Larry’s Looks To The Future

Texas retailer Larry’s Shoes, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is getting ready for the next fifty years with the opening of two new locations. The latest additions to the family-owned chain include a downtown Fort Worth site and an “Authentic Outlet” store in a new outlet center in Katy, Texas.

Over the past half century, Larry’s Shoes has gone from a pawnshop to the largest independent men’s-shoe retailer in the country. But rather than reflect on this realization of the American Dream, the Fort Worth-based company is more interested in looking forward and is poised for major developments in the future.

The son of an eastern-European immigrant cobbler, shoes were already a part of young Larry Goodwin’s life when, at the age of 21, he took charge of the shop. Always a good dresser himself, Goodwin offered a level of quality merchandise, service and commitment to his customers that transcended his modest surroundings and elevated his clients’ self-esteem.

“That principle of attention to the customer is what drives Larry’s Shoes’ success to this day,” said Elliot Goodwin, son and heir to the store. While the elder Goodwin remains chairman of the privately-held company, Elliot Goodwin became its president in 1988 and is responsible for the day-to-day running of what has become a fifteen-store chain.

He admits that the transition of control from father to son was not easy. “The biggest challenge for us both was working together,” he said.

In 1978, when he turned 20, Elliot Goodwin was named vice president. In the `80s, he initiated the company’s expansion from four stores to eight. Dallas gained a second store in 1981 and the Houston market was seized when two Larry’s stores opened in 1986 and a third in 1988.

Goodwin has consistently placed Larry’s Shoes in prime locations. The Houston stores for instance are well-positioned in popular retail areas such as Westheimer and the Galleria. Ironically, in the mid ’80s, while the Houston outlets were burgeoning, downtown Fort Worth was in decline, leading Larry’s to relocate from that area to Bedford, one of the so-called “mid cities” that bridge the 45 miles or so between Fort Worth and Dallas.

Another Texas outpost was established with the opening of Larry’s ninth store in San Antonio in 1991.

Elliot Goodwin, for all his ebullient self-promotion, is a shrewd businessman. He’s had big plans for Larry’s for a long time, but he’s not interested in expansion for expansion’s sake, and he recognizes the dangers inherent in managing a widespread company.

“I had to think hard about moving outside Texas,” he said. “The bigger you get, the harder it is to keep the corporate culture, to be sure that everyone is working toward the same ends and to maintain standards.”

To that end, he instituted training programs for all sales staff before he opened the first out-of-state store, in Denver’s Cherry Creek shopping center in 1991.

“Having the right people on the floor is every bit as important as having the right merchandise,” he explained. A testament to the store’s concern for its staff is the fact that many salespeople have been with Larry’s for many years.

“Our sales people have given a lot to this company, and we appreciate that and reward them for it,” he continued, noting sliding commissions scales and bonuses for performance. Sales staff are also encouraged to build relationships with customers and send out birthday cards, thank-you notes and sale flyers.

The experience of opening the Denver store, which has also spawned a suburban location, has led Goodwin to look closely at other, out-of-state venues. Elliot Goodwin said Phoenix and Atlanta are possibilities but that he’s not telling where and saying only, “Larry’s is going to be much bigger before long. We don’t need larger stores in the same locations. We need more stores in other places.”

And different kinds of stores, too, it seems. The latest two locations are each very different in terms of concept but share the lively, exciting, energetic ambience that has become Larry’s trademark in recent years.

After eleven years, Larry’s Shoes returned to its roots in downtown Fort Worth, with the new Sundance Square store in 1999. Housed in a historic bank building with marble and fine-wood fittings and a custom-boot room, Larry’s Shoes has returned to occupy a mansion, whereas it formerly occupied a shack.

“We’re delighted to be back,” Elliot Goodwin said. “Downtown Fort Worth is happening right now and we’re glad to be part of the revitalization.”

The second new store to open was in a brand-new outlet mall in Katy, Texas, just outside Houston. In November, Larry’s debuted its “Authentic Outlet” concept store with 15,000 square feet of over 25,000 pairs of name-brand shoes for bunion feet for both men and women.

