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Welcome Home

John Daher, owner of Shoebox and Co., returns to his retail roots with a fresh concept in a picturesque Maine resort town.

John Daher and his bubbles machine welcome customers.

Turns out you can go home again. At least John Daher has gone back to the job he first called home more than 25 years ago. Daher started working in his mother’s shoe store and went on to expand that operation into a namesake chain of five successful sit-and-fit stores in Massachusetts over the course of two decades. He then crossed over to the wholesale side as product consiglieri for Bob Infantino at Clarks Companies N.A. and later at Cobb Hill, Drydock Footwear and Rockport. It was an incredible run—particularly at Clarks, where Daher oversaw the introduction of the Privo and Unstructured lines, and where pairs overall at the company grew by one million annually for 10 years straight. When the revival of the Rockport venture didn’t pan out as planned, Daher could have hung ’em up. He had nothing left to prove. One problem, though: He’s not the retiring kind.

“I’ve always been working,” Daher says. “Retirement has never been a consideration.”

In fact, Daher never even took a break. For the past few years, he has been a partner in a sourcing company that does design and development for major brands. But he wanted to do more. A period of soul searching ensued. He looked into many possible ventures, including investing and the food industry. But his musings always circled back to the industry he loved most: shoes. “And whenever I dreamt about the footwear business, it was always back to my retail days,” Daher says.   

As fate would have it, Daher and his wife, who manages an interior design business in Boston, had recently bought a vacation home in the coastal resort town of Kennebunk, ME. Daher was on one of his walks around town, contemplating his next career move, when it occurred to him that Kennebunk could use a shoe store. Not just any shoe store, mind you. What Daher envisioned was more an art gallery concept featuring a curated mix of comfort and style. The “gallery” would provide an experience—namely, an enjoyable discovery process for customers, where they could learn the stories behind an array of unique brands and styles. Customers might be familiar with some of the brands, but others would be new to them. The store might include 12 styles from one brand, while selections from another would be limited to two or three. In every instance, Daher would focus on the hidden gems rather than the shoes people could purchase in a thousand other outlets. The store Daher envisioned would be on his terms: selection, service, decor, vibe…every detail. Above all, it would be fun.

“I don’t want this to be a burden,” he says. “I want to project my knowledge, gained from my years of footwear experience, to my customers. I want them to enjoy shopping and learning about these interesting shoes. It’s really more of a gallery/gift shop than a shoe store.”

Bubbles and Tunes

An art gallery-worthy selection is great, but you have to lure customers inside first. Enter, a bubble machine and some good tunes piped outside to draw Dock Square strollers into Shoebox and Co. “We’re in the primary shopping area, but just a little off the main thoroughfare,” Daher says, noting it was the only space available. “So, we’ve done some quirky things. The bubble machine has been really great—I should probably sell those, too. And the music is what our international tourist demographic relates to, like
Stan Getz and Bob Dylan.”

Once inside the cozy, 1,000-square-foot space (the store name lives up to its size), customers can peruse at their leisure. There’s no pressure from the two full-time and three part-time employees. Upselling is not the mission, either. Rather, guests are offered a glass of rosé and, if interested, can learn about the brands and styles on display. “It’s more of an interesting experience rather than selling shoes in an antiquated way,” Daher explains. “I don’t want our employees to go to the stockroom and come back with shoes—that’s intimidating to some customers. They’re less likely to interact with you at that point.”

Daher didn’t want a self-service format, either. But the stock is merchandised in a way that encourages interaction. It’s not the typical “shoes on a shelf” format. If a customer wants to look through the boxes for their size, they are welcome to do so. “The sales approach is never, ‘Can I help you?’” Daher says. “It’s more, if they pick a style up, we’ll tell them the story about that brand. And if they want to try it on, that’s their decision.”

Daher doesn’t want Shoebox and Co. to be intimidating in any way. That’s why the store vibe and decor is laidback and inviting. It mirrors the selection: casual elegance. “The common denominator is comfort and style integrated,” Daher says. “When you think of comfort, you tend to think of more mature footwear. My philosophy is comfort that works with the foot’s anatomy but also is trend-right and interesting, and maybe they haven’t been aware of.”

With the pandemic causing many consumers to shift to online purchases in the past two years, Daher believes such a shopping experience is particularly relevant. “People haven’t been able to get out, and if you don’t know about these brands and styles, you wouldn’t even think of going to those sites to find them,” he says. Hence, the importance of the storytelling component. “Getting customers interested in what this brand or particular style is about is our goal,” he says, adding that the interaction builds trust. “This approach gets people involved in the process seamlessly. They become more interested and build trust through our conversation and are willing to try on different styles.”

