A Feat in Footwear.
In the realm of fashion apparel, nothing seems to foster more adulation than footwear. Merely consider the stories, songs, and slogans all sensationalizing our sensitivity to shoes. Were it not for shoes, Cinderella could not have claimed her prince nor Dorothy found her way home from Oz. From Elvis’ non-stepped-upon blue-suede and Nancy Sinatra’s walkin boots to Run DMC’s Adidas and Nelly’s Air Force Ones, it doesn’t take Imelda Marcos to know some are fixated on footwear. One manufacturer’s slogan has even become a household phrase – Just Do It! Yet, to do well in the selling of shoes one would do well to learn from a family who has been in the business for more than a century. In fact, Minnesota’s Schuler Shoes offers insight beneficial to all in business.
When one wants shoes in Minnesota, whether it is something stylish for St. Paul’s festive Fashion Week, something warm and snuggly for those cold winter nights, something to sport at games with the Twins or Vikings, or something more rugged for camping and fishing among those 10,000 lakes, there is one source for all variety of shoe styles and it is known as Schuler Shoes. Among the largest, yet most distinguished as the oldest of family-owned shoe enterprises west of the Mississippi, Schuler Shoes began in 1889 when Vincent Schuler opened his first store at the intersection of Washington and Broadway in Minneapolis. Vincent’s wife, Henrietta, dutifully assisted her husband with store functions and a newspaper of that era once reported how she diligently maintained a diary detailing the day-to-day operations, as well as transitions in the weather.
Of course, today, it might require several journals to account of daily processes (not to mention a few computers). Minnesota weather may be what it always has been, but Schuler Shoes has transitioned into one of the most dynamic operations in its industry, providing customers with a vast range of style and brand options at any of its eight expansive locations throughout the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, and another four locations that specifically feature the New Balance brand. Some styles have come and gone in the fickle nature of market demand, just as some businesses have opened and closed in the evolution of economic eras, but Schuler Shoes has weathered all seasons of change and persevered as a conduit of both community and family pride under the leadership of the Schuler family. Staffing expanded when Vincent took on his niece Marie and his nephews Otto and Emmet (second generation), back in the 1920’s. Emmet’s son, John Schuler purchased and became owner and president in the 1970’s, and today represents the third generation of family ownership.
Step-Up to Service
In accounting of the store’s legacy as well as current operational practices, John Schuler offers pearls of wisdom that are wise counsel in any professional career. He begins by crediting much of his company’s success to its commitment to customer service. “Customer service has always been at the top of the list, and that doesn’t only mean how we treat our customers, but also how we interact together as employees,” says Schuler. “But customer service is one thing to say, and a lot say it, but it is another thing to actually do it.” At Schuler Shoes, service connotes to “bending over backward to make sure everyone is happy.” For example, Schuler says early-on, it was determined that a simple return policy was insufficient. “We had to get something more concrete,” he says, and this led to an unwavering philosophy to focus on customer satisfaction at any cost. “If customers wants to return their shoes, we appreciate it if they are returned within thirty days, in the original box, but there are always exceptions,” Schuler. “We’ve had customers return shoes after six months, and we may not like it, but if the customer isn’t happy with the shoes, we’re going to take them back.”
Schuler, who sold shoes on the floor for years before and after he became owner, says nothing good ever comes from having a confrontation with a customer. “It’s just not worth it, and I have told that to staff, confrontations are not worth the stress.” To that point, Schuler says the store’s overarching mandate is ensuring customers are satisfied, so even if a customer returns long after the point of purchase, if the customer isn’t happy, the staff objective is to do what is needed to make him happy.
To ensure customer service, it also means staff has to be appropriately trained to fully understand the nuances and properties of various styles and brands, and effectively engaging with a customer in order to appropriately counsel them in the weighing of choices. Many stores today leave customers alone to their own decision making processes. At Schuler’s they adhere to the practice of measuring feet and learning how the customer plans to use the shoes being purchased. “We sell quality shoes, but if any shoe isn’t matched with the purpose it is needed, the customer isn’t going to be happy, so we have to engage in conversation and help them to make the right choice,” says Schuler.
And choices are not always simply born from desire to be stylish, for some footwear is a vital facet of physical wellbeing. Schuler Shoes has maintained close working relationships with many in the medical community, from podiatrists and chiropractors, who have recommended their patients to wear specially-designed footwear. Schuler Shoes not only maintains an inventory of these types of shoes, but has added professionals to its staff who are known as pedorthists. Schuler refers to pedorthists as “pharmacists of the shoe business.” These professionals are certified and trained in the use of footwear and over-the-counter orthotics that address conditions of the foot and ankle. While doctors make diagnosis, the pedorthist can recommend the appropriate footwear or type of insert needed, to better aid the customer. Schuler says the providing of free foot evaluations and training of staff to accommodate this customer need has not only become an essential part of growing the business, but also a further extension of the company’s commitment to provide unparalleled customer service.
