“If I had to go back again, I don’t know if I would necessarily take the same risk,” said Jennifer Ford, owner of Premium Goods in Houston.
Like every independent entrepreneur, Ford has navigated dramatic shifts in retail and persevered through economic ups and downs since she opened her Houston sneaker mecca two decades ago at the age of 26.
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Today, Premium Goods is still a rarity in the shoe boutique world, where few Black women store-owners have attained long-term success.
And these days, it’s become harder and harder to open a shoe store — no matter who you are.
“Not a lot of people are just jumping in,” explained Mark Denkler, president of the National Shoe Retailers Association. “I’ve been in this position for three years. And unfortunately, I’ve gotten more calls [from people] asking how to sell their store versus how to open one.”
These barriers to entering the shoe store retail game are manifold. They include the need for significant financial capital, business experience and relationships with brand accounts, to name a few.
“I think the biggest challenge is securing the right accounts from brands and a line of credit,” said Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, the founder of Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design and cofounder of the Black Footwear Forum.
Black-owned businesses, specifically, have faced uphill battles in recent years amid the economic challenges during the pandemic. A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that Black-owned businesses were twice as likely to shutter during the pandemic compared with companies overall — due to weaker relationships with banks, a lack of pre-existing funds and a lack of a strong financial cushion, all of which were exacerbated by the pandemic.
“As minorities, we don’t have access to [funding] as much and it’s not given to us as much. And if it is, it comes with a big ball and chain that holds you back,” Ford said.
Bruce Wesley, owner of Wesley’s Shoes in Chicago, which prides itself as being the oldest African American-owned shoe store still running in the U.S., took over his family shoe business, founded in 1970, from his father.
“It’s definitely helpful if you can lay down the [business] foundation and people follow the footprints,” he explained. “There are a lot of people that have been very successful at it, that’s why they are second and third generation now.”
The power of the franchise model
In 2021, The Athlete’s Foot recognized that it could play a major role in helping Black entrepreneurs chart a path for success at a critical time.
The retailer launched the Strategic African American Retail Track (StAART), which equips would-be business owners with the tools to start their own Athlete’s Foot franchisee. Tasha Cobbs Leonard, a Grammy Award-winning gospel artist and businesswoman, became the first-ever beneficiary of the StAART program and one of the few Black female sneaker retail store owners when she opened her TAF location in Greenville, S.C. last year.
“This gives me a chance to be an inspiration to people … especially young girls who have a desire to have companies or businesses of their own,” Cobbs Leonard, who also owns her own eyewear brand and previously launched a plus-sized women’s brand, told FN in an interview last year.
This model is one example of how a franchise system can be a way to mentor diverse talent.
“Franchising is a way to get involved in a brand that’s well established and have a playbook to get you started in an industry that you may or may not be that familiar with,” said John Prothro, president and CEO of retail chain Foot Solutions, Inc.
Foot Solutions, which sells orthotics and specialist footwear, operates a robust franchise model that offers participants “intensive initial and ongoing training as well as operational and marketing support,” according to its website. Of the chain’s more than 50 stores in North America, six are non-franchised stores, Prothro said, explaining how a franchise model offers new store owners the name recognition and established resources of a large retail chain.
In Ford’s case, she borrowed the name of an existing boutique store to get her own business off the ground in 2004. Her good friend Clarence Nathan founded his New York City based Premium Goods store in 2002 and encouraged Ford to use the same name for her store to help her get established and leverage existing relationships with vendors. Despite the shared name, both stores operate completely independently.
“At that time, it was more of a cool guy scene [determining] who was getting the really good products and who was really getting taken care of,” Nathan said regarding the challenges of setting up accounts with popular brands. “It wasn’t just about the story you were telling. So to help try to tip the scale in our favor, [I thought] ‘Hey, we’ll just have more stores.”
Grant and mentorship programs can also be a powerful tool for empowering minorities to succeed in their footwear business. For example, The Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) in January rolled out a new $200,000 grant program to support running retail ownership among Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs. The grant recipient will be provided a “care team” for one year that includes a retail store owner or owners and a lawyer, as well as other Black and brown leaders.
Premium Goods’ Ford lauded the free education resources she received when growing her business as well. She participated in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, a mentorship and education program that helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses, and did a similar program for minority women run by Bank of America, both of which she said were instrumental in taking her business to the next level.
But beyond education, capital and connections, being in the footwear retail business requires a certain level of tenacity and grit.
“It has to be something that minorities want to really be a part of, and really make the effort and grow into the business,” said Nathan. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, I want to get cool kicks and that kind of stuff. It’s a lot of work.”
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