“They used what little funds they had,” the younger Habre remembers. “It drained them of resources to the extent that they had to sleep in the back room of the store for the first three months, until they could scrape enough together to put a deposit down on a nearby apartment to live in.”
Ultimately, the store was a success, which led Habre’s father to open another location back in the their hometown of Portland. But when the strain of operating the two stores over 200 miles apart became too much, he kept the store in Portland and sold the other.
Ed Habre, who had initially pursued a construction career, went to work alongside his parents during a seasonal slowdown. “‘Just come on down to the store and help me put away some new merchandise that came in today and we can go to lunch together,’ he told me,” Habre recalls. “I soon realized that he could use some help to make his wonderful dream into a meaningful retirement.
“I guess that was the hook he used to get me interested in the family business,” he says. “Regardless, I never did go back to my construction job and ended up making a new career in the shoe business. The best part was that we got to spend the last years of his working career together and that I enjoyed working with my dad more than I could have imagined.”
Habre helped grow Shoe Mill into the region’s major independently owned shoe retailer with locations throughout the Portland Metropolitan area and in the state’s capital city of Salem.
When asked how the brand name concept store became Shoe Mill, “We wanted to add additional locations, but were unable to do so using the concept store name, since our market area was saturated with the nationally known brand,” he says. “Dad took on a partner that always wanted to own a store called Shoe Mill. My dad thought it was as good a name as any and collaborated with him. However, after a few years, the partnership dissolved and we decided to move forward with more stores, opening additional Shoe Mill locations in our market area.
“As for our tag line, ‘We Put the World at Your Feet,’ this registered trademark was born out of the way we purchased brands from all over the world and presented an international mix of footwear to our local customers,” he says. “We still shop the globe for unique brands, which adds to our uniqueness in the view of our valued customers.”
Today, the company has nine brick-and-mortar locations and sells via the Internet on shoemill.com. Concerning online retailing Habre explains: “Like most independent shoe retailers, our website started out as simply an information page that detailed where our stores were located along with a brief history of our company.
“However, we soon realized that customers were going to our site intending to purchase from us and this presented an opportunity that we should take advantage of,” he continues. “Even though it was a significant investment of time and resources, it is one we are glad we made.”
He credits the company’s overall success to strong work ethic, which his parents exemplified. “They had this mentality that they simply were not going to fail no matter how hard the going got,” he recalls.
“If hard work was what it took to succeed, they weren’t going shy away from it,” he continues. “If long hours were required to get the job done, then they sacrificed leisure time to accomplish the tasks at hand.
“My dad also was a very dedicated Christian who had a high moral ethic,” Habre continues. “His whole selling style was to be helpful to people. He wasn’t just selling footwear; he was selling service with kindness.
“He would provide this atmosphere of respectful service to people who he considered to be his friends and neighbors,” he says. “When he would measure their feet, they would be fit properly and feel comfortable in their footwear. It’s still part of our company culture. We’ve continued that attentive selling style to this day.”
Shoe Mill has established itself as an iconic brand in Oregon. “People know who we are because we’ve been in business nearly 40 years,” Habre says, noting that the stores also are well positioned in the Pacific Northwest. “Our strategically located stores allow customers in our region to find us easily.”
E-commerce has changed the way Shoe Mill’s customers buy products, Habre says. But the company does not see this as a negative challenge; instead, it views it as an opportunity for the company to grow.
“We have to make ourselves available to all customers who choose to shop with us,” Habre says. “If it’s not convenient for them to shop our brick-and-mortar stores, we need to be present for them to shop our selection of great brands on the Internet.”
But Shoe Mill has no plans to close its physical locations, either. “We need to be available to our customers wherever they want to shop,” he says. “If they’re going to come to the store and have a personalized experience, our challenge is to make sure that experience is incredibly satisfying.”
Although Shoe Mill’s physical locations cannot match the breadth of product that is available on the Internet, “We curate our selection each season to what we believe to be the best products appropriate for the clientele that historically come to our stores,” Habre says, “they depend on us season after season to bring them options that make them feel comfortable both in feel and sense of style.”
The company continues to refine the retail experience, Habre adds. “We’re trying to make sure that our stores are as inviting as they possibly can be, and that our employees are working at maximum efficiency,” he says.
Shoe Mill hires employees who like people, Habre says. However, previous shoe retail or service industry experience is not mandatory, it is simply a plus.
“They don’t necessarily have to have shoe selling experience,” he says. “If you can put up with the grueling hours and the demands of customers in restaurants, you’ll probably be good at selling shoes. Ultimately, it comes down to a desire to help people and giving them a superior customer experience.
“To help our fit specialists create a positive feel we try to make selling fun,” he says. “We run sales contests, set reachable goals and celebrate sales successes company-wide. When both the customer and the salesperson are having fun together, it makes shopping with us a memorable occasion.”
Habre shares ownership of Shoe Mill with his sister, but has begun implementation of a succession plan. “I’m in my early 60s and our plan for the next generation running the company on a day-to-day basis is well under way,” he says, but asserts that he is not getting tired of the business.
“These are the best working years of my life and I’m having a blast working with my sons who are taking ownership of this business seriously,” he says. “Candidly, I need to continue to get out of their way. They’re very forward thinking, creative and capable.
“We also have some younger senior management employees who we have confidence in that have a passion for retail and the success of the company,” he says, noting that he believes Shoe Mill will continue to be successful as they continue to have confidence in creative and motivated team members.
“Our business will be viable as the industry changes,” he says. “The attitudes of our highly skilled and energetic younger management team will adapt to the changing times.”