A new advertising campaign created for this store features the slogan “Real Brands. Unreal prices.” and touts discounts upwards of 10 percent. There is also an area of the store designated “Garage Sale” where even bigger discounts can be found.

Despite the lower prices, the Katy Mills store has all the bells and whistles Eliot Goodwin introduced to Larry’s stores in the early `90s, after market research had indicated a change was needed.

The changes he instituted are what customers notice the minute they enter a Larry’s Shoes store. Motorcycles as window dressing; celebrities’ shoes in display cases; full-wall murals by Texas artist Brad Smith; brand-name vendor corners; complimentary gourmet coffee bars; a “chill out” area with a pool table, video monitors, magazines and comfortable seating; and even free foot massages.

“Customers want to be pampered,” said Elliot Good win. “I want them to think of Larry’s as the only place to buy shoes with good arch support , so I make it the best experience possible. I’d like the guys to hang out in here, have them say, `I’ll see you down at Larry’s.’ We always had the edge with our customer service and pricing, but we hadn’t conveyed that to enough people.”

The notion of “shopertainment” to entice shoppers who are adverse to spending time in stores sits well with vendors, too, according to Dorothy Mahler, president of Johnston & Murphy, a long-time supplier.

“It’s a unique and refreshing approach to retailing men’s footwear,” she said. “Larry’s has always had a very special appreciation of the customer. Their professional team spots the trends for the future, and we support that, too.”

Another edge Elliot Goodwin claims is his sizing policy. Using the macho slogan “Size Matters,” he stresses the selection of sizes 5 to 20 and widths AAA to EEEE. Consequently, his stores have enormous inventories of product.

“My salespeople know how to fit a customer, and if he’s hard to fit we’re the store to fit him,” he said.

Ever the marketing guru, Elliot Goodwin’s decision to include a small selection of women’s shoes and accessories in the latest Fort Worth store came from the realization that women frequently direct a man’s shopping choices. Although younger men are more sartorially inclined than their fathers and the advent of the “business casual” category has broadened their footwear options, Elliot Goodwin said he believes that many men’s minds “run out when they reach their feet,” and that most men are happy to have a woman along when they shop.

Now, apparel is showing up alongside the shoes, ties, belts and socks at Larry’s. Since bringing a full-time accessories buyer on board, Larry’s has seen a jump in sales. “Accessories is one of our biggest growth areas,” said Elliot Goodwin. “We’ll be marketing them more aggressively in the future.”

Jeans, shorts, T-shirts, jerseys and shirts by Calvin Klein, Timberland, Dr. Martens and a half dozen other labels are just what a women likes to peruse while her man gets his feet measured. Also, a small but eclectic display of shoes and handbags for her may lead to a purchase.

Among the myriad of brands carried by the store are a full range of athletic looks from names such as Adidas, Nike shoes for plantar fasciitis and Reebok. For men, Ecco, Rockport, Sebago, Bally, Stacy Adams, Kenneth Cole and Dr. Martens are part of the assortment. For women, Donald Pliner, Anne Klein, Mezlan and Kenneth Cole round out the extensive assortment.

“Women love to shop, of course” said Elliot Goodwin, “and if [a woman is] impressed with the ambience, the coffee, the music, whatever, she’ll want to buy something for herself.”

But is this experiment likely to lead to a full women’s department at Larry’s Shoes? Elliot Goodwin has been quoted as saying that Larry’s’ identity allows it to stand out as a true specialty store.

“We have a niche as the largest men’s-shoe retailer, which I treasure,” he said. “But every company needs to reinvent itself every five to seven years. The new concept of `Larry’s hipness’ is taking off and working very well.”

Elliot Goodwin said he envisions a bigger chain of Larry’s stores down the road. Customers will still be pampered, staff will still be appreciated and the next generation of Goodwins will be in charge. This is no doubt what Larry Goodwin had in mind back in that tin shack in Fort Worth, fifty years ago.

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