Editor's note: This is one in a weekly series of profiles on locally owned and operated businesses in Southern Oregon.
What do you do and how long have you been doing it? (Darcie speaking) We sell quality children's shoes for all sorts of activities, ranging from running, hiking, water play and dress. This store has been here since 2006, but I have been in the shoe business pretty much my whole life. We acquired the business in 2010 from Tamara and Monte Stewart.
Business: Little Feet Children's Shoes
Owners: Darcie and William Maassen
Address: 1310 Center Drive, Suite G, Medford
Facebook: Little Feet Children's Shoes
How long have you lived in the Rogue Valley? I've been here since 1989, moving here from San Jose.
What inspired you to go into this line of work? I've always been in the footwear business in one way or another. When I was young, my father operated a couple of Stride-Rite stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. At one point, we owned a sporting-goods store in Atascadero, Calif., and it had a shoe department. When Tamara and Monte were looking to sell the store, they got in contact with me based on my background, and it brought back my childhood in Stride-Rite, and we carry that brand here — the only store between Eugene and Sacramento that carries that brand. We were strongly motivated to get into the business because of the draw of working with kids, which I enjoy immensely.
What decision or action would you change if you could do it again? We could have picked the brains of the prior owners a little longer as far as what the local customer was looking for. We've discovered our best category is simply the athletic-shoe category. It's a combination of things. But mostly the demographic here is pretty practical when it comes to footwear for kids; they don't have the disposable income to spend on specialty stuff so much. Initially, we got caught up a little in this. Before we bought this business, I was a sales manager in the women's shoe department at Macy's and a buyer for a brick-and-mortar store in Ashland, where the specialty category is much broader and women weren't looking for practical shoes, but fun, unique and special items. Quite frankly, they're willing to open pocket strings a little broader when it comes to shoes. For kids, it's got to be basic — lots of basics.
What's the toughest business decision you've made? The decision to step into e-commerce and online sales, risking expanding some of our inventory. The online market is different. Our experience is pretty much basics only. Online we had to make a stab at where we could go with brands and what people are looking for in the regional and national markets. We took a gamble to where we invested some of those dollars. We followed the market. We hoped we would have an opportunity for that specialty market and we found it's still pretty limited online. There's actually a pretty good market for classic shoe styles online, particularly from Stride-Rite. They're not necessarily big sellers in Medford, but they are online, especially in the South. It's a traditional dress shoe for girls. In the South they are dying to get ahold of that shoe. In fact, we found there's a bit of a niche, the pageant category, that this shoe works with — dress shoes for pageants — and they dress up for church. In the Northwest, they're wearing athletic and outdoor styles.
Who are your competitors? Online our biggest competitor is Zappos; it has everything. We have to stay competitive with its pricing and stay interesting. Locally, our biggest competitor is across the street, Fred Meyer. It sells athletic shoes, flip-flops and things like that. We offer more specialized things, but parents aren't necessarily aware of that.
What are your goals? Expanding the online business so we can weather this tough local economy. The percent is minimal right now, about 9 percent of our business last year, and we'd love to grow that. We know regionally, specialty children's shoe stores are actually a dying breed. The people who love them see less of them in their areas. With Harry & David and the hotels nearby, we get a lot of travelers. People from Washington, California and Portland tell us they used to have a Stride-Rite store or had a really great children's shoe store, but they were closed down.
What training or education did you need? I studied art design at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. Mostly it was experience in retail buying and being around the footwear in general. I managed several departments at Macy's.
What's your advice for budding entrepreneurs? It takes a lot of hard work. You need to stay creative and try new things — keep trying new things and find out what works and stick with it. You really want to listen to your customers and find out what they want; that can always change. We'd like to think we can guess what that is, that we have the insight. But that's a mistake, and it's important to listen to the customer. The other thing would be to talk with other business owners. Their insight is good to hear.
To suggest ideas for this column, about businesses that are at least five years old, contact reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email email@example.com.