Terry’s son Brent Barkin became vice president about a year ago, but he’s been working for his father for most of this life, in every position from stocking to buying merchandise. He said his latest promotion is more of a title than a role change because he is still doing what he does best. “I’ve been helping the company see itself as a larger entity in need of more efficient and structured procedures than a start-up needs,” he explained.
When Terry founded Shoe Station, he wanted a company that could react quickly to the customer’s needs without the limitations of a large, corporate mindset. Terry explained that after 20 years in department stores, he developed a better business model based on open cash flow, no mark down budget, and the importance of private ownership. “That basic model has served us well, and as we’ve grown, we’ve developed ways to enhance our operations on top of that model.”
Brent Barkin is finding a balance between nimble start-up and profitable retail chain that spans several states. “We need to start making decisions that make sense for 24 stores instead of six or seven,” said Barkin. “We’re doing a great job at what we set out to do, but there is a lot of opportunity for improvement.”
The right size
One of the biggest changes to Shoe Station’s philosophy that Barkin has encouraged is its growth strategy. At the outset, his father wanted to avoid growing too quickly and cannibalizing the markets the company already dominated.
“We focus on underserved markets; medium-sized cities the larger chains have ignored in favor of higher population density,” Barkin said. “But even in those markets, as we’ve become more well known, there is opportunity for another location.”
So very carefully, Shoe Station started adding a second store to its most successful markets. Barkin cited Montgomery as an example. Demographic shifts had redistributed the city’s population away from the Shoe Station location, but that store hadn’t lost any business. So Shoe Station established a new location where the population was growing, and today, both stores are successful. The company hasn’t looked back.
The challenge that came with this strategy was updating older stores to compete with the shiny new Shoe Station across town. Barkin said this was another opportunity to upgrade the company from a five- or six-store chain mentality.
“We’ve updated the look with more wrap stands, which create better flow through the store and have a more upscale feel than the rows of shelves we had before. And we’re selling more accessories now, like wallets or purses, so we’re showcasing those better,” he said.
Doubling up stores has a big advantage, however: it allows the company to beef up marketing initiatives to engage a wider audience. Shoe Station has always used print ads in local newspapers but recently expanded into radio and
Barkin has also spearheaded Shoe Station’s debut on the Internet. The company had no Web site at all before he started working in the back office, and today, sales from the site equal that of the chain’s smallest store. The growth the company has experienced in the last few years has also allowed for a dedicated Internet staff.
“We’re working on upgrading our search capacities, which is an expensive upgrade, but will provide far better service to our online shoppers,” he said. “The site also gives us greater reach; we ship to all 50 states regularly, and we can even ship internationally.”
A better fit
In addition to further developing the company’s Web presence, Barkin reported that Shoe Station has dramatically increased its back-end support system, which will foster continued growth.
He explained that since the beginning, the management and operations teams worked out of the back of Shoe Station’s first store in Mobile, Ala. Although that enabled the vice presidents and buying staff to be on the floor of the company’s largest store, it severely limited the opportunity for growth.
“At one point, I shared a small office with two other people, and we had to rotate using computers,” he said with a laugh. “We never wanted to waste money on corporate expenses, but that frugality was getting to the point of being silly.”
So a few years ago, Shoe Station moved into a modest, custom-built office building just down the road, where everyone has his or her own desk, computer, and even a window. The new building also comes with a chain-wide inventory system any store can access, providing more efficient and improved customer service. Today, a store in Florida can ship a shoe to the home of a customer in Louisiana if his or her local Shoe Station didn’t have that shoe in stock.
“As a small chain, we didn’t need systems like this. But it got to the point where, instead of saving money by not investing in technology, we were wasting it through inefficient practices,” said Barkin.
These changes are all a part the growing up of Shoe Station as it nears a quarter of a century of business in the Southeast. And although many of the adjustments are simple, Barkin said none are taken for granted, and all provide the company with a comfortable place from which to grow.