Here’s the story of how Dee Reid left a successful pharmaceutical sales career to jump head
first into shoe retailing with the opening of Heels & Hobos in Corning, NY, and—a little over a
year later—couldn’t be any happier with her life-altering decision.
By Tara Anne Dalbow
Dee Reid spent eight years in the pharmaceutical business before her “windshield time” led her to believe that she sought a different destination than that of a lifetime in pharmaceutical sales. Having survived the many waves of layoffs prompted by the economic crash in 2008, she watched as her team dwindled down to one: Reid was the last (wo)man standing. It was during that stressful time on long solo drives to industry conferences that she began reassessing what she wanted to be when she grew up. Every time, when Reid answered herself honestly, she arrived at the desire of working with shoes in some capacity. A self-proclaimed footwear fanatic, her passion for shoes happened to align perfectly with Corning, NY, her upstate hometown and its desperate need for a fashionable shoe store. Tired of having to drive for hours to shop for her own needs and wants, Reid’s desire to open a shoe boutique was met with equal fanfare from family, friends and strangers alike. “A niche needed to be filled,” she says.
It was the fall of 2012 and Reid set about turning her dream into a reality. Armed with a solid business and sales background, Reid was also smart enough to solicit expert help. She sought someone who could give detailed advice on how to launch a shoe store. Reid reached out to Elizabeth Rounds, owner of Elizabeth’s Shoes in Binghamton, NY, an hour’s drive from Corning, in search of guidance. The pair hit it off and a mentoring relationship quickly developed. “She showed me the ins and outs of opening a business,” says Reid. “She was an integral force in my success, especially when it came to weeding through shoe company after shoe company.” Rounds, who has been in the business for more than 28 years, introduced Reid to vendors as well as taught her the industry lingo. She also helped write the Heels & Hobos business plan. “She made sure that I was going into it with my eyes open,” Reid notes.
Heels & Hobos, a name that came to Reid during one of her long drives, opened its doors on Corning’s Market Street in March of 2013—three months after the bank approved her business loan the week before the holidays. A “gift” as Reid now calls it. Market Street, what Reid describes as the perfect location, features an array of independent retail shops that work together to put their best foot forward, including a visual merchandise team to help set up display widows. “I received so much support from the (association) alone,” she says.
It’s one thing to dream about opening your own shoe store. It’s another thing to spend months planning for it and trying to prepare for all possible scenarios to ensure success. But the day the doors actually open for business is when the real learning takes place. That was surely the case for Reid. “You think you know everything when you open the doors that first day, but you don’t,” she confirms.
Reid says that retail is nothing if not a daily challenge. It forces her to think on her feet and adapt quick, or face the consequences. “It’s all the uncontrollable factors,” says Reid of the adversity she faced during her first year in business, citing the long, cold winter and the shaky economy as major obstacles. For example, what began as an exclusively shoe and handbag store quickly expanded into a one-stop shop offering a variety of women’s accessory needs. “We evolved to provide other items that would keep people coming in the door,” she says. Heels & Hobos now features a full selection of jewelry, hosiery and socks. Specifically, the long winter followed by a short summer forced Reid to give customers who weren’t looking to buy a new pair of sandals just yet a reason to shop. “Especially with the absence of a breakout trend that women felt the need to run out and buy,” she adds.
Reid lists buying and trend predictions as the most challenging facets of her new career. “It’s all about figuring out what the next big thing is, and moving within that trend,” she says. “Shoes are like clothes in that classic fashions will always be in style, but you have to make sure you have enough new items that get women excited about buying a new pair of shoes.” Reid says she caters to her customers by adapting and adjusting trends to fit their tastes. Take the sensible comfort sandal trend (think Birkenstock) that has been sweeping the nation of late: Though her customer is interested in enjoying the benefits of a comfortable footbed sandal, she knows they aren’t going to go for the full-on crunchy granola look. Reid’s solution: A Donald Pliner sandal, reminiscent of a Birkenstock, but with a crystal-embellished upper that makes the shoe more fashion forward. “I have to be very careful,” says Reid when deciding how she’s going to toe the line between on-trend and what works for her customer. “Especially in this day and age, when you can wear whatever you want and still look fashionable, buying decisions are difficult.”
