The year was 1959. Mattel introduced Barbie, Alaska and Hawaii became U.S. states, and “Bonanza” premiered on NBC as the first weekly television series broadcast completely in color. Meanwhile, Dotti Kemp was realizing her dream in Boca Raton, FL, as she opened a shoe boutique decked out to the nines. Her idea was that the store wouldn’t be merely a store but rather a “salon”—an elegant yet comfortable place where women (referred to as “guests”) could come to shop and be surrounded by beautiful things. The entrepreneur envisioned Kemp’s Shoe Salon & Boutique as being similar in aesthetic to the shops on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, a street that has been known for high-quality merchandise since the 1920s. However, Kemp was adamant that the store didn’t feel stiff. “She wanted the atmosphere to be as comfortable as coming into your home,” explains Dotti’s granddaughter Meg Offutt, who is now co-owner and president of the company.
While Dotti has passed, her dream still remains. Her family has continued to pursue her original intents, and customers remain loyal. Kemp’s daughters, Ann Shambora and Martha Eckhart, originally took over for their mom; now, Shambora’s daughters—including Offutt, Diane Jarrell and Denise Metz as well as their sister-in-law, Diana Shambora—have inherited the store. Offutt, who has been with Kemp’s for 36 years, remembers visiting the boutique as a child. Growing up as army brats and living everywhere from Germany to Georgia, she and her siblings would visit Florida in the summertime and were often put to work in the store. “After working here in high school, I knew this was all I ever wanted to do,” Offutt recalls, noting that some of Dotti’s great-grandchildren have contributed through Web design, advertising and modeling, making it a fourth-generation business.
Kemp’s has since expanded and moved out of its original Boca Raton location into two separate 3,000-square-foot storefronts: one in Vero Beach, FL, and another in Stuart, FL, located to the north. The Vero Beach store, which is celebrating 36 years, is located on a downtown shopping street, close to other shops, hotels and restaurants, while the Stuart shop, which has been open since ’92, lies in a shopping plaza. Both boutiques have a similar aesthetic: Mirrors and glass windows open up the space; white furniture, wrought iron and chandeliers add sophistication; and plants and carpeting provide a feeling of being at home. In addition, the company also runs a 2,000-square-foot outlet inland from its Vero Beach store called Kemp’s Too.
Offutt notes it’s hard to pinpoint the average age of a Kemp’s shopper—she says the selection appeals to teenagers up to great-grandmothers. It’s not hard to see why, especially when looking at the store’s price range and category and brand mix. Footwear—spanning resort casual wear to comfort styles to sophisticated evening wear—costs anywhere from $49 to $400; lines include Me Too, Steve Madden, Cole Haan, Donald Pliner, Daniblack, Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Arche, Mephisto, Vaneli, Claudia Ciuti, Stuart Weitzman and more. Offutt, who also serves as the main footwear buyer, believes that buying what her shoppers demand—not necessarily what she herself likes—is key. “I’m not looking out of my own eyes but out of my customers’,” she says about her market-shopping philosophy. When taking a chance on a riskier design, Offutt jokes that she’ll order it in her own size to hedge her bet.
In general, Offutt says Kemp’s customer is reading fashion magazines but the stores aren’t located in a “fashion area;” instead, the boutique caters to a relatively conservative crowd. “People come to us expecting quality,” Offutt says. However, she adds that comfort and versatility are becoming increasingly important. Perhaps the blend of all three is what makes Paul Mayer Attitudes’ quilted ballet flat with a patent leather cap toe one of the store’s top-selling styles. “It’s comfortable and it doesn’t look like a tennis shoe,” she explains. “You can wear it with a skirt or shorts.” Kemp’s offers the style in 25 colors. While that style has done well in recent years, Offutt cites Jack Rogers as a longtime bestselling brand. When Dotti Kemp first opened her store, she worked closely with the brand and eventually created some of her own designs exclusive to Kemp’s. One style in particular—the Dotti sandal—is still sold today. (The shoe even has a special history: It is now part of the shoe collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)
Because of its range of products, Kemp’s has discovered that merchandising by color rather than brand is the way to go. For example, if purple is the hot color of the season, Jarrell, who handles the displays, will group shoes of that hue together, then add non-footwear items in the same color family for visual interest. “One of the original reasons we started displaying by color was because people would bring their clothes in and say, ‘I need shoes to go with this dress,’” Offutt says, noting it makes it easier for them to match up their outfits. “If someone asks for Stuart Weitzman, we’d have to take her from table to table,” she says. In addition, handbags and coordinating accessories such as shoe ornaments, jewelry, belts, hats and sunglasses are in the same section. Apparel—which Offutt says is bought to match the shoes, instead of vice-versa—also makes up a small portion of the business.
Kemp’s is located in a resort area, so many of the clients are snowbirds who only live in the region for part of the year. (Offutt declares February through April as the store’s top-grossing months.) Tourists also make up a significant chunk of the customer base. Recently, two high-end hotels, including one with singer Gloria Estefan’s name attached, opened near the boutiques, and Offutt says they’ve helped bring in new clientele. There are also a number of permanent residents who are loyal, year-round customers, and Offutt finds these women often spend the most since they’re looking for items for every part of their wardrobe. “She’ll buy Mephisto walking shoes and her Stuart Weitzman evening shoes and Cole Haan rubber flip-flops for the beach,” she reports.
One of the main reasons the owners decided to launch a website was due to their store’s fluctuating crowd. They felt an e-commerce option would allow seasonal residents (and tourists who discovered Kemp’s while vacationing) to buy from the store year-round. Kempsshoesalon.com debuted about three years ago, and Offutt says while managing it continues to be a learning process, she’s happy with the results thus far and foresees expanding that side of the business. “We never planned to try to compete with the biggies like Zappos, Amazon and Shopbop,” Offutt adds. “However, we have had great unplanned success with people from all over finding our online store.”
Besides the website, Offutt says that running promotions during slow months is a way to attract extra traffic. The boutiques host annual “parties” (the owners avoid the word “sale”)—the only time of year when merchandise is discounted besides in the outlet. Part of that tradition is a birthday celebration for the Vero Beach store the Saturday before Thanksgiving, where customers pre-shop for items and are handed a sealed envelope with a certain percentage off when they walk in the door. A similar event is held during Eastertime at the Stuart boutique, but instead of a mystery envelope, customers peek inside a plastic egg for their prize.
While Kemp’s owners don’t believe in constant sales, they do have something for the customer who is always on the lookout for a bargain: Kemp’s Too. The idea was born in Dotti’s Boca Raton store, when she decided to use an extra room to house discounted shoes. Every afternoon, an employee would open the room for a few hours and let customers shop. The idea was brought to the Vero Beach store and became such a hit that it turned into an overcrowded mess, so the staff eventually decided that opening a separate outlet location was the best option. Kemp’s Too merchandise comprises old stock as well as product purchased specifically for that store.
Offutt says Kemp’s is faring well despite the doom and gloom surrounding retail—especially in Florida, which has been especially hard-hit with foreclosures. In terms of buying strategy, Offutt has been on the search for the same quality footwear that her customers demand but at more affordable price points. However, she and her family don’t plan to stray from their grandmother’s original motto—“Kemp’s is not just a shoe salon… It’s a way of life”—but instead hope to build upon it. “We don’t have a crystal ball to the future,” Offutt concludes. “We can only say that we will still be around and adapting to political issues and what customers are looking for in 2015.” —Melissa Knific