No two sneaker stores are the same, and that can also be said about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted them across the United States.
Aside from the obvious increase in digital sales, boutiques have had to adjust to the disruption COVID-19 has caused and the restrictions imposed on businesses in different ways. While the pandemic has led some states to impose curfews and other limitations, other local governments have been far more relaxed.
Below, the owners of three leading boutiques — Ankur Amin of TGS (the parent company of banners including New York’s Extra Butter), Suraj Kaufman of New Jersey-based Sneaker Room and Derek Curry of Sneaker Politics (with doors throughout Louisiana and Texas) — share their experiences of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now that eight months have passed since COVID-19 hit stateside, what has been the biggest impact on your business?
Ankur Amin: “The shrink of foot volume by almost 60% is the biggest impact. The amount of people visiting the store has dwindled to about 40% of the normal pace. Thankfully, the people who are coming are purchasing, are interacting, there’s a little higher level of interaction for the visitors that are there. Another thing is sales associates and the travel issues that COVID causes for people. People don’t take trains so we’ve been providing car service to some people here and there and doing what we can to get people to feel more comfortable, so that’s another concern. The positive is that we were able to focus on digital and we’ve made some good headway, some progress in our digital business.”
Derek Curry: “We’re known for doing events and community related things, and we had to cut that out, so connecting with our customers is harder than it was. We have a strong digital presence, but it’s still not like what we’re known for or the vibe we like to give off.”
Suraj Kaufman: “The store staying closed — we haven’t opened. We didn’t see a purpose because of all the restrictions in terms of masks, in terms of PPE, in terms of sanitizing, in terms of six feet apart. And I never found the solution to people trying stuff on and what do you do after someone tries it on? If you can’t be within six feet of somebody, how can I give somebody a shoe that someone tries on right before them? I’ve been stuck on that one. And I looked at personal issues with health, even with my staff, and I just didn’t feel that there was a reason to open. And I called it, I said that we were going to get shut down again, I saw it coming, so why open up just for a partial opening? My honest goal is I’m going to open at the top of the new year, that that’s my goal, but I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”
How, if at all, are you planning for the potential restrictions that may be imposed with COVID-19 cases rising and things tightening up around the country?
AA: “There’s not a whole lot to plan for us. Whatever the state allows us to do or recommends is what we’re going to do. Our priority is our associates’ health, our customers’ health, and that supersedes any of the other decisions. It’s more of a react thing.”
DC: “Texas is wide open, it’s like nothing ever happened, so in the minds of locals in Texas everything is fine. When I pitch ideas to bigger brands they’re like, ‘No way you could do that, this is still a huge deal, this is still going on.’ Which I agree, too, but my store managers are the ones that are like, ‘Come on, we’re missing opportunities.’ I just I can’t stamp it or give it the go ahead right now. And Louisiana goes back and forth. New Orleans got hit so early during Mardi Gras, they were one of the first hot spots, so after that the mayor pretty much locked it down quick. Baton Rouge and Lafayette are a little more open, but there are still restrictions compared to Texas.”
“It’s hard to predict because week to week has changes. Some weeks people are on guard and won’t come out of the house but then people get over it and show up. We are seeing a lot more online orders from locals, tons of online orders coming from Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and cities we have stores in because it takes a day to get to them, so they shop in that way. But we still get a lot of walk-ins as well. Tourists are still coming to New Orleans, which is crazy because half of it is closed and they’re still coming. It’s so hard to judge because when it first happened, I was scared that our business was going to take a huge hit, I was preparing for the worst. I give all my guys raises at that time but I didn’t give the raises, I held on to him, but our business soared online and when the stores opened back up people showed up in droves. It’s the craziest thing ever. Everything I tried to predict, I’ve been wrong.”
SK: “We’re still running the business from inside with a two to three person staff, just shipping out FedEx and UPS, so we’ll be able to still do online orders and shipping with two people in the warehouse socially distanced. We’ve done this for the last eight months, we’ve been doing all of our releases with raffles and stuff online. I’m a brick-and-mortar store, I’m paying rent at my brick-and-mortar store, but I’m not willing to put people’s lives in jeopardy.”
In the last eight months, what have you had to do to ensure business stayed afloat?
