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Shoe Station’s Brent Barkin Sees New Opportunity in Product, Real Estate

In a new series, top leaders from across the footwear industry discuss the deep impact of the coronavirus and the challenging road ahead.

Brent Barkin, president and CEO of Shoe Station Inc., a 21-unit chain with stores in five southern states, is looking at a post-coronavirus retail world with optimism.

The executive is on the hunt for business opportunities in real estate, ecommerce and staffing, as business begins to rebound.

“You duck your head in the sand and get too restrictive, don’t look at [new ideas] and you’re going to miss a lot of things. Let’s say you have a store on a side of town that’s not performing. Well, now there’s now going to be a lot of empty retail [in other areas],” Barkin said.

New business practices instituted during the closures — such as ordering goods by phone or online and then picking them up curbside — also have potential. “From a short-term standpoint, it helped justify having employees in our stores,” said Barkin, noting only 20 employees out of 500 were furloughed, with salaries paid with help from a Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] loan.

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While individual stores might have generated only a few hundred dollars a day via curbside pickup, it’s a tactic Barkin plans to move forward with. “It added an option we never would have considered,” he explained, noting that at this rate, curbside sales could hit $1 million annually — and even escalate.

Although consumers increasingly turned online during the store’s closures, Barkin does not envision a major uptick going forward in the chain’s ecommerce business, typically accounting for 10% to 20% of sales. “For a long time, more and more people were shopping online, but for footwear, people still want to go in and try [shoes] on.” In fact, if some retailers do not make it out of the crisis, he noted, those remaining brick-and-mortar stores could see more foot traffic.

To alert customers that Shoe Station’s doors are once again open, the chain, with locations in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, reached out via emails, text messages and app notifications. To lure them, the chain offered its traditional spring deals, in addition to more aggressive promotions typical of Black Friday.

“People are buying much less for fashion and more for function,” said Barkin, about sales over the past several months. On the women’s side, there’s been an uptick in athletic product and beach sandals. “They’re not buying sandals they would wear to church or wedges they’d wear to the office,” he said.

To date, the chain has received about half to 60% of its spring orders. “We [cancelled] quite a while ago,” said Barkin. “We started recognizing the problem with sandals in early April when we do so much business around Easter, and then Mother’s Day. We lost two months out of a [typical] five-month [period].”

In the past few weeks, strong sales of casual sandals have been surprising — and the retailer has re-instituted previously cancelled orders.

Looking ahead to back-to-school in August, Barkin said foresees kids’ shoes  proving to a bright spot since children routinely outgrow shoes. “I don’t think our kids’ business will be better than last year, but it will be a lot less bad than I planned on,” he said, noting that he expects low double-digit declines. “I thought we would be off 25% to 30%, but maybe we will be off less. It also depends on whether our competitors close. I don’t know if everyone is going to reopen.”

Across the board, said Barkin, there are solid lessons to be learned as a result of the business blip. “We have to buy leaner,” he said, adding there are opportunities product-wise since many vendors are sitting on spring goods. “Even if vendors don’t fail, they are going to look to clean out their merchandise.”

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