Ellen Price, sales rep for Bos. & Co. and distributors of Fly London and Asportuguesas, says Shoebox and Co. has done a great job in creating an inviting environment. “The store is beautifully merchandised and easy to shop,” she says. “The concept is a bit ‘out of the box,’ which is exactly what attracts customers. Offering alternatives to classic looks that are well-made and comfortable is refreshing, and the customer has responded positively.”

Such a nuanced, low-pressure sale requires the right employees. Once again, fate dealt Daher a winning hand. His two full-time employees are an ideal combination of freshness and experience. One, a yoga instructor, is new to the business. “She’s into holistic healing and can speak informatively about wellness and foot health, which enhances the story of our products,” Daher says. “She loves conversation and people. I get so many compliments about her.” The other “wonderful” full-timer previously worked in a boutique shoe store. And one of the part-timers is a former territory sales manager for Spring Footwear and worked in the industry for years. “I guess all the stars were aligned,” Daher says of the team that has coalesced, noting he never specifically sought ‘salespeople.’ “That wasn’t the right approach. I wanted it to happen organically, and it has really come together nicely.”

Beyond Expectations

Shoebox and Co. has been hopping since opening in May. Tourist season is in full swing, and traffic is approaching pre-pandemic levels. Still, Daher is surprised by the store’s success to date. Sure, his instincts told him this concept would take off. He just didn’t know it would soar. “It’s worked tremendously well,” he reports. In fact, he recently rented an adjacent 600 square feet of space to house more inventory. “I’ve turned my inventory almost twice this season already.”

Of particular surprise has been the success of men’s. Daher was confident women would respond well to Shoebox and Co., but in the first few days he could see men were “just as interested in interesting footwear.”

“It’s been really exciting to see men embrace our selection and willing to try something totally new,” he says, adding that he’s had particular success with Rieker, Naot and Birkenstock.

Rich Rask, president of Rieker Shoe Corporation, says the Shoebox and Co. concept is right in step with the brand’s premise. “Comfort with unique styling is Rieker’s DNA,” Rask says. “Shoebox is giving the consumer a fresh experience, offering unique styles that they may not see in their local markets. And with Rieker’s large and diverse collection, they can select many styles that are unique to them.”

Brian Handler, a sales rep for Birkenstock, reports that Shoebox and Co. has been “killing it” so far. But, per the store’s approach, it’s not the Arizona or Boston styles leading the charge. “They’re doing great with the Bend (lifestyle sneakers) for men and women,” he reports. “John reorders every week.”

Daher’s ability to fill-in on an almost weekly basis has been another pleasant surprise turned success strategy. He cites his strong industry contacts as a key to getting inventory, along with his focus on lesser-known styles, which are more likely to be available. The fact that many of the brands Daher carries don’t require ordering-case packs helps too.

The pick-and-choose approach also enables him to experiment. “It’s so much fun getting on the phone with customer service or my territory rep to see what else I can add,” Daher says. “At the rate we’re turning inventory, it’s allowing me to bring in small batches of items to test to see if they become something. I’m also willing to take more risks because I can see there’s a customer that has the eye and is willing to buy these styles.”

For Daher, having so much buying freedom is like being a kid with the keys to a candy store. “I see lots of shoes I love,” he says. “There’s so much creativity out there that’s basically been hidden from consumers, especially smaller brands that offer the style and comfort quotient that’s so important. It’s just so much fun introducing that to my customers.”

Shoebox and Co. styles currently fall in the $120 to $300 price range and span 33 brands, ranging from established names like Born and Dansko to niche players like Oncepts, Asportuguesas and Lemon Jelly. Sneakers are in the mix, just not the kind for competition. “I’m not big into athletics, which is kind of out of the norm right now,” Daher says. “But I offer something in between that’s very casual. I don’t offer heels either, but I certainly have high wedges—like our best-selling, three-inch wedge sneakers from Fly London. I don’t carry black dress shoes for men, but I do carry a lot of interesting hybrid dress-casual styles.” Daher says the assortment reflects a world that dresses more casually, though it’s a tad more polished. “There’s a casual elegance need that I think is very important, but it hasn’t been exposed to a lot of people,” he says.