AA: “I have to thank our vendor partners quite a lot for helping us out through this rough time. Our best vendors — we have relationships with so many so I don’t want to use any names here — but they really came through with deliveries on time. Businesses like ours and relationships like ours felt like they were prioritized and they really came through with product. And we helped ourselves quite a lot, we put our game plan together and our team really executed in a very high level on our digital platforms. Digital carried our year.”
DC: “Nothing, really. We’ve been super busy. That first month we took a hit when we closed down everything and people were a little nervous, maybe 30 or 40 days it was kind of worrisome. But then online shopping just started flying, then the stores opened back up and people started showing up like nothing was wrong. And the government money and things like that, $1,200 to these young kids is like they’re rich, they don’t think about saving for tomorrow, they got they got the money and blew it — which I don’t know how to feel about that. I was happy because our business is doing well but then I was scared for the country. It was like a gift and a curse.”
SK: “Pay my bills to the companies that sell us product to make sure that product is still flowing into the store. We’re doing online sales, we’re using Instagram as a tool like no other in terms of promoting videos, promoting ad campaigns, contests on Instagram. The consumers are still there [on their phones], the consumers are actually more than ever attached to their phone because that’s their way of knowing what’s going on. If you can find a way to get your consumers engaged with you, you’re good to go.”
What permanent changes, if any, occurred as a result of COVID-19?
AA: “I wouldn’t say there were a lot of changes that we made permanent. I think we’ve had some reactionary changes, but our model is still very close to the model that we had prior to this, which was escalate digital and brick-and-mortar businesses to deliver a brand experience and in an elevated and detailed way. Our focus was shifting toward digital, it was maybe a three year plan, and then we had to escalate it to a one year, like let’s go now kind of thing. We made some moves digitally and developed the app a little faster than we needed to, worked on improvements to our website, our marketing for the website, our backend logistics. Things we could control, our team came together and we worked on them.”
DC: “We’re doing the masks, 6-feet [social distancing], limiting people in the store — all the normal things — but I’m hoping all that goes away once all of this ends and I’m hoping we can get back to our events. Our online presence was already pretty big, we had a good online business before this, so we were kind of ahead of the curve on that — thank God. That really helped. But I love a connection with the people — in person, live events, things like that, and I would do anything to get back to that. It’s tough to connect with kids online but we are working on different things like a video series and we’re going to start doing Instagram Lives and social media lives where we do question and answers, so we are thinking ahead just in case this does last another year. We used to do Shakeback Sundays on the first Sunday of every month, that was a huge event in all our stores. It got so big, we had to start limiting the amount of people that could come. We’d ask for donations and give everything to charity, and the first 200 to 400 people that would do it would get a ticket to show up to the event. It would sell out every Sunday. We would raffle off all the shoes that came out that month and people could be there in person and play games to try to win stuff. We’re trying to work on a digital version of that.”
SK: “I don’t know. That I couldn’t tell you because I don’t think there are any permanent changes yet. We will reopen, we will get back to being brick-and-mortar, we’ll still be doing online which we were doing before and it’s picked up a tremendous amount. But I don’t think we have any permanent changes yet because we don’t know what the future looks like. I’ll give you one permanent change. We will have sanitizing stations in the store that we never had before, regardless of there being a pandemic or not, because there’s nothing wrong with being clean and keeping people clean.”
How would you assess the state of your business today?
AA: “Healthy. We’ve made a lot of investments in our business over the last 12 months, we’ve completely overhauled our back-end logistics, all our systems are new and we’ve invested a lot into the brick and mortar retail store — but a lot of those decisions were made pre COVID. We just followed through, we didn’t we didn’t cut back on anything. We’re healthy as a business, we’re in a good place, but we’re a little exposed in terms of the commitments that we’ve made for our business. But we’ve always had these cycles of heavy investment and then that pays off over a short period of time.”
DC: “Our business is good, we’re doing really well, my guys have come up with great ideas to keep everything going. Customers are still shopping, we didn’t see any slowdown. Just a little worrisome because now they’re talking about restrictions again, they’re talking about 30-day lockdown, things like that. So I’m just cautious, but financially, everything has been fine, which is a curveball through all this, it’s exactly what you think it wouldn’t be.”
SK: “We’re doing OK. We’re not hitting the numbers we did last year, but we’re not going out of business. We’re managing, we’re handling it and we definitely look like we’re going to overcome it. We are going to beat this, we are going to get through this and we’ll be better than ever.”