Industry experts give pointers on how to make 2013 a great year and potentially create customers for life.
By Maria Bouselli
Children can be one of the toughest footwear customers—retailers have to please both the parent and the child, and we all know those fashion preferences can vary to the utmost extremes. But if retailers can appease fashion tastes as well as address the concerns of parents over proper fit, they could very well win over customers through their childhood and, quite possibly, their own children. And let’s not forget the growth spurt bonus where new shoes aren’t an indulgence but rather a necessity. “Once or twice a month, children need to buy shoes, so you’re building a relationship and interacting more frequently with customers,” says Matthew Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America. According to Priest, children’s footwear makes up approximately 14 percent of total yearly revenue for the shoe industry—that equates to billions of dollars in retail sales annually.
Here store owners and retail industry experts discuss 10 key tips on drawing in customers with the result of them coming back season after season, year after year and perhaps one generation to the next.
Mix It Up
Product mix and staying up-to-date with the store’s inventory is a big part of keeping customers happy. Dan Butler, vice president of retail operations at the National Retail Federation, notes that seasons today change at a faster pace. “We used to have five major seasons, but now it’s not unusual for many retailers to have 11 to 14 seasons, like having a spring one, two and three,” he says. This faster turnover gives retailers the opportunity to flow in new product on a consistent basis. “This is where the independent store owners have to understand their assortments, where they’re going and what’s coming next,” he adds.
As Stephanie Teichner, owner of Sprong Children’s Shoes in Atlanta puts it, the fresher the better in regards to adding categories and new brands. “We’re always looking for the next thing,” she says, noting her store carries accessories from socks to hair bands and necklaces, as well as women’s Havianas flip-flops for moms. She also noticed Nike shorts to be a wardrobe staple for girls, so she bought them for her store in an array of colors. “I sell a ton every season,” she says.
Part of the reason to carry extra categories is to make the store a one-stop shop for parents. Dan Falvey, children’s buyer for The Kids Barn in West Newton, MA, says the store is adding categories such as infant clothes, accessories and toys for this season to do just that. “We’re trying to make the store a destination, especially for mothers coming in for the first time to capture them as longtime customers,” he explains. Falvey also advises retailers
to carry enough sizes in each pair of shoes to ensure they can fit any customer, and to have good, better and best price points of a specific style. “If you don’t have what they want once or twice, they’re not coming back,” he says. He also advises however to manage inventory control: “Make sure you don’t have excess [and] keep on top of your revisions and keep things current. Don’t let things hang around; have a clearance section.”
Store environment is another key to a children’s shoe retailer’s success. When Katie Sanford, co-owner of Petite Chou Chou in Wilton, CT, opened her store last month after running a women’s shoe store for 12 years, the setting was one of the first aspects she addressed. “Inventory is very important but creating the environment that is child-friendly and really cute is also important,” she says. “We wanted to create a place where children say, ‘Mom, I want to go back there.’” Painted animals adorn the walls, a TV is set to children’s shows or movies and toys are at kids’ disposal.
A store set up where children can look at the shoes and where parents can easily find the brand or sizes that they’re looking for adds to the welcoming environment. “Children have to be able to see the shoes—they will help show you what they like and what they don’t like,” Butler says. He advises retailers to break down the floor into categories and size range, and if a particular brand does well in the store, put it front and center. “When you walk in my store, you see we believe in Keen and Teva,” Teichner adds.
Talk to Me
Understanding the little customer and discovering his or her wants and needs is a big part of making a children’s shoe store successful, according to Sanford. And this applies to both parent and child. Before even opening her store, she ensured that it would carry the right brands by doing a ton of market research. And what better way to learn than by going right to the source. “We started asking our customers lots of questions,” she says. “We had a sign-up sheet for customers to put their e-mail, list their children’s ages and their favorite brands.”
Butler adds that children know what they want now more than ever because of technology. “Children know more than you think they do,” he notes. “And [stores] have to address them in their marketing.” He also believes that children should be treated as a buying customer by the sales staff and that this will result in better communication and increases the odds of converting a sale. “Adults more received by children are the ones that talk to them at their level—they’re people too,” he says.
Increasingly in the face of online retail competition, kids’ retailers are learning that in-store events are big pull-ins for customers. “It’s becoming more and more important,” says Beth Saper, co-owner of Little Feet in Denver. “I feel like you can’t just sell shoes anymore. You have to provide above and beyond services and education and information to the customer.” Little Feet sponsors a shoe-tying class once every other month where Saper uses the Shoe Tying Made Simple product, sings songs and plays fun games to help her littlest customers learn to tie their shoes. Little Feet also sponsored an event with the mayor reading to the community in store before-hours to promote a local non-profit that provides children with books. The store also has Sweet Cookie Saturday every week as a sugar fix hook for parents and kids.
Sanford says that once the weather warms up this spring, Petite Chou Chou plans on throwing an opening party complete with face painting, balloon animals and snacks to solidify their presence in the neighborhood.
