Shoe Sensation is taking rural communities by storm as it opens its 100th store this year and celebrates 30 years of bringing well-known footwear brands to small-town America. “We have been able to survive through the thick and thin of the economy and expand our model currently to 14 states – 16 states come September,” CEO Mike Zawoysky says. “We have been able to deliver new stores each year and comparable store growth for each of the past six consecutive years.”

The Jeffersonville, Ind.-based company was founded by an entrepreneur whose vision was to open shoe stores in rural towns located 30 to 45 miles away from a regional mall. “He wanted to make it more convenient for the local community to come in and purchase branded, high-quality footwear,” Zawoysky says. “At the time, many family owned shoes stores in small-town America were closing.” 

Shoe Sensation took the idea of niche big-box retailers and designed a scaled-down branded concept for smaller communities. The company’s headquarters supports each location with 15,000 square feet of offices, a 50,000-square-foot distribution center and 800 employees. 

Shoe Sensation’s markets may be small, but there is still profit to be made by serving a real need. The company wants to be the first choice for small-town America residents who need a place to purchase their footwear. “We’re able to go into communities and provide a needed service to those customers with branded products,” Zawoysky notes.  

Trend Catching

Shoe Sensation offers Nike, Skechers, Clarks, K-Swiss, Rocket Dog, DC, Sperry, Dr. Martens, Bearpaw, Puma, New Balance and Adidas products for the whole family. “Vendors have reacted very favorably to us and they understand what we’re doing in the marketplace and how we’re growing in the marketplace,” Zawoysky says.

Consumer tastes vary at each location and Vice President of Marketing Jim Quiggins says some communities catch on to a trend earlier than others and some do not pick it up at all. “We see differences in product preference and trends in the different markets,” he adds. “There are several brands we are always working with to stay ahead of the trend. The recent emergence of Skechers Go Walk as a category leader is a good example and we continue to work with Skechers, one of our top vendors, to stay ahead of the curve.”  

The Skechers GO line remains one of the most sought-after products at Shoe Sensation locations. The shoes are lightweight, cushioned in the sole and are made for an athletic lifestyle. “That’s one of our top sellers and seems to be a destination product – people come into the store and specifically ask for the GO line,” Quiggins says. “That’s one of the big items that will trend well into the fall and maybe beyond.” Additionally, some models in the Skechers GO line have memory foam insoles, which he adds has also been a hot trend this year. 

“Our business is strong across so many product lines – from toddlers to senior citizens – we have made a conscious effort to grow across all categories,” Zawoysky adds. Extra attention to certain divisions has also yielded results. For example, Shoe Sensation is seeing an increase in its work and safety boot sales. The additional sales is directly related to a concentrated effort comprised of special merchandising and marketing initiatives.

Achieving Milestones

Shoe Sensation operates locations in a majority of the Midwest states and will be adding to its list by opening new locations in Wisconsin, Nebraska and Kansas this year. “We are breaking ground in three new states to grow our footprint,” Zawoysky says. “We are at 94 locations today, last year at this time we were at 84 and we plan to be at 105 by the end of this year. We are planning to add 20 stores in 2015 and 20 stores in 2016. We have strong expansion plans.” 

In 2007, the company was purchased by an investor group led by Palisades Capital Management LLC and immediately began to execute its vision of expanding Shoe Sensation beyond a small regional footprint. Zawoysky joined the company in 2009 as CFO and later became CEO upon seeing Shoe Sensation’s promise. “Over the last several years our investors have enabled us to clean the company up and add new locations at an accelerated pace,” he adds. “Our current plan calls for 20 new stores for each of the next three years.” 

Shoe Sensation’s long-term plans are to be operating more than 1,000 locations. As the company expands into new areas, its business in existing communities also continues to grow. Same store comps have grown, on average, by 10.2 percent per year over the past four years. 

To celebrate its growth over the past 30 years, the company will be hosting a chain-wide event in September that will offer customer incentives and in-store activities. Its 100th store opening will also be a major milestone that month, but Zawoysky says the new location to be given this designation has yet to be decided. “We have several locations that are in the running to open as the 100th store as we are under negotiations with five to 15 locations at any given point,” he adds.

Getting Involved

Because Shoe Sensation’s niche is small-town America, the company believes it’s important to get involved in the community as soon as possible. As soon as development of a new location begins, the company is in contact with the local chamber of commerce to network and get to know its neighbors. Shoe Sensation employees also put their “boots to the ground” by visiting local businesses and schools to deliver information about the company, Zawoysky says. “We hand deliver 2,500 to 5,000 flyers that showcase the brands we carry and offer a special incentive for the first visit,” he adds. “It generates a lot of interest. We are excited to bring these national brands into the communities and our new neighbors are excited to hear we’re coming to town.”

All of Shoe Sensation’s associates and managers are hired locally – some are lifelong members of the community whose families have lived in the town for generations. 

“We want to be part of each one of these communities,” Zawoysky says. “We want to be a good corporate neighbor, be involved in charitable organizations and by doing so help employees find their way to become involved in their community.” 

Shoe Sensation sets itself apart by not only being a convenient location for rural communities, but by providing exceptional service. Each store is staffed with local management that is able to make decisions in response to specific market needs. Shoe Sensation customers are greeted, offered help in locating styles and sizes and fitting assistance is always available. It also measures key performance indicators such as store traffic, product conversion, and dollars per transaction to determine which factors need improvement.

Shoe Sensation held its first “Charity Week” in July for which each location chose a local charitable organization that is focused on helping children. Each stores showed its support by raising money and awareness. “We do things to partner with the community,” Zawoysky says. “We feel community service is important and the people in our communities appreciate that we are out there supporting them.”

In the future, Shoe Sensation plans to continue its business model of opening new locations in small towns across America. “Our niche is small-town America and we fought where we can compete and service that customer in that town,” Zawoysky says.

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