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This Billion-Dollar Retailer Sells 1 Million Pairs of Shoes a Week — Here’s How it Became Successful

Privately owned family footwear chain Shoe Show Inc., founded by husband and wife Carolyn and Robert Tucker, is marking its 60th anniversary this year with a growing fleet of more than 1,100 stores across 47 states and annual sales topping $1.2 billion.

While Shoe Show Inc.’s success is certainly impressive, daughter Lisa Tucker, who took over leadership of the Concord, N.C.-based retailer in 2018, said it all comes down to being good stewards of the company’s money. “You make sound financial decisions and don’t get yourself into trouble,” explained Tucker. “[Suppose] that something happens in the economy, whether it be a 9/11 or world events that affect people, so they stop spending and hold onto their money.”

Since the company, which operates under the Shoe Show and Shoe Dept. nameplates, has plenty of cash at hand and is debt free, it was able to swoop in when competitor Payless ShoeSource shuttered its doors, moving into 40 of the chain’s former locations over the past three months. “Payless sold a lot of shoes,” Tucker said about the future sales potential of these locations. “The people in those communities who went to those stores are now our customers.”

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While Shoe Show Inc. is seizing the opportunity to expand its footprint through the Payless closures, it remains judicious when it comes to store growth. ”We’re not relying on empty storefronts,” Tucker said. “We have stores from 3,000 to 30,000 square feet. It comes down to the opportunity and the need in an [area] and how the finance part works out. You run the numbers.”

Still, the family also understands that running the numbers doesn’t always guarantee success. For them, creating long-term relationships with customers through first-class service is the priority. “Our store managers are a key component,” Tucker explained. “They’re the ones who are interacting with customers and who will make them want to continue to buy from us. We have a lot of store employees who have been selling shoes for us for a long time.”

Robert and Carolyn Tucker
Shoe Show Inc. co-founders Robert and Carolyn Tucker.
CREDIT: Ben McKeown

Connecting with customers one-on-one is just part of a successful selling strategy, an approach that Shoe Show also applies to e-commerce. “Online is having the biggest growth opportunity because it’s not 60 years old like we are,” Tucker said, noting that the channel represents about 10% of overall business.

Although the company has moved into the digital age, Tucker said the retailer is by no means abandoning its physical storefronts. In fact, she noted, “Our brick-and-mortar is what drove [customers] to our website. Or they may never have been in one of our stores but love what they see [online] and say, ‘I’m going to visit the store.’”

Immediate gratification also continues to be a store driver. “Some customers just don’t want to wait,” explained Tucker. “I don’t care what Amazon Prime can do. You’re still going to have [customers] who want that touch-and-feel [experience]. They want to put the shoe on.”

The company’s vast network of stores also allows it to carry product that cuts across genders and ages, offering something for every family member. About 20% of the assortment is private label, rounded out with key athletic brands including Nike, Vans and New Balance, as well as casual and dress footwear from Clarks, Skechers and Crocs. All told, the company sells an average of 1 million pairs of shoes each week.

“We have demographics for each store, but we really operate each one as a mom-and-pop [format],” Tucker said. “We want to give that special touch to whatever is important in that area. It’s a lot of work, but it’s some of the secret sauce that makes us special. In a lot of towns, we’re it. We’re the department store, the Foot Locker. We’re everything for that area, so we need to cater to whatever the needs are.”

As it looks to the future, Shoe Show Inc. is also taking a moment to reflect on its journey to success. Like many family businesses, the company prefers to keep a low profile, and that has included media coverage. But Tucker said she wants to celebrate her parents’ legacy. “After 60 years, I want to honor them for what they’ve accomplished. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Here, Tucker, who has worked in a number of roles since joining the company in 1984 as sales associate while in college, talks about the pros and cons of store expansion, putting the customer first and treating employees like family.

What are the most important lessons you learned from your parents?

Lisa Tucker: “You can spend a lifetime building relationships, and one event can tear them down, so remember that in your decision-making. Don’t do anything that could stay with you for a lifetime. It was a lesson given to me as a teenager. On the business side, it’s remembering [that your] decisions will affect the 10,000 families working here, so make wise ones.”

As a woman executive, how important is it to encourage other female talent?

LT: “It wasn’t until recent events that it really hit my radar since it was a non-issue for my dad. There weren’t many women in the industry [early on]. However, his wife was [part] of the company. The word here is, ‘[Gender] doesn’t matter.’ However, it does help being a female executive. Women want to come here. They know there isn’t that glass ceiling. We will promote the most qualified candidate. But I think you get more female candidates with female leadership.”