But Butler warns retailers not to forget what these events are all about. “Never lose focus of the fact that the events are used to engage customers with the staff and product,” he says. He names special size fitting events, kids’ fairs or bringing in experts, such as a soccer coach in a store with a big athletic category to give kids tips on their game, as possible in-store events.
Windows to the Soles
While any retailer worth their salt knows window displays are another key aspect that can help draw in customers, store owners need to make sure they maximize their potential.
Stephanie Mayer, a window display artist who has worked with several independent retailers and designer brands such as Henri Bendel, Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren, explains that windows are particularly important for smaller businesses that depend heavily on foot traffic. “Smaller businesses rely on showcasing the different products and, in regards to shoes, the different brands in their windows,” she says. She advises children’s shoe retailers to stay true to a kids’ “palette” with a simple storyline, such as children running a race, and bright colors. She also notes that windows should be updated about every six weeks, and that less is more. “The display should be tasteful and not overwhelm the customer,” she recommends.
Teichner updates her windows according to season, with fun holiday themes, popular products or to match the current weather. “Hanging in the window right now are 20 pairs of Nike shorts and umbrellas and raincoats since we’ve been so rainy [in Atlanta],” she says. “Windows are important and it’s important to keep them fresh.”
Communicating with fellow local brick-and-mortar retailers and supporting each other is a must for independent shoe retailers. Sanford says the local Wilton, CT, toy store donated the play items in her store, and that Petite Chou Chou will participate in the annual neighborhood sidewalk sale.
Saper adds that Little Feet partakes in American Express’ Small Business Saturday, which takes place after Black Friday each year, and the 3/50 Project, an organization with the mission to save independent local stores by encouraging customers to spend $50 a month at three of their favorite independent stores. The 3/50 Project also aided in developing a free app called LookLocal that helps users find locally-owned businesses, who can place their stores or restaurants on the app free of charge.
It Takes a Village
Becoming an active member of the local community by supporting causes that are important to local residents can be an excellent way to win the respect and loyalty of your target customers. “We sponsor just about every sports team in the city, whether it’s baseball or soccer. And we donate to [almost] every charity or school that comes our way,” Falvey says of his Massachusetts-based store. “We want to get our name out there in the community as much as we can.”
Petite Chou Chou sponsors local dance teams and donates 10 percent to their organization with every pair of dance shoes they purchase in-store. Saper notes that Little Feet partners with The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation every year as a sponsor and participates in The Walk to Cure Diabetes. “We’ve been in business 20 years in the same community,” she says. “We feel grateful that people are supporting us and we need to show them we want to be [part of] their activities as well.”
Creating a store brand and maintaining its message on websites and social media outlets is a useful way to connect with parents who are constantly on the go and not always able to visit the store. “The whole branding concept is about who you are and your mission and your values, and that should come through with every contact with your customer,” says Saber, who adds that they keep Little Feet’s Facebook page constantly updated to regularly engage with customers. Teichner says her store is also active on Facebook and has an e-mail list as well to alert customers of new product arrivals and sales. Some retailers even have their own blog to communicate with customers.
But Butler warns: “It’s important that you deal with your customers the way they would want to be dealt with.” That means ease up on the barrage of messages and keep your postings relevant to what your business has to offer. And Butler also advises to be smart with regard to time management. For example, he says, “It’s no good to write a blog if you don’t have a following.” He also says there’s no shame in seeking out help for something an owner may be unfamiliar with, such as setting up a website.
Bring Your A-game
A well-trained sales staff that knows how to properly fit a child is one of—if not the—main reasons customers return to a kids’ shoe store.
Teichner, as in many stores, has her new sales associates shadow a veteran salesperson for at least one week before they are able to fit on their own. “To me the success of a children’s shoe store is having the customer come in and know that the sales team can fit your children properly,” she says. “And I have a rule that when you put a shoe on somebody you have to ask another salesperson to check the fit. It just gives the parent more confidence that we know what we’re doing—that’s the big thing.”
Butler advises retailers to have vendors come into the store regularly to talk about their brands with the staff. “They can give a 20-minute overview about what’s good about their shoes and what makes them different from competitors so your staff is educated about the product,” he says.
Service, Service, Service!
Last but definitely not least is to continually raise the bar on customer service, from taking the time to properly fit a child to making customers feel at home while they shop.
Saper believes her staff’s above and beyond attitude towards helping customers is one of the main reasons her store continues to be successful. “And customer service can mean going out to a car and measuring a sleeping kid, or helping [parents] out with their kids and watching the baby while they go to the bathroom or whatever,” she notes. “It’s about helping the mom and making the [in-store] experience as easy as possible.”
And if a store takes care of customers, they will most likely return the favor with repeat business. “What I’ve seen so far is a lot of moms and dads will travel to find a good shoe store—people travel to shop a great selection and to receive great service,” Sanford says.