In recent years, department stores and specialty chains have stepped up their footwear game with revamped, expanded and elevated shoe departments. Macy’s has the largest shoe department in the world at 66,000 square feet, while Saks Fifth Avenue’s 10022-SHOE department has its own zip code. Barneys has a 22,000 square designer shoe space, Lord & Taylor also revamped its shoe departments, and specialty accessories chain Charming Charlie, with 300 stores, recently added shoes into its mix.
Small fashion boutiques, however, have often been a bit daunted by shoes. Ordering commitments are large, storage options are small, seating areas are essential and margins can be compromised when you factor in unsold case pack sizes. But not everyone has to be Zappos, with its infinite choices and seemingly endless stock. Small boutiques are discovering that even a small yet focused shoe assortment can fit nicely with a bit of planning and sharp buying—and that the benefits shoes offer can outweigh the logistical challenges.
RedBird Boutique, an upscale fashion store in Austin Texas, added shoes last year and finds they’re already 10% of sales, according to owner Maureen Staloch. And while shoes do require that extra one-on-one sales assistance to fetch sizes from a storeroom, RedBird sees that as a positive. “We feel like this is the best way to provide the customer service for which we are known. It also allows us to bring alternative sizing and make additional suggestions on styles the customer might have missed.”
While some boutiques will suggest accessories to complete a customer’s outfit while she’s trying things on, with shoes it’s a pragmatic service. A woman cramming her foot into a too-small pair of beat-up “try on” pumps to accessorize a $400 dress is not a happy customer. Boutiques that can bring her size-appropriate shoes can often make a footwear impulse sale, even when shoes were never on the agenda. Plus, that dress will look and feel better in the try-on process—a boost for any potential sale.
“We always offer a pair of heels to women trying on dresses and they often end up purchasing both,” says Mackenzie Firby, Owner, CEO and Fashion Consultant of Two Fifty Two Boutique in Saskatoon, Canada. “Even when they don’t buy the shoes, it certainly helps the dress sale if the customer is comfortable.”
Roy Zucker, co-owner of Sandra & Roy boutique in Linwood, New Jersey, concurs.
“So many women come into our boutique wearing sneakers, so I see it as an opportunity to offer and bring them shoes even if they’re just trying on jeans. And for a dress? I always say, ‘You’re not doing that dress justice if you don’t try it on with heels!’” Zucker finds that 40 to 50% of the women (“at a conservative estimate”) will buy the shoes. A 15-year-old boutique, Sandra & Roy added shoes five years ago. “Everyone said we were crazy, for all the reasons we know, but we’ve done great with our shoes from DVF, Joie, Frye, Rebecca Minkoffand the new Botkier line, which we’re thrilled about.”
SHOES AS FASHION ACCESSORIES
Larger retailers might have a footwear department or shoe wall, but many smaller ones opt to mix them right into trend or accessories displays. “We work almost exclusively with fashion boutiques, not shoe stores to position our shoes as true accessories,” says Michele Levy, CEO of Ilhabela Holdings, the U.S. distributors of Melissa shoes with 600 points of sale. “All my sales reps worked in clothing before, not shoes.”
Three-store boutique Big Drop started with “try-on” pumps in all sizes but has recently expanded into buying seven to 10 shoe styles each season to offer more fashion versatility. “Women come to a fashion boutique to get styled from head to toe,” says co-owner Malka Katzav. “In a department store it’s about finding that deal on a shoe, but at a boutique she’s not shopping piece by piece. It’s a psychology thing. Women are greedy—we want the whole look when we try something on.”
“Women come to a fashion boutique to get styled from head to toe,” says co-owner “In a department store it’s about finding that deal on a shoe, but at a boutique she’s not shopping piece by piece.
–Malka Katzav, Big Drop
To that end, Big Drop mixes in shoes on shelves with its ready-to-wear and accessories, which are displayed by color. “It paints that fantasy,” says Katzav. “We used to display just single shoes but now we show pairs to feature both sides; it’s more of a luxury aesthetic.” At Big Drop, footwear has risen to one of the boutique’s top five categories. “The consumer is getting so much information from bloggers and influencers, and we show trending shoes on our Facebook page. The Elina Linardaki pom-pom sandal blew out for us. It started on Etsy and was hard to find, but our customers knew it from social media.”
Charming Charlie, which merchandises its entire store by color, houses its shoes within their respective color or themed collection tables, says Serena Houlihan, VP, DMM, Handbags, Apparel, Shoes & Scarves. “We typically do not have a shoe wall, and we find that by merchandising shoes by color, the customer can more easily outfit cross category. We show them out of their boxes for an easy shopping experience.”
Space—from display to storage—is the final frontier, and one that boutiques often struggle with. Storing multiple shoe sizes when space can be a premium is tricky, and some brands have restrictions on allowing retailers to stack boxes in the store, whether for open-sell or storage. Others turn that into a positive.
“We pay very close attention to our boxes and change them each season,” says Levy about Melissa. “In our Mini Melissa collection, we learned they were popular gift items so we created gifting boxes that come with a bow that can be hung or piled up.”
Another way to merchandise shoes is right on the floor below an outfit. “The floor space is so underutilized in boutiques” says Levy. “But you don’t need a lot of space to show shoes.” Big Drop stores shoes down a flight of stairs but often puts boxes in an unused dressing room for easier access.
Brand mix is also key, especially in a small store selling to consumers spoiled by the Internet’s endless inventory.
“Women have a different relationship with footwear,” notes Craig Cohen, owner of six Jayne Boutiques in the Chicago area. “They’re often okay with no-brand jewelry or scarves in a boutique, but shoes are different. When a woman buys shoes, she sits down, gets served; it’s a longer process to buy shoes and she wants that name brand to reinforce the quality expectation.”
To facilitate the shoe relationship with boutiques, manufacturers with stock often bend the rules a bit to supply single and/or replacement styles as needed so stores don’t need to order case packs. “If a customer wants a size 11, we can ship it,” says Jeff Munzel, VP of Sales at footwear company Trask. “It’s a huge service for our retail partners. Our big initiative is to drive the customer service in the store. We spend a lot of time in stores with trunk shoes. We do 65 to 70 trunk shows from September through the end of November.”
Still shoe shy? One way to tiptoe into a shoe mix is to start in spring or summer. Sizes for slides or thongs are more forgiving, translating into fewer frustrated customers when sizes are limited. They also take up less space to merchandise than, say, boots, and can be displayed in creative ways like in baskets. Pricing is key as well. As shoes in a boutique are often the afterthought, they shouldn’t cost significantly more than the apparel featured.