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Amid the Toughest Year for Retail in Modern History, These Storeowners Found the Way Forward

Since the coronavirus hit the United States a year ago, small businessowners have borne the brunt of the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, from government-mandated shutdowns to seismic shifts in consumers shopping.

Many succumbed to the intense pressures early on: Yelp reported that over 100,000 small businesses closed during the six-month period between March 1 and August 31.

However, others navigated through the challenges, leaning on their communities and their teams to emerge stronger in 2021.

FN recently spoke with several independent footwear retailers about their unique difficulties and the tactics they implemented to stay afloat. Most agreed that measuring success during a pandemic is a relative matter. While almost all finished 2020 with revenue declines, the numbers don’t paint a full picture of the health of their businesses and future prospects.

Armed with new skills and sales streams — as well as battle-tested teams who have learned to innovate — these storeowners are heading into the spring season with optimism and renewed determination. Read on to learn their secrets.

Baehr Feet Shoe Boutique (South Carolina)

Since launching her Spartanburg, S.C.-based boutique in 2005, Duffy Baehr has used her passion for shoes to help women find the perfect pair of heels for that special occasion. But in 2020, her mission became about helping others in the community — and seeking support from fellow female entrepreneurs.

When COVID-19 health mandates forced Baehr to close her doors in March, the founder turned to online, increasing her SEO and Facebook ad budgets by 100%. As a result, dot-com revenue jumped 20% year-over-year. However, her digital message wasn’t transactional. “It would have been in poor taste to be pushing shoes for the sake of sales, when the world was scared and confused,” said Baehr. ” ‘We are in this together’ was our daily mantra.” Her team partnered with other local boutiques for cross-promotions on social media, and hosted giveaways to celebrate and reward essential workers.

Duffy Baehr Feet Shoe Boutique
Duffy Baehr, owner of Baehr Feet Shoe Boutique in Spartanburg, S.C.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Baehr Feet Shoe Boutique

But Baehr admitted that she faced deep uncertainty early in the pandemic and gained guidance and support from an unexpected source. “In February, I was accepted into Rebecca Minkoff’s Female Founder Collective, and I started getting all these emails from them,” she recalled. “So I jumped on every webinar I could just to see what everybody else is doing.”

Being based in South Carolina, where COVID restrictions have been less stringent, Baehr was able to reopen quickly and has seen younger customers return, especially local college students. But demand for dress shoes has plummeted. “I finished the year with sales down 32% from 2019,” said Baehr. However, she reduced inventory by 40% early last year, “so my cash flow remained strong.”

For the spring season, the retailer remains conservative in her buys. “I’m going to just chase some items, to make sure that I’m not overstocked, since we don’t know what these [coronavirus] variants are going to do,” she said. “I’m just trying to be smart about it.”

Chiappetta Shoes (Wisconsin)

Chiappetta Shoes, located on the banks of Lake Michigan, was able to bounce back after the spring lockdowns, posting record high numbers in June and July. “We had our best June because we were advertising a ton and a lot of people were coming up from Illinois,” said CEO Tony Chiappetta, who also hosted a hugely successful clearance sale in July, set up in tents outside.

Then came the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in August, and Chiappetta’s hometown of Kenosha, Wis., erupted in riots and protests. “It was probably four days of craziness,” the retailer recalled. “The entire city boarded up — every single business.” But more detrimental was the impact on tourism: “It took seven to 10 weeks for our non-local customers to start coming back.”

The company finished 2020 with gross sales down only 8.9%, boosted by a strong holiday season.

Chiappetta Shoes Tony Chiappetta
Tony Chiappetta, CEO of Chiappetta Shoes in Kenosha, Wis.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Chiappetta Shoes

Chiappetta said early declines were mitigated by an intense level of innovation. “We took the stance of doing everything we possibly could,” recalled the CEO. “We looked at what we could do nationally with our website and selling through Amazon, as well as locally.” Its local initiatives included shopping by appointment, cross-promotions with local boutiques and discounts and giveaways for nurses.

For 2021, Chiappetta told FN he’s exploring how to retain that same innovative spirit, without the unhealthy stress levels. “I ended up getting shingles in May, and I’m 99% sure it was because of the stress,” he said.

And foot health remains a key element for the store, which turns 100 this year. Its custom orthotics service has been a stable business, and Chiappetta has one employee due to receive his podiatric certification next month, with two more set to start training this year.

The Heel Shoe Fitters (Wisconsin)

Amid the health crisis of 2020, The Heel Shoe Fitters in Green Bay, Wis., embraced safety protocols to create a welcoming environment for customers ready to return to in-person shopping. “We didn’t go overboard, but we felt like that was important,” said owner Troy Dempsey, noting that all employees continue to wear masks and the store is visibly cleaned regularly.

Meanwhile, a floor coordinator carrying an iPad with the app Waitlist manages shopping appointments. “[The app] probably was the savior in us having a really good Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, by helping us manage the comfort level of our customer base,” Dempsey added.

The Heel Shoe Fitters
The Heel Shoe Fitters store in Green Bay, Wis.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Heel Shoe Fitters

The family footwear store has an extensive inventory — roughly 35,000 pairs are in stock — and was hit by a sharp drop-off in demand for dress and office footwear. And Dempsey said his team was challenged last year to compete when major chains — and even some vendors — discounted heavily. As a result, sales for 2020 were down by the single digits.

But the retailer said the business fared much better than he feared early in the pandemic. After upgrading the store’s website and doubling his marketing spend, Dempsey believes The Heel is now in a stronger position to evolve with the customer. And he is especially interested in targeting younger customers this year, through social media outreach and by offering must-have product from brands like Birkenstock and Chaco. “We think the younger customer is a little less concerned about COVID and wants to shop,” he said.