One Size Does Not Fit All
To appeal to all generations, gender and general sense of style of a diverse customer base, Schuler says it is essential to maintain a diverse line of product offerings. This requires a finely honed sense of discernment and acute awareness of market trends. Of course, one also has to exercise caution and not invest too greatly in new products lines too quickly. Schuler says he learned a valuable lesson back in the 70’s when he first assumed leadership of the stores. Schuler’s had predominantly focused on better-grade footwear for business professionals and casual occasions, but he began adding more lines of European design-sense. In an effort to attract new customers, the new product lines didn’t go over so well with his existing customer base. He realized that catering to new customers should never mean forsaking established customer expectations.
Today, Schuler Shoes has relationships with manufacturers throughout the world and it continues to maintain an inventory of a wide range of style, largely because it has room to accommodate that inventory. Many of the Schuler Shoes locations encompass more than 9,000 square feet of operating space.
Schuler also has four locations that specifically focus on shoes, apparel and accessories manufactured by New Balance. Schuler says he partnered with Jim Davis of New Balance because the company, more than any other, specialized in manufacturing shoe styles in the widest range of sizes and widths. “They make shoes for men and women in narrows, mediums, wides and extra wides in size-five up to twenty,” says Schuler. “You have to have sizes and widths to cater to all different people, and that’s the trouble with lots of business, some only look at bottom line when purchasing inventory, and only buys what sells the most. We want to have something to fit every customer. New Balance has commitment to sizes, widths and shoes that properly fit, and that fits our DNA,” says Schuler.
Soles For Souls
For all the shoes sold by Schuler Shoes, the company has equally engaged in efforts to help those who cannot afford to purchase footwear. Through a program called Soles for Souls, Schuler helps organize collection and donation of shoes which are distributed among homeless people within its communities and other places that have such need. Schuler says Minneapolis can get cold in winter and it is almost unbearable to think of anyone trying to suffer through it without footwear. The business has also partnered in another project that provides free socks for the sockless, something else that’s appreciated when it turns cold.
The Sole Project is another initiative that is actually led by Schuler Shoes. Through the Sole Project, Schuler has galvanized support for a range of community charities dedicated to providing care for people in need. Schuler says the project not only helps provide comfort to feet, but encouragement to souls. The vision behind Sole Project is to ensure the basic needs of people are met. Accordingly, “When you meet basic needs, you lay the foundation for a stronger community. Unmet basic needs put our community at risk. Hungry children are more likely to miss school, affecting their academic progress. Lack of affordable housing forces people to live farther from their jobs; undermining their stability. The Sole Project seeks to build strong partnerships and lasting value in our communities by supporting humanitarian organizations that provide food/nutrition, clothing, shoes, socks, shelter, primary health care needs, basic education, drinking water and sanitation to those in need.”
In this capacity, Schuler Shoes has constantly demonstrated that in tending to business and customer demands, one can also responsibly tend to the needs of the community in which it operates. And as much as Schuler cares about his customers, it doesn’t take long to learn he exudes equal measure of concern for the community that he recognizes as home and for all who live there. While some dream of national expansion for their enterprises, Schuler says his will remain focused on Minnesota. Though he hints of possibly opening other locations, or expanding size of existing locations, he has no plans to locate outside of the state at this time.
Yet, just as shoe styles evolve, so too does business operations. Schuler Shoes has expanded their virtual presence on the Internet, and they anticipate that technology will aid in more service to customers as well as aiding sales in the coming future. Schuler says the business “does not play the price game” through its Online market. The prices advertised Online are consistent with those in-store.
While the technology has been incorporated to complement business function, Schuler says nothing can truly replace human-to-human contact and interaction. “Besides, footwear is a little hard to buy Online. People still want to try the shoes on, they still want customer service.”
Schuler says, at the end of the day, servicing customers is what most connotes to success. “Our customers want quality shoes that are good fitting, that are comfortable and have good style, and we have to constantly challenge ourselves to make sure we are providing that,” says Schuler. “But it still comes down to how we are serving them. We have to do it better than anyone else. If they don’t see the value in our service, they’ll go somewhere else.”
As for other Schulers, one can find them working nowhere else but at the family business. Schuler and his wife Nancy have four children (age 27 to 48, fourth generation) who, along with three of their spouses, are dutifully tending to store customers. He also has two nephews and two grandchildren (fifth generation) that work with him. He considers the opportunity for a family to work together “as a real blessing” and says, given the family input, Schuler Shoes can be expected to continue as a family-led, family-friendly enterprise for many more years to come.
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