By Catherine M. Koetters
Photos by Tracy Krell
Perry Calhoun is passionate about shoes. “I’m in therapy now for overbuying,” joked the owner of The Shoe Market, in Greensboro, NC. “I’ve never seen a shoe I didn’t like. I’m addicted to my business.”
Calhoun, 74, who started selling shoes at age 15, now feeds his addiction by operating a 30,000-square-foot store, offering customers a selection of some 60,000 pairs of mostly comfort footwear.
“It’s like they’re coming in to the shoe show [MAGIC] in Vegas, and they can see all this merchandise,” said Calhoun, whose inventory includes more than 100 styles for some manufacturers. “We find brands that are unique and come in many sizes and widths, and we can get margins to survive in this economy.”
Calhoun said he looks for stylish shoes that are as wide and large as he can find and perhaps aren’t offered in other stores or online. The Shoe Market’s women’s shoe sizes range from 4 to 13, widths from 4A to 4E; men’s sizes range from 7 to 17, widths from 2A to 6E.
“People buy here because they have nowhere to go. Nobody will inventory like this, because it takes a lot of investment to do it,” explained Calhoun.
Calhoun’s plan seems to be working. His 25 sales people sell an average of 1000 pairs of shoes a week. He has four employees designated just to receive new footwear. About 30% of the store’s customers have significant medical conditions addressed by one of three board-certified pedorthists on staff; the most common conditions include plantar fasciitis, metatarsalgia, heel spurs, neuropathy, diabetes, and arthritis.
If a customer needs more than over-the-counter orthotic devices, The Shoe Market works with a nearby 40-year-veteran cobbler to create build-ups and shoe modifications. Those with tired, achy feet can take advantage of the store’s full-time masseuse and reflexologist.
Calhoun didn’t start out in the comfort footwear business. In 1986, he sold a $30 million chain of 12 dress shoe stores and retired. But boredom soon set in, he said, so he launched The Shoe Market in 1992 in a 1000-square-foot space open only two days a week.
“It just sort of grew,” Calhoun said. “It happened accidentally. It was not a plan.”
The store, now located in a professionally redesigned space formerly occupied by a grocery store, carries more than 80 comfort brands, ranging in price from $80 to $450. Still, Calhoun is always on the hunt for the next big shoe find. When interviewed, he had just returned from the MAGIC shoe show in Las Vegas and was headed to another in Atlanta.
Calhoun stressed the calculated importance of a well-trained, well-paid staff to his store’s success.
“You’re only as good as your employees,” he said.
General Manager Melissa Frick, who has worked at The Shoe Market for 18 years, said the company has little staff turnover.
“We’re all family together,” she said of the employees, some of whom have sold shoes for more than 40 years. “It’s a really great, healthy, wonderful environment, and we really hope that spills over and that our customers feel like part of our family.”
Clients are reassured when they don’t see new faces every time they come in, Frick said. Some call ahead to see if their favorite salesperson is in that day. Frick has been working with some customers the entire time she’s worked at The Shoe Market.
Occasionally her clients do have to wait to see her, but she tries to make it worth their while. The week after speaking with LER: Foot Health, she was off to Milan, Italy, in search of the next great shoe.
Catherine M. Koetters is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.