Supporting Independents: How This 99-Year-Old Wisconsin Shoe Store Is Keeping Business Going During the Coronavirus

Family-owned Chiappetta Shoes in Kenosha, Wisc., is celebrating its 99th anniversary this year — and CEO Tony Chiappetta is looking ahead to 100 despite the disruption in business due to the coronavirus crisis.

While most shoe stores have been mandated to close their brick-and-mortar operations, the fashion-comfort retailer is considered an essential business due to its pedorthic services and sale of performance work boots. However, the store, which generates annual revenue of $2.5 million, still shut its doors last week.

Instead, it has opted to focus on its e-commerce operations and also is offering limited custom orthotics services in store. Customers can drop off their plaster foot molds for new ones to be made.

The store has also been filling phone orders: Both orthotics and shoes are safely delivered curbside, said Chiappetta.

While the single store typically operates with a staff of 15, both full and part-timers, Chiappetta said he’s now working with a skeleton crew of five. The remainder of employees are furloughed, with an expected return date of May 1. His in-house cobbler is busy making custom orthotics, while his inventory manager is focusing on internet order fulfillment.

Chiappetta has been creative when it comes to his employees’ downtime. “I have four of my full-time people doing pedorthic online classes,” sad Chiappetta, expecting to later increase his staff of pedorthists. “We are using this time as best as possible,” he said.

Here, the retailer talks about navigating through the crisis by rethinking advertising initiatives and reaching out to local government leaders for support.

On marketing:

“We shut all our advertising [programs] on March 19, including Google ads, and [are likely] to restart on April 5 or 6.  On March 28, I sent out an email and social media post to the [customers]. We’ve made custom orthotics for the past 18 months. We let them know we’re [offering] half-off any new set of orthotics. We’ve had 110 orders since last Friday, and I’m expecting another 200 people between this week and next.”

On e-commerce:

“We’re thinking about ways to maintain some kind of revenue. We have an Amazon [platform] and our own e-commerce site, both shipping out of our store. About 20% of our business is from e-commerce, and this [segment] is now down about 60%.  Normally, on orders more than $150, there’s free shipping. But everything is now free shipping.”

 On tapping government options:

“The new loan [bill] just passed last Friday has been a relatively messy [procedure]. The approved banks don’t have the actual guidelines yet as to how to distribute the loans. We’re also going to do the Payroll Protection Program and probably Small Business Administration Disaster loan.  Yesterday, we also had a couple of credit card offers from American Express and companies we currently work with offering us good rates for working capital.”

 On vendor relationships:

“Most companies have reached out to us saying they would do [extended] dating, offering an extra 60 days on average. No company has really pushed for payment earlier.”

 On looking ahead:

“What’s helped me most over the last two-and-a-half weeks is talking to my business associates — my banker, attorney — to help me with guidelines and information to work with. I would tell retailers to make sure they contact their local politicians, regardless of their [respective] parties. They need to know what we’re going through to better understand our financial constraints. We’re not going to get any help if they don’t know about it. The more contact with politicians the better.”

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