Reid knows her clients to the letter. She’s done her homework and it doesn’t hurt that she is her own customer, too. “I am always looking for a shoe I would wear myself,” she says. Along those lines, when buying for a season Reid keeps every aspect of her customer in mind, from their professions to the surfaces they walk most on. “I love to be in a sexy pair of shoes, but women have to work,” she explains. “I cater to professional women, and that means nurses and teachers who are on their feet all day.” As such Reid keeps the selection of heel heights under four inches and makes sure that each shoe is walkable on the cobble stone sidewalks surrounding her store. You won’t see her customers sporting “Jesus-style” sandals, but you won’t see them in towering stilettoes either. “A shoe has to add up in equal quantities of comfort, fashion and price,” she says, adding, “If a shoe costs $200 and it looks good and feels good, my customer won’t blink an eye.”
Heels & Hobos’ selection is best described as fashionable comfort, a halfway point between high-fashion and high-comfort. Styles run the gamut from professional to cool casual. Reid also includes a few laidback options. Currently, the store carries 10 brands, including Sofft, Eric Michael, Nina Shoes, Chooka and her best seller, Donald Pliner. A majority of the selection is made up of brands most consumers are familiar with, but if the right, possibly more obscure, brand comes along with something special, Reid will take the risk and introduce her customers to something new. She even goes so far as to solicit customer requests on her website for brands they would like added to the mix. For this fall, Reid is bringing in a selection of shooties, ankle boots, riding boots, wedges and heeled Mary Janes.
At Your Service
Beyond the carefully curated selection and the rich interior design that has shoes and handbags displayed in white shadowbox cases amid a décor of crystal chandeliers, plush benches and large hanging mirrors, Reid credits a great deal of her initial success to topnotch customer service. She says it’s been the differentiator. “We offer personalized, one-on-one service,” Reid notes. “We really get to know our customers.” Heels & Hobos utilizes a POS capture system that stores shopper’s details: Everything from shoe size to heel height and color preferences are saved to ensure a more seamless and specialized experience during future visits. “We want the customer to have the best possible experience every time they enter the store, and for us that means going above and beyond to make sure their needs are met,” she adds.
Putting the customers’ needs first means nothing is off the table. From opening the store early to accommodate a client’s travel plans to offering a loyalty card that allows for future discounts, Heels & Hobos is at its shoppers’ service. “We really develop our client relationships,” says Reid. “In many cases they become friendships.” That hospitality has translated into a strong client base that not only comes in to shop, but also just to say hello. Heels & Hobos also offers customers a chance to schedule an after hours shoe party for their friends that includes drinks and finger foods.
Reid’s commitment to exceptional customer service extends beyond the sales floor. Having fostered close relations with her vendors, she is able to get an out of stock size or style for a customer in as soon as a day in some instances. This is crucial in an age when anyone can order a shoe off the Internet and opt for free overnight shipping. “When I can find a specific style for my customer where they can walk out the door with it that day or tomorrow means I’m doing my job,” Reid notes, adding that servicing her customers is the favorite part of her job. “When they leave happy, I am happy,” she says.
To achieve that goal, Reid spends a majority of her time in the store. “It’s a 24-7 job,” she notes. Whether she’s sweeping the floor or counting inventory by hand, there is always something to be done. But on the rare occasion that she isn’t there a highly capable staff fills the void. “It takes a village to run a business,” she offers. “Open communication gives me the opportunity to grow.”
So Far, So Good
This past March Heels & Hobos celebrated a successful first year with a visit from New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand. Sales this summer are up 30 percent over last year and Reid is already looking to open a second store. It’s in a community that, like Corning did, has an unmet shoe boutique need. “But it’s like sending a child off to college, we are taking it slow and doing all our homework,” Reid says.
In the meantime, Heels & Hobos has already received two awards, including an SBA for Excellence in Small Business, an award that Reid jokes is as pretty as a Grammy. Kidding aside, Reid is proud of her store’s early success but is fully aware there’s lots of work to be done to be able to thrive long-term. “It was a successful first year in the sense that I met wonderful people and learned a lot,” she says. And it’s a labor of love. “If your passion is your career it won’t feel like a job,” she says, adding one must try and maintain a sense of humor even when times get tough. “When I go into the store I think, ‘I am going to have the best day I can possibly have because I love it.’”