The company launched decades before the technology revolution. How important is technology to business today?

LT: “It’s very important, but we’re not cutting-edge. We’re just not that company. But technology has certainly been a lifeline for the retail industry. It is giving us new innovations. Look at omnichannel. What would retail be without it? It’s no different from the way I look at the malls that happened in the 1980s. That was such a lifeline for retail to go from downtown, which closed at 6:00 p.m. All these evolutions keep retail happening.”

Retailers continue to shutter their doors. What drives Shoe Show Inc.’s staying power?

LT: “Other companies have to call meetings and say they need to tighten their belt and watch what they’re doing. We live that every day. We’re a very cost-conscious company. It goes back to making good decisions for our employees and their families. Don’t overspend. Don’t do things you can’t afford to do. Don’t be house poor, so that even if something catastrophic happens in your personal finances, [we’ll] be OK.”

Today’s consumers are savvy shoppers. What is their perception of self-service retail formats like yours?

LT: “With omnichannel retailing, there’s so much available at your fingertips — no matter what store it is, who has it, or what environment. Whether it’s self-service or full-service, consumers can get good brand names, whereas in the past they had to go to a full-service or department store if they wanted designer names. That’s not necessarily the case anymore.”

What is Shoe Show Inc.’s strategy for choosing store locations?

LT:“We go wherever there are customers. You need the major shopping areas from the customer traffic standpoint. Wherever the customers and traffic are, you want to pull from that environment, whether it’s a Walmart, Dillard’s, Belk or Macy’s.”

How do you distinguish your stores from other big-box retailers?

LT: “The shoes are in an open-sell environment with wider aisles, so it’s convenient for the customer. It’s [about] ease of shopping. In our bigger stores, we have a place where a gentleman can sit and watch TV. For the kids, we make sure we have plenty of room for the mom and child to shop easily. But we really want to make sure customer service is No. 1, so we’ll find you whatever you need, when you need it and how you need it.”

Who is your competition?

LT: “It’s everyone and everything because of availability now. You can buy online and pick up in store. You can use your phone to find out who has [an item]. It’s not that customers are going to buy it on the internet, but they use the internet to do their shopping. However, some customers still want to touch [the product]. They also want to have human interaction with [sales associates].”

How important is it to carry those must-have brands and items?

LT: “It’s our job to make sure we have that hot item. We’ll have the same Crocs [style] if it’s the popular item. And we’ll have the best value. We also make sure we have the size you need because if we don’t, it doesn’t matter if it’s the right product. We’re also good brand partners and [honor] MAP pricing. We want to team up with our [vendors] and be good stewards of their business [strategy]. We value those relationships.”

What do you look for in an employee?

LT:“They need to have a drive and passion for shoes, or a passion for whatever their expertise is, whether it’s social media, IT, real estate or logistics. We want them to have an enthusiasm and urgency to excel and be the best at whatever they contribute to the shoe business. Our store managers are a key component. They’re the ones who are interacting with customers and who will make them want to continue to buy from us.”

People are increasingly concerned about sustainability. How does that figure into your business model?

LT: “We’ve been [mindful] before it was popular. We reuse cardboard boxes in our distribution center that have been [sent back] from our stores. We have our own female-run trucking company, Bright Trucking, [on-site] with more than 100 trucks. The oil from the trucks is put through a clean-burn system, which is how we heat our facility. We also do all the engine work on our trucks here.”

Moving into a new decade, what’s next on your agenda?

LT: “We have a lot of initiatives, but they’re going to follow what the customer expects and needs. With technology changing things so quickly, you have to be nimble enough to react. It’s no different from what we have gone through the past 60 years. We started out downtown, closed on Sunday and a half-day on Tuesday. What if we said, ‘No, we don’t care that malls are now the latest and greatest thing in retail, we’re going to stay downtown.’ Then all of sudden, it’s omnichannel. What if I sat back and said, ‘The internet is only going to stay around for 20 years, so I’m going to wait for it to fail and do the next big thing.’ No. You have to service your customers’ needs, whatever they are. Product, size, all the shopping environments, whether it’s at home on the couch, in a power center, mall, freestanding building, whatever. It is for those customers’ needs in that area.”

(Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 17 print issue of FN, which observed the 60th anniversary of Shoe Show Inc.)

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