When the Shoe Fits, Own It with Pride
Julia Selby Smith
Alan and Amy O'Hara are "shoe nerds" and proud of it. The couple owns When the Shoe Fits, a small chain of shoe retail stores in and around Vancouver, Washington, and their passion for quality footwear, their community and connecting the two together shines bright.
"We felt like there was this great opportunity to service an area that wasn't being properly serviced with fashionable shoes. And we would be able to modify them and fit them using pedorthic craft, making people amazingly comfortable," Alan explains.
In the early days, the O'Haras ran their single-store operation on their own. Amy handled the financial side, while Alan handled sales and getting the pedorthic services squared away. Not long after opening, though, business took off.
"The timing of the economics of the area, and with people moving through, created kind of a perfect storm. In our first year, we exceeded our plan by 30 percent," Alan said. "Early on, we discovered we were going to have to force our hand on hiring people to help us do our job, because we were working 80-hour weeks. It was nuts!"
More than a decade later, business has continued to boom (save for a challenging period during the last recession), and the O'Haras now have four stores staffed by about 25 employees in the Greater Vancouver area.
Owners, Amy and Alan O'Hara
A Winning Strategy
But it goes much deeper than that. "The culture we try to embrace is one that has a unique opportunity - one that few professions have; we have an opportunity to have an impact on a person's life and well-being. If we have the right products and offer the right education, a pair of shoes can make a huge difference for people, Alan believes... adding, "our community has embraced us, and we're here to make them comfortable."
And the community has embraced them, quite literally. "Our sales people get hugged!" Alan says, still marveling. "That's what drives us, and that's what we feel you'll never get online. We want to invest in touching people in the community and getting them into the store with us.
The O'Haras also appreciate that they can be successful while still being true to their customers.
"What I love about what we do, with pedorthics and great footwear, is that you're not selling snake oil. What we're doing works... it's honest. To quote a mentor... 'pedorthics is from the heart," Alan says with enthusiasm, quoting Bob Schwartz of Eneslow, whom he met at a conference in New York City. "When you do combine pedorthics with retail, you can have such a profound impact on people; it really is a feel-good business to be in," he points out. "You've gotta be a shoe nerd to work in our store."
Alan has his own favorite shoe-nerd slogan... "improving the quality of life through the proper use of pedorthics." He calls it "a corny phrase that I throw out there in the stockroom from time to time, when someone's back there working, grinding on an orthotic."
And true to shoe-nerd form, Alan admits that his favorite thing about shoes is critiquing insoles and construction... "they're a tool, a piece of equipment, you know? Is this thing going to work?"
When choosing products for their stores, Alan and Amy look for quality. "It has to be attractive, it has to be a current mainstream style, or at least mimic a current mainstream style. It has to have the 'touch' and the 'feel' factor that passes the sniff test of a long-time shoe guy.
"They have to be shoes that are constructed in a manner that you know they're going to perform the way your customers want them to," he continues. "With better quality leathers and better quality liners, you can get a better insert into the show. And with proper sizes and widths, the shoes are going to fit your foot so much better than a crappy old $100-thing out of China that doesn't even have a removable footbed."
Looking to the Future
"There are so many different angles that the business could go, whether it's branching into the work or medical arenas," Alan acknowledges, adding, "We're open to the opportunities of expanding into different customer arenas, but we feel like we have a pretty good focus right now, and we don't want to sacrifice that focus for moving into something we don't necessarily know."
They are open to adding more stores, too, if great opportunities present themselves. But, Alan points out, "Part of the magic of what we do is having stores that are close to each other, where we can share merchandise and transfer things back and forth. We can remain a tight-knit family with our crew. If we were to expand, it would be outside our current area, and I don't know logistically how that would work."
So for the time being, the O'Haras and their team will continue doing what they do best, and continue to ensure everybody on the team is seeing the same vision.
As Alan sums up, "right now, I really look forward to continuing what we're doing and creating more opportunities for the people on the team. There's a lot of potential for growth in here. I'm only 50 years old, so I see myself being involved here for a long time, because I love it. I thrive on it. They're going to have a hard time getting me out of here."
As for the long-term, Alan and Amy would ideally like for the stores to be stable and strong enough to continue after their lifetimes. And they have every reason to believe that will be the case. Their employees are committed, what the O'Haras have done is working, and that knowledge keeps them going.
"I love seeing it all work. Knowing that it should work, and seeing that it does all work," Alan smiles. "When it clicks for a salesperson and it clicks for the customer, and you see that fire between the two of them, it's an amazing thing. And that will thrill me, hopefully, for a long time."