How Small Shoe Businesses Are Leaning Into Digital to Survive the Coronavirus Crisis

The impact of the coronavirus on retail is just beginning, with small businesses taking a big hit as their financial resources are stretched. From meeting payroll to paying rent, American businesses are grappling with significant challenges and some shoe stores fear they might be among the next wave of nonessential businesses forced to close their doors.

For those stores remaining open, economic uncertainty — and urging by state and local officials that residents practice social distancing —  is likely to curtail consumer spending. “The frenzy of what’s going on and constant changes in policies, will cause people to think about need versus want,” explained Farla Efros, president, HRC Retail Advisory. “Folks stuck at home and potentially not fully employed, will be hunkering down and preserving cash, purchasing food and basic necessities. So sadly, the smaller mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have the infrastructure to support ecommerce and are reliant on foot traffic are truly in trouble.”

The Heel Shoe Fitters in Green Bay, Wisc., does operate an online business, but due to a 50% percent dip in the store’s overall business since March 13, owner Troy Dempsey has been forced to adjust his strategy by eliminating shipping rates whereas previously they had been on orders of $100. “We’ve also directed customers to our Amazon page where we offer free shipping,” he said, despite the fact that the store has to pay Amazon 20% on each order placed.

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Unlike Dempsey, Lenny Comeras, owner of Easton Shoes in Columbus, Ohio, is currently holding on to the store’s online shipping policies of $10 for any pair purchased, despite a dip in traffic as customers cancel vacation plans and no longer need travel shoes. “It’s too early to do,” he said of adjusting online shipping charges. ”It’s an hour-to-hour thing.” However, Comeras is offering to ship shoes free of charge on a case-by-case basis to customers who had previously placed an order directly with the store but can’t come in during the coronavirus threat.

Store events, typically helpful for boosting traffic, are also being put on hold at Easton Shoes, said Comeras, with the store now postponing its April trunk shows as sales reps limit store visits.

Even larger retailers such as Shoe Sensation in Jefferson, Ind., which operates a 200-unit chain, is reevaluating its companion e-commerce business. “It’s predicated on [fulfillment] by your people,” CEO Dave Schoengart said of staff safety. “You defeat the purpose by now congregating a warehouse team and then what will happen to UPS and FedEx hubs. Are they going to be running full steam?”

Although Snyder’s Shoes in Ludington, Mich., doesn’t operate a web business, it’s counting on other services to entice shoppers. That includes fitting and delivering shoes to customers’ cars curbside. Although the services are long-standing, “We’re now telling customers about them on social media,” said manager Jamie Synder, adding the store’s also continuing its home delivery service within a 30-mile radius. “We’re trying to accommodate our customers the very best we can.”

The retailer is also making the most of social media by launching Facebook live shopping events. According to manager Jamie Snyder, these 15- to 20-minute events will include a running shoe or Birkenstock day, or general trend information. “Customers can then call in and order a pair of shoes,” she said.

As stores see a decline in traffic, staffing is the next area to be affected. “Everyone is talking about continuing to pay their employees,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of A Line Partners. “For some smaller businesses, it will depend on what their cash position is and what will happen to their leases [and whether] they get a break.”

Dempsey’s now meeting with employees to discuss alternative work schedules. “We’re talking about their needs and helping to settle their insecurities,” he said. Instead of being forced to cut staff hours by 30% across the board, Dempsey has found a middle ground after some associates have volunteered to take a month’s leave in order to spend time with a parent with health issues eliminating the need.

In the midst of the uncertainty, Patriot Bank President Richard A. Muskus Jr., suggests retailers look to their banks as their partners and advisers, and utilize them as a resources for direction. “Speak with your local bank about options if struggling or preparing for difficulty,” he said.

Despite the tenuous situation in the marketplace, some retailers remain optimistic. “People love shoes,” said Snyder. “They will come to [shop] because shoes make them happy. While there are people who aren’t going to spend because they’re afraid, [there will be those who] — since they’re not going on spring break — now have $3,000 to play with.”

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