This Pennsylvania retailer was advised not to make renovations during hard times but did so anyway, in hopes a sleeker store would bring in more customers. When the owners of John Reyer Company, Inc. decided to revamp large sections of the selling floor at their Sharon, Pa. shoe store this past year, people told them they were crazy. It didn’t matter, they said, that the store has been around since 1886, that it carries the world’s largest selection of hard-to-find sizes, or that its 36,000-square-foot selling floor could well be a tourist attraction for its sheer size.

“Many people warned us against renovating,” said President Mark Jubelirer, who co-owns Reyer’s shoe store with his brother Steven, vice president. “They said, ‘In this economic climate, you’re not going to get payback.’”

The brothers disagreed. “We don’t expect to see a return on our investment for several seasons, but we do expect to recoup our investment. This is a decision we feel good about; it’s being proactive and aggressive in a lousy retail environment. This is what you do if your store is named Reyer’s. You don’t sit back. It’s why we’ve been in business 125 years.”

Breaking bad

It wasn’t going to be easy, however. The economy is still soggy, and retail hasn’t rebounded to any great degree (although retail sales are up 5% since last year, according to the US Census Bureau). Moreover, Reyer’s, abutting Northeastern Ohio, is in a part of the world decimated by the recession: more than 30% of the population in Youngstown, only 12 miles away, lives in poverty.

“We do serve an increasingly poor, older demographic,” Jubelirer said. “But that’s never stopped us. We always have a marketing budget.” 

After all, he said, there have been many economic setbacks since 1886, and Reyer’s doors are still open. The renovations would go forth as planned, and they would be designed to serve buyers in two markets the brothers felt they’d neglected: girls ages nine to 14 and sophisticated professional women in their 30s and 40s.

To understand the scope of the decision, one must consider the enormous competition Reyer’s faces from places like Zappo’s, the massive online shoe store, and brick-and-mortar titan DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse). 

Independent Reyer’s has selections that easily rival those offered by these giant retailers, but to stay healthy it needed to let people know that it was more than a retailer that carried shoes in hard-to-find sizes (men’s sizes six to 22 in widths B to 6E and women’s in four to 14, widths 4A to 3E). 

It also needed to let consumers know that its selection of quality brands was as expansive as the scope of sizes it stocked or, for that matter, the volume of accessories it moves. “We don’t do anything on a small scale here,” Jubelirer said.

So Reyer’s challenge was to make the customer experience robust for the young and the young at heart. “There’s an abundance of stock here for that demographic, but we never dedicated any space to it,” said Jubelirer.

Intelligent design

An in-store renovation would be powerful for many reasons. The new design would broaden the display of styles and create displays that allowed customers to view easily the store’s prices, brands, and assortments. 

Finally, each display shoe is marked with Reyer’s sticker, the design of which allows consumers to see in some detail the colors and widths available in that style, important for those seeking unusual sizes. 

The project would be challenging, but the proprietor had just the right people in mind. “I hired the design team of Jubelirer and Jubelirer,” he said. He and his brother targeted 3,500 square feet of the selling floor for the re-do. They replaced the carpet, painted it pink, threw down a little glitter, and set up twin 60-inch plasma TV screens, all in hopes of attracting junior and contemporary customers. 

“Customers in that demographic are responsive to big, bold displays,” he said. Reyer’s placed the usual Sketchers, Steve Maddens, and Uggs with high-end brands like BCBG and Poetic License, in welcoming and well-laid out floor plans. “It’s gorgeous,” said Jubelirer. “It’s cutting edge, with big, beautiful color, and it’s easy to move around in.” 

For the older women, Reyer’s created a display meant to evoke a salon atmosphere, placing prominently high-end European shoes designed to appeal to the older professional women next to mid-tier models and dress brands like Naturalizer, Van Eli, and Trotter. This space was deliberately given its own large-square-footage location.

Community collaboration

Jubelirer’s design sense was spot on. Anyone who shops in Sharon knows this, since Reyer’s, the store that bills itself as The World’s Largest Shoe Store, is across the street from The Winner, an emporium that bills itself as the World’s Largest Off-Price Fashion Store. The 75,000-square-foot Winner specializes in clothing for proms, weddings, and homecoming gatherings, all events for which people buy special shoes. 

Reyer’s sought to make it very easy for a woman toting shopping bags from The Winner to find exactly what she needed at Reyers, whether she’s the bride, the mother of the bride, the prom-goer, or the mom buying the prom dress. “When a girl comes in for her prom shoes, she’s in an area designed to allow her to easily see other types of shoes,” said Jubelirer. “And maybe she’ll pick up a second or third pair.” 

Jubelirer called the new display a success. “Now we have our women’s classifications in their own areas. It allows us to consolidate the women’s classifications by demographic and to better showcase our products to accommodate the customer and expand our customer base.” 

The girls and women’s department will be the first to be re-branded. Jubelirer plans to do it primarily with color. Perhaps not surprisingly, the men’s department is blue.

Speaking to Jubelirer, another reason for the store’s success becomes clear. He seldom mentions the store’s business strategy without also talking about its link to traffic at other stores in town. 

Visitors to Reyer’s are encouraged to visit The Winner, buy chocolates at the warehouse-sized Daffin’s, and eat dinner at the Quaker Steak, which Sharon residents are quick to point out has great chicken wings. “We like people to come here for the day and shop,” Jubelirer said. 

The US economy may be bad, but in Sharon, the community is not going to let it affect their spirit of cooperation or their ability to satisfy the customers. It’s simply not going to happen.