There's No Business Like Shoe Business
About 12 years ago, G. Brent Barkin, the son of Shoe Station founder Terry S. Barkin, urged his father to start a website for the family-owned business. The senior Barkin followed his son's advice and invested some money in creating a new channel. But he had his doubts, asking, "Who's going to buy shoes from a website?"
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Shoe Station is an independent shoe retailer based in Mobile, Alabama, with 21 large open-shelf shoe stores in five Southwestern states. The company wanted to synchronize and unify inventory and customer data across various in-shop, online, and operating platforms.
Folsom, California-based Retail Pro International's point-of-sale system helped build customer-centric operations, with implementation supported by Big Hairy Dog Information Systems based in Sacramento, California. Among other initiatives, Shoe Station integrated Retail Pro with its e-commerce site using Beaverton, Oregon-based Retail Dimensions to sync inventory and shopper data between physical locations and e-commerce.
Randy Lambert, a 26-year veteran employee of the Mobile, Alabama, retailer and now its vice president of operations, laughs remembering that story and the vision of the younger Barkin, who is now Shoe Station's president and chief executive officer.
Although e-commerce today accounts for only about 10% to 12% of Shoe Station's annual six-figure business (the private company does not disclose sales figures), it's the company's "busiest location," with millions of online customers. About 80% of its product offerings are posted on the website.
"Retail today is all about the technology you choose," Lambert says. "You can't just do what you've always done or you'll be left behind."
Sizing Up the Market
Founded in 1984, Shoe Station is a traditional brick-and-mortar company, and, like many of its retail colleagues, it is doing what it can to meet customer demands.
Shoe Station, one of the largest independent shoe retailers in the United States, operates 21 stores in five states in the Southwest—Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The family-owned chain, with 500 employees, carries about 100 name brands of men's, women's, children's, and athletic shoes, along with accessories such as handbags, belts, wallets, socks, and T-shirts. Its self-service, open-shelf locations range from 12,000 to 30,000 square feet, and, with all the styles, colors, and sizes tallied up, Lambert counts roughly 300,000 SKUs.
Over the years, Lambert has noticed a few typical customer and supplier patterns that require technology investment.
Frequently, customers—particularly men—come to the store and ask for the same shoe they're wearing. This requires sales associates to determine the manufacturer, figure out whether the style is still made, check if it's in inventory, and if it's not, how to get it.
Another pattern happens among women. They pick and try on shoes from the self-service shelves, estimate their correct size, go home, and shop around online. "When they find out that we have the best price, they come back and order it from us or return to the store and ask if we can get the shoes from another location," says Lambert.
On the supplier side, as e-commerce has grown, manufacturers have also refined their sales and channel strategies. Besides selling on its own website, Shoe Station also sells on Google, eBay, Amazon, and other third-party e-commerce platforms.
Figuring out the various technology pieces Shoe Station needs to remain a viable competitor, a customer-friendly retailer, and a good supply chain partner currently shapes many of the company's IT initiatives.
A handful of overarching themes guide the company's tech direction: Implement the smoothest processes for sales associates and customers; synchronize, integrate, and use data to create better customer experiences; and enable sales associates to fully engage with customers without worrying about the technology they're using.
Putting the IT Pieces Together
One defining IT tool Shoe Station has invested in comes from Retail Pro International, based in Folsom, California. Shoe Station has been a Retail Pro customer since 2003 and was running most of its operations on version 8 of Retail Pro's point-of-sale solution. But, when version 9 came out, Shoe Station bumped into some challenges and considered ditching the upgrade.
"Honestly, we were shopping around for something else," Lambert recalls. "Around the time we were looking at upgrading our system, we found a flaw in what we call the 'offline mode'—the ability to continue to use at least one cash register when things have failed in the store, such as when the internet drops or the network fails."