Price gives props to Daher for letting her recommend exciting, multi-colored Fly London styles with aggressive bottoms for the store. It shows he has trust and vision, she says. “Creativity and originality inspire imagination. Why be mediocre when you can extraordinary.” She says Daher took a similar leap with the company’s sustainability brand, Asportuguesas. “When John initially walked by my booth at the past BTSA show, he was curious but skeptical,” she says. “He listened to the story and, on the second day, came back, spent time seeing styles on foot and then tried a pair on. He got it! They’re comfortable, hip, unisex and can be worn indoors and outdoors.” Price adds, “Both brands offer distinctive styling that are breath of fresh air. This is why John’s new venture is so refreshing and successful.”

Daher feels great joy in providing this platform. It’s a win-win for Shoebox and Co. and the brands, especially the smaller ones. “Those brands are looking for a lifeline to represent them, but the number of retailers who might is declining,” he says. “I’m representing them in an honorable way that benefits us both.”

One of Daher’s ultimate goals is building Shoebox and Co. into a trusted brand. He’s doing the heavy lifting by culling the sea of styles offered elsewhere and, by extension, making life easier for his customers. “It’s like going to a trade show and seeing 10,000 different styles. How do you make sense of all that?” he says. “When you shop online, you see so much that you lose focus.” Daher’s 30-plus years of experience enables him to weed out the duds. That’s basically what he did throughout his wholesale career. “I curated a line to represent the brand, and now I’m curating the Shoebox and Co. brand.”

Naturally, Shoebox and Co. had a few missteps along the way. For example, “I thought I needed some entry price points, but I found out that isn’t necessary. I could go to a higher level.” Daher concedes that “there’s certainly some tweaking to do in the future.” But overall, the response to his store has been stellar.

“We get so many comments about the taste level, asking how we found these brands that aren’t seen elsewhere,” he says. “I’m just blown away by that emotional response—that they see the fashion within our collection and my brand in these brands.”

Based on the positive feedback, he envisions adding an online shopping component by next fall. “We’ve had multiple requests from our tourists,” he reports. “Shoebox and Co. is a brand for them wherever they may be.”

Just Getting Started

It took just 90 days to get store No. 1 from lease signing to open for business. And Daher is already in the early planning stages of two more Shoebox and Co. outposts, set to open by next summer, most likely in nearby resort towns for logistical purposes. He believes the capsule concept can work in most resort towns because the target demographic is already strolling through the various independent bookstores, gift shops and ice cream parlors nearby.

The customer base spans a broad age range, which surprised Daher initially. “We have young people come in looking for Birkenstocks and, while they can just as easily buy them online, they’re having a great experience trying them on and interacting with our staff,” he says. “I think there’s a yearning out there to reexperience the shopping experience that we call brick-and-mortar. People want to reconnect in a way where they can learn something, and it’s not just a bunch of merchandise stacked out there. That’s especially true for more personal items like shoes.”

Opening additional Shoebox and Co. locations is also a way to give back to the industry and pump much-needed new blood into it. “I would love to mentor young people into this business,” Daher says. “I think there’s such an opportunity here. People used to come up organically through Nordstrom and independent stores, but there is so little of that now. I believe this is a viable opportunity to mentor younger folks into this business.”

Managing one very busy Shoebox and Co. store is a full-time job, so potentially managing three will be a challenge. It helps that Daher is a 66-year-old who feels “like I’m 36,” reinvigorated by working in retail again. “It’s a lot of work, but I thrive on that,” he says. “My mother was a tough cookie. I grew up in a family where all my siblings became entrepreneurs. I was the black sheep who went to the corporate side. Now I’ve done a total 360, and I’m back to my roots and so energized that I don’t see an end at this point. I love the shoe industry, and before I leave this planet, I want to add value to it for people and brands.”

In the meantime, Daher is living the dream. “This store is my baby. I’m there every day, if possible,” he says. “I’m having the time of my life.”

Being in the store every day means Daher’s vacation home has become his primary residence. That wasn’t the plan, but duty calls. “I haven’t been back to Boston since we opened,” he says. “I hear fall is very popular here, and I’m excited to bring in seasonal footwear. There are so many interesting items that could intrigue my customers.”

Daher plans to stay open through January, then close for February and March before reopening. “That’s the beauty of a store in a resort location—you can take a break,” he says. Of course, his always-working M.O. means he’ll spend those months getting the new Shoe Box and Co. locations rolling. But it’s not work if you truly love it.

And Daher does. His days are filled with doing what he enjoys most: running a shoe store and interacting with customers. “It feels like a party in the store all the time—the music, the bubbles, the wine, the shoes all work together,” he says. “It’s just so invigorating to engage with customers who appreciate what we are trying to do. It’s like being with friends all day.”

The April/May 2024 Issue

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