By Catherine M. Koetters
At Althea’s Footwear Solutions in Everett, WA, teamwork is key to building loyal customers and an expanding company.
With eight certified pedorthists on staff, including one retired competitive skier, Althea’s gives patients access to practitioners offering a wide range of experience.
“If you come in and you’re having a problem, many times we’ll put more than one head together to come up with the best possible option for you,” said owner Althea Schlumpf, CPed.
This emphasis on collaboration also served as a driving force when Schlumpf redesigned her store after moving it a mile down the road in October 2014. In its previous location, the shop spanned two floors, so when one area became very busy, staff members in another part of the store couldn’t see it and help. The new Althea’s Footwear Solutions occupies more than 4000 square feet of wide open space.
“Everybody works to the center so they can see each other and help each other,” Schlumpf said.
This is especially important at Althea’s Footwear Solutions because many clients here come in with tough-to-solve problems.
“We don’t get a lot of the really easy stuff,” Schlumpf said of her 15-year-old company. “We get the stuff that is challenging and difficult, and it doesn’t necessarily fit into the little slots that insurance companies want to put it in.”
For many of these customers, the store makes shoes from scratch at its onsite manufacturing facility.
“When I opened this store, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to compromise,” said Schlumpf, whose shop offers a wide range of pedorthic services and supplies, including custom foot orthoses, shoe modifications and lifts, and compression garments. “I wasn’t going to give a person the cheapest product. I was going to give the person the product they needed, because if I can’t do it right, I don’t want to do it.”
That isn’t always easy.
“Sometimes it’s been hard. Sometimes I have to do it at my cost. Sometimes I have to do it at a loss,” said Schlumpf, who also owns The Footwear Place, a similar but smaller store 65 miles away in Lakewood, WA.
Despite the challenges, Althea’s Footwear Solutions seems to be on the right track. Since moving, business has grown more than 40% with almost no advertising, Schlumpf points out. The company has a website and a Facebook page, but that’s about it. She attributes the store’s increased success to satisfied customers, physician referrals, and improved street exposure and parking.
The shop’s annual Open House, always held the first Wednesday in September, brings about 400 customers into the store, many of them for the first time. Attendees, including local lower extremity clinicians, get a chance to see how the shop operates, talk to vendors, enjoy 20% off all purchases, and get a sneak peek at new products arriving in 2016, all while enjoying a little wine and dessert. Schlumpf also holds two trunk shows each spring so customers can get to know a couple of her most popular vendors.
Schlumpf says exchanging ideas with other company owners through the Small Business Accelerator program at Everett Community College has proven “over the moon helpful” in solving problems using a fresh perspective, an advantage also offered by her store’s new operations manager, Jim Schmoker. He brings with him more than 40 years of experience with companies in various industries, including Microsoft. Over the next five years, Schmoker sees Althea’s Footwear Solutions growing its retail business, as well as increasing work with the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the state prison system, which now accounts for about 20% of its output.
In the end, Schlumpf says, it’s all about making life better.
“Almost every day, we have somebody coming in who’s limping or hurting, or they’ve had it,” she said. “They’re at their wits’ end, and we can do something to make it better. That’s why we do what we do.”
Catherine M. Koetters is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.