This year, The Heel also got a boost after it added clothing to its selection, including outerwear, apparel and accessories from The North Face, Kuhl and Smartwool. “Admittedly, that was already planned, but it was pretty fortunate because with customers going outside more, they really needed that jacket,” said Dempsey.

Beck’s Shoes (California)

While other retailers were downsizing during the height of the pandemic, cousins Adam Beck and Julia Beck-Gomez, the respective CEO and COO of Beck’s Shoes in Campbell, Calif., went into deal-making mode. By taking advantage of favorable financing, they acquired four independent retailers last year and grew their chain from 10 doors to 17 locations, in California, Nevada and Oregon. (The retailer also operates three shoe trucks and a website.)

Beck recalled that some of the deals had been in negotiations for years and had multiple bidders. “But I made it very clear that I wanted my family to carry on their legacy,” he said. “A lot of these independents, they put their blood, sweat and tears into the business for 50-plus years and now their kids didn’t want it or they didn’t have kids. They’d built something beautiful and had no one to give it to.”

Beck's Shoes
Inside a Beck’s Shoes store location.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Beck's Shoes

Beck’s finished 2020 down 32% in same-store revenue, but thanks to the acquisitions was up 6% including the new locations. And the owners have further aggressive growth planned as part of its “Denver West” expansion. “We’re looking at doing two acquisitions a year,” said Beck. “Our goal is to be at 40 stores in the next 10 years.”

The CEO noted that one of the store’s key strategies throughout the pandemic has been a focus on talent retention and recruitment. The retailer was able to avoid layoffs and furloughs, in part by implementing hybrid roles. “If I can’t afford to have a manager for five days in a store, I have them work as a manager for four days and then give them one day as a merchandizer,” said Beck, adding that the hybrid system provides payroll flexibility as well as opportunities for staff advancement.

And Beck’s Shoes continues to see opportunity in its industrial work business, which represents about 30% of sales. The retailer recently signed a $100,000 contract to service workers at the electric car maker Lucid Motors.

Wesley’s Shoe Corral (Illinois)

For Wesley Shoes, 2020 was supposed to be a year of celebration. The Chicago-based footwear store — the oldest African American-owned shoe store in the U.S. — was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and owner Bruce Wesley had a full schedule of events in the works: “Trunk shows, pamper parties, gifts, topped off with a Reunion Party inviting all of our employees who had ever worked for us since 1970. Of course, all of this was canceled due to COVID,” he said.

Instead, it was a time if immense challenge, as sales plummeted in the spring, then rebounded in June through October, followed by more softness in November and December. “Overall we were down 20.5% in 2020 from 2019,” said Wesley.

Wesley's Shoe Corral Bruce Wesley
Bruce Wesley, owner of Wesley’s Shoe Corral in Chicago.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Wesley's Shoe Corral

And beyond the business disappointments, Wesley and his family also faced personal tragedy, when son Langston died in April at the age of 31 while attending Stanford University.

The storeowner said he and his team navigated through the pandemic by focusing on what they do best. “Our business was established on the idea of service. Customers were very appreciative of that commitment,” said Wesley of his sit-and-fit shop. To stay in touch with clients, sales associates emailed customers weekly to update them on new products, and offered personalized services such as curbside pickup and private in-store appointments.

And the retailer carefully managed inventory, leaning into strong categories like walking shoes, slippers and masks, even breaking MAP policies to upsell red-hot items like Birkenstock. Wesley also launched a new running department anchored by best-sellers New Balance, Hoka One One and On. And when some products were hard to find, he orchestrated swaps with friends and fellow storeowners, such as Tony Chiappetta.

Wesley noted that 2021 has so far been another roller coaster ride for sales, but there is room for optimism, especially since he recently received his vaccine shots. “We are just happy to be back open with a safe environment.”

Snyder’s Shoes (Michigan)

In January 2020, Jill Snyder was already in a precarious situation, after buying out the partner in her family’s retail business. “Then COVID hit, and it was extremely scary,” said the owner of Snyder’s Shoes, which has two locations in Ludington and Manistee, Mich. “I was in a position where cash flow was going to be very important, and closing our doors felt awful.”

After being completely shut for five weeks, Snyder reached out to local officials and got approval to reopen, in part because the store supplies boots to essential workers such as sanitation staff and EMTs.

Snyder's Shoes
Storeowner Jill Snyder (at far right), with her team at Snyder’s Shoes.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Snyder's Shoes

Business did pick up in the warmer months, but Snyder noticed her customer base had changed. Some of her regulars in the 60+ age bracket didn’t return. But by contrast: “People were rerouting their vacations and coming to Northern Michigan. And then the other thing we saw was people buying up homes or cottages for a second home, then realizing ‘I can work from my cottage,'” she said.

Based on the strong traffic, Snyder felt confident enough to hold her annual summer clearance sale. She bought closeout stock early and sold it in a tent outside her store, as a way to bring in customers. “I took full advantage in every way, shape or form to increase our cash flow when we had the traffic,” she recalled. “We knew we needed to work it. So that’s what we did. It was an intense summer.”

At the end of 2020, sales were down just 2.5%, and Snyder said she learned a valuable lesson. “We had decreased inventory by about 20% and we were able to turn it and sell it quicker, make a better margin,” she said. “I’m realizing maybe I’ve been overstocked all these years.”

She also gained a greater appreciation for relationships with customers, staff and vendor partners. “We all came together and tried new things that have never been tried before,” said Snyder. “Being willing to take that risk is part of why we had our success.”

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