How Robert Tucker Changed the Shoe Retail Landscape

Robert Tucker, the late founder of North Carolina-based Shoe Show who died on Sept. 30 at age 86, was a retail force known for his hard work, love of family and deep knowledge of the shoe business.

“What I remember most — and what separates him from everyone else — were his principles, his tenacity and commitment to building strong partners,” said Solomon Dabah, president of Vida Shoes International. “The result is the legacy he leaves, a strong retail contender that has weathered more than a few storms.”

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From a young age, Tucker had a tireless work ethic, toiling as a cook and curb boy at Tuck Tavern, his stepfather’s restaurant in Concord, N.C., and even diligently cleaning the parking lots of an ice cream shop and another local restaurant.

But while still in high school, Tucker scored a job at Baucom’s Shoe Store during his senior year, an experience that set the stage for his own retail venture. The rest is history when he and his wife, Carolyn Tucker, opened their first Shoe Show location on Main Street in downtown Kannapolis, N.C., in 1960. From there, they never looked back.

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A photo of an early Shoe Show store. Courtesy of Shoe Show

Recalling the early days of the company, Carolyn told FN that she and Bob were so in love that she never noticed the things that they didn’t have. “He worked so hard,” Carolyn said. “It was not unusual for us to run stock at night while our children played among the shoe boxes.”

But as their family grew — having five children in seven years and tragically losing their third child — Carolyn was very busy at home in the early years. Eventually, after the children were older, she returned to the business to help with inventory, visual merchandising and buying around the time Bob opened a small chain of ladies’ boutiques called Sugarfoot.

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A glimpse of a Sugarfoot store. Courtesy of Shoe Show

“These stores were closed when Bob acquired the Burlington Shoes chain [in 1986],” Carolyn noted. “That acquisition led to the opening of the current chain called Shoe Dept. and Shoe Dept. Encore.”

Today, the company has more than 1,000 stores across 47 states with annual sales over a billion dollars.

And as they dramatically grew the business through the decades, the Tuckers have kept a low profile and forged strong industry relationships behind the scenes — still managing to stay a family-run business for the last 63 years.

Robert Tucker, Shoe Show, Founder
A photo of Robert Tucker from 1957. Courtesy of Shoe Show

“It is well known that throughout Bobby’s career, he was incredibly hands-on and there was nothing he didn’t know about his business,” said Michael Greenberg, co-founder and president of Skechers USA Inc. “He was always open and willing to share his big-picture ideas, as well the smallest of details, such as how he would select and execute every location and lease. That’s dedication and business acumen.”

Greenberg also admires the strong culture the Tuckers built at the company.

“The Shoe Show and Shoe Dept. teams have high moral standards and continued to be incredibly respectful when working with the Skechers sales organization,” he said. “We have what I refer to as a real and honest partnership,” Greenberg said, adding that the Tucker family will help carry on that legacy.

“I have no doubt that [daughter] Lisa and the family will carry forward all the lessons that he instilled in them over the years: dedication, respect, insight and passion,” Greenberg said.

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An old Shoe Show newspaper ad featuring Robert Tucker. Courtesy of Shoe Show

With that in mind, Carolyn Tucker proudly noted that all of her children, and a few grandchildren, have worked at the company at some point throughout the years. “Jacqueline is the current accessories buyer, Bobby is a district supervisor, Greg was a district supervisor and distribution center manager at one time and, [before taking the reins as president in 2018], Lisa worked in visual merchandising, managed the distribution center, worked in the real estate division, worked in store operations and has been a buyer,” Carolyn said. “Our grandson, Chase, is currently the Shoe Dept. men’s casual and dress buyer.”

The retail company is almost certain to stay family-run for the near future. Since Lisa Tucker took over the helm five years ago, she has continued to steadily grow the business — for instance, through the company’s recent acquisition of Charleston, S.C.-based outdoor retailer Half-Moon Outfitters in March — all while keeping lessons from her parents top of mind.

One of the most important lessons Lisa said she learned from her father is to “keep things simple” and don’t overcomplicate things. “With your responsibilities comes the opportunity to make tough decisions, but [he taught me to] always be prepared to make decisions for the success of the company,” she told FN. “There are a lot of families who depend on the success of Shoe Show Inc.”

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Shoe Show president Lisa Tucker outside the company’s North Carolina headquarters. Courtesy of Shoe Show

The executive also added that her father was always pushing forward and never let anyone tell him that something couldn’t be done. “He would say, ‘You are thinking in reverse. Don’t tell me how it can’t be done; tell me how it can be done,’” Lisa recalled.

This way of thinking is one of the reasons for Shoe Show’s success. “We are a very unique company,” Lisa said. “We are very lean in the way we operate. It allows us to make decisions quickly and react to what’s going on in retail at the time.”

She added that one of her father’s favorite quotes was, “Retail is of the quick and the dead — if you’re not quick, then you are dead.

“His grit and determination were incredible,” Lisa added. “He never stopped thinking and doing.”

Summing up her husband’s legacy, Carolyn added, “Bob was an amazing man. When I hired someone to write a book about him, called ‘Under the Radar,’ I felt the title described him fully. He didn’t need fanfare. He kept score by the bottom line.”

— With contributions from Shoshy Ciment

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