Lambert adds that it was his initial understanding that the version 9 upgrade didn't have this offline mode functionality, which Shoe Station uses at least once every week. "We were terrified about the idea of moving to an upgraded system that didn't have this fail-safe," he says. "If one piece of the chain failed, and if we couldn't go into offline mode, then we would either manually write receipts or close our doors."
Executives from both Retail Pro and one of Retail Pro's business partners, Sacramento, California-based Big Hairy Dog Information Systems, assured Lambert that the functionality was there, just named differently, along with other features in version 9 that give Shoe Station a stable and reliable environment.
"In the retail ecosystem, like other sectors, everything is being pushed to the cloud," says Kevin Connor, Retail Pro's vice president of product management. "The idea that a system will drop for any number of reasons is something that software developers have to consider.
"There are differences in the way Retail Pro 8 and Retail Pro 9 are deployed, and how the database works," Connor adds. "In the new solution, there's a way to have that offline mode, it's just not called the same thing and not thought about in the same way. We used a different set of technologies to handle that functionality."
In 2017, Big Hairy Dog, an expert in POS implementations with a long history of working with Retail Pro, stepped in to help Shoe Station better understand the software upgrade and what else could be built on it.
"When we found out Shoe Station was looking to leave Retail Pro, we flew out to meet them and asked, 'Do you know what you're leaving? Do you know what you own?'" recalls Colt Riley, vice president of operations, Big Hairy Dog. Retail Pro was Shoe Station's front- and back-end software platform, with all main operations running on it.
"We worked with Shoe Station for about six months to show them what they had and what they were gaining," adds Riley, noting that the Retail Pro 8 was an old legacy system that would be hard to integrate with the more modern solutions Shoe Station was seeking.
With the upgrade completed, other solutions could be bolted on and bring Shoe Station closer to its goal of creating better customer experiences in stores and online.
Soon after, for instance, Shoe Station worked with its longtime partner Retail Dimensions, based in Beaverton, Oregon, to integrate Retail Pro with its e-commerce site, and better sync inventory and shopper data between physical locations and online channels.
This value-added, cross-platform functionality is essential as Shoe Station grows its online business. It helps bridge end-to-end activities—from ringing up the sale on the Magento system, transferring goods between the store or warehouse, and managing multicarrier logistics operations through ConnectShip, to sending shipping notifications to the customer, explains Kurt Beeken, co-founder and owner of Retail Dimensions.
By early 2019, Shoe Station also started its loyalty card program, using Retail Pro's AppCard solution. Driven by artificial intelligence, the personalized marketing and customer retention platform allows Shoe Station to send emails and text messages to customers. It can customize messages based on customers' shoe style and brand preferences. To date, Shoe Station reaches about 150,000 people with its text message lists, and has 300,000 people on its email list.
More recently, in 2019, Shoe Station rolled out Apple's fifth-generation iPods running on FoundryLogic's Retail Mobile Inventory as mobile POS solutions for shop assistants, an introduction made by Big Hairy Dog. The iPods and software solution allow shop assistants to see inventory across all 21 locations, work with customers away from the cash register, focus on ways to keep the customer happy, and, hopefully, make the purchase.
"Our sales assistants love the iPods but there's still a learning curve," Lambert says. "They are not yet using the devices for the POS. They are using them to check prices or look up inventory. That's great, too, because they can be out on the floor helping customers."
Making Customers Happy
Looking ahead, Shoe Station remains intent on improving the customer experience.
The near-term plan includes more fully integrating the AppCard loyalty program with the mobile POS solution, doing more fulfillment through Amazon on-site, streamlining the way customers find and buy products, and making sure customers are happy when they leave the store or website.
Lambert says Shoe Station is well on the way to hitting the mark on many of these goals. Real-time feedback on recently installed HappyOrNot terminals, where customers can touch smiley or sad faces to register their in-store and online experience, show the mood and pulse of customers.
"We get 20 to 30 comments daily per store on the terminals, with an approval rate of about 93%," Lambert says. "We must be doing something right."