With a portfolio that includes the latest fashions for the urban consumer and school uniforms for Detroit and suburban public schools, the tie that binds this retailer’s approach is customer service. Mr. Alan’s Shoes and Sportswear The story of Mr. Alan’s Shoes and Sportswear started in 1974 when 19-year-old Alan Bishop decided to take on the world of retail rather than work for his father. The senior Bishop owned a women’s shoe store chain, one of which was located in an open-air mall. When a vacant space opened across the way, Alan decided to open up a men’s store. The only problem: he had no employees. 

“He’d be working for his father, and if someone came into his store, he’d run across to help them,” said Roger Karnow, CEO of Mr. Alan’s. This entrepreneurial and service-first mentality has stayed with the company since and is the key to understanding how despite the rocky economic hardships the state of Michigan has seen in recent years, Mr. Alan’s has continued to grow.

Invite them in

For the first few years of its existence, Mr. Alan’s was a men’s designer dress shoe store. In 1977, the company branched out into a second location when Alan brought this brother-in-law into the business. 

Rather than going at it alone, the brothers decided to lease a department inside a local men’s clothing chain. Because the local chain had a couple of other stores in the area and wanted to repeat the business arrangement, Mr. Alan’s jumped from one location to four in one year.

Today, Mr. Alan’s has eight locations in Michigan and two in Florida, where Alan spends the majority of his time. “Mr. Alan’s began expanding in Florida, which resulted in bringing Alan’s sons into the retail business,” said Karnow. 

Although the majority of the company’s growth is focused on its home state, Alan and his sons are looking at a lease opportunity that could lead to a third Florida location by next spring. In addition, Karnow is negotiating another lease in Michigan. Regardless of the location, the company’s approach to personalized service remains the same.

All managers that work at Mr. Alan’s have extensive experience in the shoe industry and are charged with training their employees, starting with the foot-measuring Brannock device. Karnow said staffing the stores is not as simple as instructing a new hire to start selling after placing them on the sales floor. 

“Our employees know that everyone who walks into our store has been invited by us through our heavy approach to advertising, so we need to make sure our customers have the most pleasant experience possible,” he said. “As long as we can convey that to our employees, we hope they can convey that to the customer.”

Dress them up

Mr. Alan’s desire to meet the needs of its Metro Detroit consumers led it down a new path when, 10 years ago, it watched as local schools switched to school uniform dress codes but struggled to find their styles and colors. 

At the time, there was only one principle vendor to the mass public. When the company noticed the schools’ needs weren’t being met, it decided to take action. “We approached that one player and asked if we could run their program as a leased department,” Karnow explained. 

“The company said no, but it didn’t have the variety it needed in sizes or colors,” he continued. “So when the Detroit public and the local schools started to go to uniforms and choose their own colors, no one was supplying them what they needed.”

Mr. Alan’s realized that if it could develop relationships with the school principals and find out in advance what colors the schools were going to use, it could stock its store appropriately. Karnow said the company increased its inventory by piece but not by dollar because it had a solid idea of what would be needed in advance.

In its first year, the company sold approximately 4,000 pieces. This year, the order size was 300,000. “We might be the largest independent vendor of school uniforms, but we definitely are the largest donator of school uniforms to the city of Detroit,” Karnow said. “By donating our goods, we’ve found another way to let people know we have uniforms if they need them.”

Defining greatness

Karnow said the definition of Mr. Alan’s is a brand-driven retailer with value in mind. “Our customers are looking for the freshest, newest styles at a value price,” he said. 

To ensure it can offer the best prices out there, Mr. Alan’s will match the price of its competition. To keep the styles its consumers want in its stores, its experienced buyers keep a close watch on styles in the industry and the windows of its competition. It also moves merchandise from location to location based on what’s selling the best. 

“If an item has been in the store three weeks and it’s not moving there but it’s moving at another location, we’ll move it to where it’s popular,” Karnow said. Technology plays a major role in the company keeping tabs on what’s selling where. In addition, its technology vendor, JDS out of California, customizes its platforms to make sure Mr. Alan’s has the solutions it needs to keep its business running smooth. 

“We’re heavily interested in anything that gets us to move merchandise into our warehouse, out of our warehouse, or in between stores,” said Karnow. It’s all part of the service-oriented approach Mr. Alan’s takes in making sure each part of its business does what it’s supposed to: meet the needs of the consumers.