In the wake of the pandemic and economic fallout, independent retailers are facing serious challenges. In a new series, FN will spotlight store owners who are taking smart steps to weather the storm.
When South Carolina lifted the ban on store closures on April 25, Tootsies Shoes, a children’s store with two locations in the state, wasn’t quite ready to move full speed ahead.
While owner Freddie Rodgers is going by the book when it comes to following local and state safety guidelines, she’s layered on some measures of her own.
To maintain limits of one customer per 200 square feet of selling space, Rodgers is limiting the number of shoppers by placing a sign-in sheet outside the door. While families wait their turn, the store has supplied chalk, crayons and books to help keep kids entertained. “They don’t mind since it’s been pretty [spring] weather here,” she said. For those who prefer more shopping privacy, Rodgers is also taking personal appointments.
Although Rodgers and her sales team will be wearing masks when serving customers, she will not request customers do the same. However, so far, she’s found most parents are being cautious and wearing masks upon entering the store.
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Since the store’s business is built around fitting customers, Rodgers is remaining flexible when it comes to social distancing. While she and her sales team will be servicing kids on the fitting stool, she’s found most parents prefer personally putting shoes on their children’s feet to avoid unnecessary interaction.
Since it can often take more than a single pair to find an ideal fit, Rodgers is faced with another challenge, handling footwear that’s been tried on but not purchased. However, she’s tackled the issue by keeping tried-on shoes in the stock room for a day before placing back on shelves.
Before the stores in Columbia and Greenville, S.C., reopened [Charlotte, N.C. location opening mid-May], Rodgers had put some creative selling tools in place in the interim, programs she plans to continue with. “We were hitting our [social media], letting customers know we offered shipping and curbside pick-ups,” she said. For even more personal service, sales associates offered to deliver orders to customers’ homes.
According to Rodgers she even found a way to do virtual fittings by having parents measure their children’s feet on a ruler. These measurements are then converted to actual sizes on a Brannock device.
The stores, which also keep detailed records of customers’ past purchases and sizing data, helps staff determine a child’s new sizing needs. “I could go back and see what they bought in the fall, what their foot measured, and figure out what size they might need in a certain shoe,” she explained.
Although customers have been given a green light to visit stores, Rodgers said business has been slow. “People are not shopping,” she said. With demand down, the stores are cutting down on their daily hours. “Either [people] don’t feel like they need anything or they are still cautious,” she said.
While Rodgers is altering her business to suit customers’ changing needs, she said not all vendors have been willing to work out deals with her. “A few have said I get an extra 30 days to pay,” she said. Rodgers has also become frustrated with brands now discounting spring product on their own websites, forcing her to follow suit. However, she noted, these companies are not passing along discounts to retailers on previously purchased goods. “We are sitting on stock and have not given us a discount,” she said.
Since many styles the store carries are core items from brands including Footmates and Salt Water sandals, Rodgers will be able to hold this merchandise until spring ‘21 for sale again. But, moving into fall, she has plans to cancel some orders. “I don’t mind saying don’t ship,” she said.
While two of her landlords, both family-owned businesses, are not willing to make any concessions when it comes to rent, a larger organization she rents from is willing to come up with an alternate payment plan.
When it comes to working with banks on stimulus programs, Rodgers has found the opposite to be true. “The smaller banks were fine,” she said, when it came to Personal Protective Program loans, while it took longer to secure the aid from Wells Fargo.
To help lure customers back into the stores, Rodgers is taking a personal approach. “We’re calling customers to say we missed you and are here for you.”