Enthusiasm and Hesitation — How Shoppers Are Returning to New York Shoes Stores During Phase 2

New Yorkers once again have the chance to do what they do best — shop. This week, New York City opened the doors to in-store retail as it moved into Phase Two of reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown.

For shoe stores, business was off to slow but steady start, with fashion retailers reporting nominal traffic, while athletic specialty retailers showed healthier signs of a comeback.

At high-end women’s boutique Thierry Rabotin, located on New York’s Upper East Side, manager Susan Giordano said traffic has been slow over the past few days since it’s still in the process of alerting its customers the store is officially open for business. In addition to sending out e-blasts, it is in the process of mailing postcards.

“In our area, a lot of locals have not come back to the city yet,” said Giordano, noting many area residents with second homes outside the city retreated there when the city shut down in March. “I think once people feel more comfortable and the media stops scaring the life out of them, they will [return],” she noted.

Due to the store’s limited square footage, Girodano said it’s taking customers by appointment only and allowing only three in the store at a given time.

Like Giordano, Shawn Noorani, owner of Shoegasm, said business was off to a slow start, noting people were stopping in to ask if the store was officially open for business. Sales, he said, were down 65% this week compared to last year.

“We’re in a heavily commercial area,” said Noorani, about his midtown location. “People have not come back to their offices yet.” According to Noorani, he doesn’t expect business to pick up much next week due to the 4th of July weekend when retail tends to slow down in the city. “It’s another hiccup,” he said.

Also depending on traffic from office workers is Florsheim, with a store on Madison Avenue. According to Kurt Easter, VP of Florsheim retail, the location, just around the corner from Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also relies on tourists to those landmarks.

Customers who stopped into the store over the past several days have been buying, he noted, adding business was brisker just last week for Father’s Day, even though shopping was just done curbside during Phase One of the retail reopening.

Traffic was stronger at Soula in Brooklyn, according to owner Rick Lee. “We had been open for the past two weeks during Phase One,” he said. “We now have quite a few of our regular customers coming back. A lot of them are an older demographic of their 40s to 50s and don’t like to shop online.”

However, Lee doesn’t expect business to pick up much momentum going forward since many of his neighborhood customers head out of the city for the summer months.

While fashion footwear may not have been top-of-mind for shoppers, consumers were coming back to athletic specialty stores such as Brooklyn Running Co, with two locations in the borough. According to Joe Tucker, a sales associate at its Williamsburg store, there has been a  steady stream of customers so far. While some were stopping in for shoes for walking, about 75% were serious runners and coming in for performance product.

“Everyone who works at the store is a runner and people are coming in with lots of questions,” he said. “These people had not bought shoes online since running shoes can be tricky due to sizing, so they are glad we are open.”

Consumers also gave athletic specialty retailer Extra Butter New York, located on the city’s Lower East Side, a strong reception. “Locals have been stopping by and are excited that we’re back,” said CEO Ankur Amin. “[But], people aren’t necessarily looking to shop or as excited about products as before the lockdown. There is more chatter and overall engagement in the shop.”

According to Amin, in-store business is about half of what is normal for this period. “There’s normally a line of five to 10 people outside during peak hours, but it’s been short at most other times,” he said. “We have a staffer asking people in line if they’re interested in something specific and want to pick up curbside.”

Looking ahead, Amin remains uncertain. “We’re not sure what to expect in the coming weeks,” he said. “A lot of New Yorkers tend to go away, but as nothing is normal in 2020, we will take things one week at a time.”

At fellow athletic specialty store retailer, Concepts, located in Lower Manhattan, owner Tarek Hassan said while the store has only been open three days, it’s seen a steady stream of shoppers. “Many of our regulars are pumped to be able to come back into the shop,” said Hassan. “Our employees have been eager to get back to work for some time now, so it’s been really encouraging to hear positive feedback and support on social and from the community. We’re feeling a lot of the love for shopping local. Every day we’re open, we’re gaining more consumer confidence in our in-store shopping approach and experience — the energy is coming back and we’re really hopeful.”

Although store capacity is reduced to only four customers at a time, Hassan said the adjustment has actually served to enhance the shopping experience. “It’s actually helped us provide a nice personal and curated shopping experience,” he noted. “We’ve had some lines and are prepared to handle them by following state social distancing guidelines.”

Hassan remains positive as the city continues to open up. “I think time will tell,” he noted. “We certainly don’t have a crystal ball. We’ve shortened our store hours slightly to ensure proper cleaning, and we’ll also use that time to assess how things are working and make the adjustments where we need to. It will continue to be paramount for us to lead with the consumer and our employees’ best interest in mind. We’ll address that on a rolling basis and evolve as needed.”

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