THE MARK OF DISTINCTION

Byline: LAURIE MACDONALD

SEATTLE--Nordstrom isn't the only retailer that knows how to service its customers. Just ask the loyal clientele of a handful of better-grade merchants around the country who nurture, and sometimes even pamper, their customers with highly personal services which undoubtedly transcend standard retail obligations.
But selling shoes is merely one of many areas of expertise to such renowned merchants as Jeffrey Kalinsky, president of Bob Ellis Shoes in Atlanta; Robert Georgio of Georgio Shoes in Fort Lee, N.J., and Great Neck, N.Y.; David and Jeanine Jassem of David's, a two-store chain in Beverly Hills and Encino, Calif.; Sherrie and Lori Oppenheim of Shirise in Glencoe, Ill.; and Scott Marcus of Dolly Duz, in Boca Raton, Fla. Indeed, many are mass accommodators, moonlighting as travel agents, personal shoppers, trend previewers, fashion consultants and even bakers.
"No one needs to buy high-end things," noted Bob Ellis' Jeffrey Kalinsky. "There's a real relationship that has to be established beyond sales. I very much promote, then foster, a real relationship with these women," continued Kalinsky, who knows several of his customers on a first-name basis and sends them gifts on special occasions. The well-traveled Kalinsky also acts as a travel agent for his customers, securing them reservations in hotels and restaurants all over the world.
The linchpin of this relationship is personal attention and service--and not just on the selling floor. It is not unusual for Kalinsky to go out of his way to accommodate an individual customer with comparatively unique fashion preferences and not-so-typical means.
Case in point: Last year Kalinsky spent several hours in New York City showing pictures of Manolo Blahnik's latest collection to a woman who lives there and wears a size 4. Not surprisingly, Kalinsky's effort paid off--the woman special-ordered a $3,100 boot and a $2,500 pump. "There are things I can't buy for the store but can offer people," he added, referring to the incident.
Robert Georgio agreed. "I've been the exclusive buyer for 14 years, so I have acquired my customers' tastes. I know who I'm buying for when I buy a pair of Stephane Kelian or Robert Clergerie shoes. And I know customers' names," he said.
In an effort to remain unique and a cut above the competition, Georgio also offers his customers a "look book" featuring 250 to 300 photos of all the shoes he has purchased or at least detailed for the upcoming season. The book, which is displayed in a private viewing room in the rear of the store twice a year, gives customers a forecast of evolution and styles, said Georgio. "It also adds conviction to some customers' [purchasing decisions]," he said.
While sales spawned from previewing items in the book represent only a small fraction of the store's total business, Georgio is quick to point out its devoted following. "Starting in the middle of March until the beginning of April, calls start coming in asking if the fall look book is prepared," he said.
At the 3,000-square-foot David's store in Beverly Hills, customers and passers-by pop in for another reason: fresh baked goods every morning. As David Jassem noted, when customers stop by and ask, 'What do you have today?' they aren't necessarily referring to a new arrival of shoes. Instead they may be inquiring about what Jeanine Jassem, David's wife and a formidable baker, has brought to the store that day, along with espresso. And while they are nibbling, some customers often take a liking to a particular pair of shoes as well.
David's sales associates are also religious about calling up customers when requested items or new collections arrive. "You'd be amazed at the number of shoes we sell because we make the calls," Jassem said. "We had one Luc Berjen shoe left in our store before we placed a re-order. As soon as the re-orders arrived, we called customers and sold out of the fill-in shipment [60 pairs] in just two days."
Retail prices start at about $100 at David's, which does a strong business with Luc Berjen, Espace, DKNY and Stuart Weitzman.
Indeed, services of this ilk have helped upscale independent retailers maintain a loyal customer base that frequently stretches far beyond their immediate area.
Lori Oppenheim, vice president and buyer at Shirise, noted that, often, customers from as far as Texas, California or New York call up with a vague idea of a desired shoe, describing only the color, heel shape and height. In response, the retailer will ship out as many as six pairs to each customer so she can pick whichever she likes and return the rest.
Similarly, Georgio said he'll often mail photos of Walter Steiger's line to a woman he knows is a loyal Steiger customer. From the photos she then selects what she wants, and the retailer mails it to her.
Like most of these retailers, Oppenheim noted the store rarely turns a customer away if it is sold out of a desired shoe. Typically sales associates at the store network with vendors to get the item, and will even buy it from another retailer to satisfy the customer.
Furthermore, Shirise and Georgio Shoes both offer customers what essentially amounts to perpetual care of their shoes. While Shirise resoles and dyes shoes, Georgio Shoes commissions a nearby repair shop to customize shoes by cutting heels, removing straps and adding new buckles in a matter of hours. Furthermore, Robert Georgio noted that on any given night, a sales associate from his store will leave with a pair of shoes in tow to be delivered to a customer's home.
On a simpler note, Scott Marcus, owner of Dolly Duz and a former U.S. Shoe executive for 14 years, emphasized that superior service begins as soon as a customer walks in the door. Such service might include allowing customers to detail shoes displayed at trunk shows to better suit their wardrobes, and handwriting personal thank-you notes.
"Every customer is queen for the day," added Marcus, who purchased the store from his mother, Dolly, five years ago. Core vendors at Dolly Duz include Stuart Weitzman, D'Rossana and Cole-Haan, and the average price per sale is about $150.
Yet Bob Ellis' Kalinsky believes a retailer should recognize and serve the broader community, not just the store's patrons. With this in mind, he turned what initially started out as a service to Bob Ellis customers--an annual fashion show--into an AIDS benefit three years ago. In addition to raising much-needed funds--about $75,000 last year--Kalinsky noted the event helped explain why he chose to represent particular fashions in the store for the upcoming season. Said Kalinsky: "It makes us a valid place to seek advice and says 'we can be more to you than just a place to shop.' "
According to Kalinsky, these services are merely a small fraction of the special treatment that Bob Ellis provides for its customers. The rest are house secrets, said a guarded Kalinsky, and will remain so.

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