As Shoe Carnival prepares to open up more locations in various sized population centers, the company aims to remain successful by catering to its customers’ needs. By Bianca Herron
Shoe Carnival has become one of the nation’s largest family footwear retailers since it was founded in 1978, providing customers the convenience of shopping at more than 420 stores in 38 states and Puerto Rico. The Evansville, Ind.-based company’s mission is to provide name-brand merchandise at discount prices. However, the company is most well known for its carnival atmosphere offering customers a unique and fun shopping experience.
“Most notably, in our stores we have a position that is called the ‘mic guy,’” says Brad Gubser, vice president of store planning and development. “Both men and women hold this position, and on any given day the mic guy has a long list of various sales, or rotations as we call them, the store can offer up to cater to the customers in the store at that point in time. In this way we can adjust and cater to specific types of customers, and personalize their shopping experience.
“For example, after looking around the store, the mic guy can get on the microphone and let customers know to meet him at a particular aisle or area of the store where shoes currently discount priced upwards to $45.99 will be marked down for the next 15 minutes only to a price along the lines of $29.95,” Gubser explains. “The customer becomes engaged in our marketing efforts, and loves the spontaneity.
“The list goes on with the different types of sales that we can provide in that regard,” he continues. “We have a wide approach when it comes to merchandising and putting our product on sale. For example, company lore brags we were the first company to come up with the buy one, get one half-off sale in the early 1980s. That was not a common feature in the retail shoe market world at all at that time, and look how it has evolved today.”
Catering to customer needs has set Shoe Carnival apart from its competitors over the course of its nearly 40-year history. “At the end of the day, we don’t want our customers to be disappointed,” Gubser says. “Most retailers provide shoe sizes within the 12 to 16 pair range for any one style or model. We rarely carry less than 24 pairs, and typically up to 36 or more. We want customers to always find their size when they come in store. So as long as the model of the shoe is still being carried, we will always replace that shoe on the next truck to keep it in stock and keep customers happy when they see their size in the style and model that caught their attention.”
Shoe Carnival has thousands of SKUs of moderately priced dress, casual and athletic footwear for the whole family, with national name brands. The company caters to “middle America-type” customers who have middle to lower income. “There are other retailers that tend to go after high-end designer shoes,” Gubser says. “Where large portions of their shoes are in the $150 and up range, we have some shoes in that range, but the majority of our shoes are much more reasonably priced.”
In addition, Gubser notes that the company tailors its offerings for each individual market. “For example, we have Hispanic, urban and traditional-type stores,” he says. “Even within those stores the store general managers and regional manager can call our merchants and say they have customers who need more of a particular style of shoe.”
That tailoring goes one step further with Shoe Carnival’s suppliers. “They are very much a partner with us,” Gubser explains. “All of our key partners, like Nike and Sketchers, will come to us and suggest brands and models they think our customers will love. We leverage that by letting them know what we like, but also saying what we think our customers would like as well. Maybe it’s a different color or trim, for example, but it’s what we think our customer would like better. We partner with a manufacturer to make these type of adjustments and then we make a unique shoe that is crafted just for our customers.”
To cater to its customers even further, in recent years Shoe Carnival has enhanced various ecommerce platforms in its stores. “We determined that we could do our entire e-commerce fulfillment from our stores,” Gubser says. “We moved into that realm about four years ago and now have started allowing customers to buy online and have their product shipped to their homes, or pick it up in-store. We’re finding that a lot of people are taking advantage of that.”
Gubser says one of the reasons he decided to join the company eight years ago is because the company trains its employees well. “I’m constantly amazed when I walk into other retailers and I compare the type of service I’m getting,” he says. “Our employees go through training on all our models of shoes, such as technical shoes that often show up in work shoes, athletic, training and running shoes. You can let any of our employees know what your needs are and they will guide you to shoes that will best fit that need.”
Shoe Carnival employees have a phenomenal amount of tenure with the company as well, Gubser adds, noting that a large percentage have been with the company for at least 10 years, and many with 20 or more years of experience. “We treat our employees well and they stay with us,” he says. “So they really learn about and understand our models. Then they can point customers in the right direction for shoes that will fit their needs. Those are the type of things that will make an anxious shoe-shopping trip into one of comfort and security.”
Looking ahead, Gubser says the company is preparing to open up many new locations and market types. “I believe that we have a good program to reach 600, 800 and then 1,000 stores,” he concludes. “Like other retailers, we are figuring out how our stores should evolve with the current generations growing up. We’re conducting research now and I think a lot of good things will come from that in the near term.”