Suraj Kaufman has made charity a staple at Sneaker Room. And while the coronavirus crisis has impacted many aspects of business, the storeowner remains committed to his philanthropic mission.
The Jersey City, N.J., retailer is known for his Breast Cancer Awareness-themed collaborations with Nike — among other things — but as COVID-19 quickly consumed the U.S., Kaufman shifted Sneaker Room’s focus to support frontline workers.
At the end of March, the store revealed its “One Day at a Time” charitable T-shirts and hoodies, which Kaufman said raised roughly $6,000 after costs.
With the money, the retailer worked with nearby Heights Pharmacy to purchase personal protective equipment, including latex gloves, N95 masks and other essentials for the Jersey City Medical Center.
“Sneaker Room is a valued Nike partner, as they stand for something much bigger than just selling shoes,” said Kevin Dodson, Nike’s VP of basketball footwear. “Through their charitable efforts, they’ve positively impacted many lives in their community and inspired future generations to be catalysts for change.”
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When protests emerged nation- wide this spring over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black men and women, Sneaker Room again stepped up.
In a showing of support, the retailer shared a post on social media in June, stating “No Room for Racism,” and Kaufman — an Indian-American business owner who employs a staff consisting entirely of minorities — is actively looking for the right charity to get behind.
“People are hurting, and I’m usually good at helping a cause and raising money. But with this, how do we really make an impact? I don’t have that answer yet,” Kaufman said. “We’re trying to figure out the right campaign. We’re trying to figure out what’s going to help, what’s going to make a difference.”
Although its charitable efforts are still going strong, Sneaker Room — like all of retail — has struggled after closing its doors for months. Kaufman said 75% of his business was in-store before the pandemic, which he believes won’t happen again.
“Brick-and-mortar is important in the business that we do, but online is the future,” he said. “It’s scary to think about stores when we’re seeing multibillion-dollar companies that have been around forever — Neiman Marcus and these big chains — going bankrupt. So what we’re trying to do is build a better web presence and get the digital world right.”
He continued, “There’s nothing like brick-and-mortar. We have a social club feel where you come and look for a shoe, sit down on our couch and stay for an hour. But I don’t know if that will ever be the same. Consumers are saying, ‘I can get the product I want on the web. Why do I have to go to a store and take a risk?'”
Kaufman is confident there will be a permanent shift in the way people shop post COVID-19 and anticipates a 50-50 sales split between brick-and-mortar and e-commerce moving forward.
Though New Jersey retail was allowed to resume operations on June 26, Sneaker Room’s doors remain closed, and Kaufman said he likely won’t reopen until September. During this time, Sneaker Room will continue to sell strictly online.
“We’ve seen the stores open in New York, we’ve seen stores open in New Jersey, we’ve seen malls open. But what’s the point of opening up, bringing all your employees back, when there’s the chance for them to get sick, for customers to get sick?,” Kaufman said. “And then there might be new restrictions put on. Instead of reopening, [some] states are closing back down.”
Kaufman faces a difficult decision. After years of consistent high single-digit growth, he said Sneaker Room is down 35% for the year, and he was forced to lay off half of his staff. (Kaufman, however, did add that he hopes to bring his team back after doors reopen.)
Despite the moment’s bleak outlook, Kaufman and his team are mov- ing forward to keep Sneaker Room afloat and focused on what made it a destination — with philanthropy still at the forefront. The storeowner confirmed that a new charitable collaboration on a Nike Kyrie sneaker will arrive in October.
“Our partnership between Nike Basketball and Sneaker Room has become a favorite project for our team,” Dodson said. “Our teams work closely to craft a narrative that is personal to both Kyrie [Irving] and Sneaker Room, and that ultimately creates a meaningful and authentic story.”