowly get back,” he said, counting on a strong back-to-school season to help balance his books.

Here, Levy shares his negotiating strategies and plans for sharpening his team’s selling skills.

On government support:

Dave Levy: “I’ve been working closely with Jim Himes, Connecticut’s representative for the 4th Congressional District. His office has been incredible. One of his staffers even gave me her personal cell number to answer my questions about issues including those around the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Payment (PPP) loan.”   

On marketing:

DL:  “Since we currently advertise a lot on cable TV, we have a unique situation. We were able to step up our ad [campaign] because a lot of [businesses] are not advertising right now and even cancelling their contracts. So we’re running an additional 3,000 ads for the month of April, compared to the 2,500 we typically run in Connecticut. That includes ads on MSNBC, CNN, FOX, TNT and Connecticut news stations. We’re also posting the ads on website and social media platforms.”

On connecting with consumers:  “I was also able to create a TV ad remotely thanking consumers for supporting small businesses. We offered a gift card promotion, whereby customers can purchase a 20% off merchandise gift card on our website that can be used in store when we reopen. For example, a gift card worth $100 can be purchased for $80.

On vendor relationships:

DL: “We’ve put all [future] spring and summer orders on hold. Most vendors have been incredible. While none have offered discounts, many have proactively reached out and offered extended payment dates. [Likely], a lot of orders will be handled on a case-by-case basis. When we reopen, my play is to send vendors small checks every few weeks, whenever possible, as they also need cash flow. We’re all in this together.”

On supporting staff:

DL: ”We’re working with Bob Schwartz, a pedorthist [who deals in therapeutic shoes] and owner of comfort retailer Eneslow in New York, to create a live online pedorthic training program for our employees. In addition, he’s working on developing a business and selling series with John Lees, a motivational speaker and expert on retail-related subjects. These are slated to launch when my employees resume work, either from home or in store. They were furloughed on March 5, and I expect them to return to work the day payment from my Paycheck Protection Payment (PPP) loan, which has been approved, is deposited to my business bank account — at which time I will begin paying their full salaries for the eight weeks following [that]. [When we get the go-ahead], I plan to reopen at first with shortened hours, using the downtime to hold the online seminars in store with associates.”

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