Good fit eludes Baltimore shoe chain

After 127 years, Hess size wasn't right for company to succeed

November 03, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Hess Shoes will begin the largest sale in its 127-year history tomorrow. Every pair of shoes will be discounted, some of them by half. The shelves, the furniture, the store fixtures -- they're for sale too. Everything must go.

Industry watchers see a certain irony in the going-out-of-business sale being held by this Baltimore shoe-selling institution, which announced Monday that it will close all 11 of its stores.

Hess Shoes, they said yesterday, is leaving the Baltimore retail scene by doing exactly what it didn't, or couldn't, do all those years it was in business -- something different.

In the modern retail trade of discount warehouses and department-store Goliaths, little room is left for the small, privately held shops like Hess Shoes, they said. The ones that survive do so by giving customers something they won't find at Hecht Co., Nordstrom or the other mammoth national chains: cheap prices, or specialization in a certain brand or style.

Hess was neither an industry giant nor a specialty niche retailer, said Tom Rothschild, marketing director for Millman Search Group, a retail consulting firm in Lutherville.

And if you're not one of those things these days, you better be the other, he said.

"Let's face it -- people are getting a lot smarter in terms of where they shop and how they shop," Rothschild said.

"Hess is still a traditional, old-style retailer. If you're not making the shopping experience different enough, then you're not giving people a reason to shop there again," he added.

Hess is the oldest shoe retailer in Baltimore, founded in 1872, but it is not the only independent shoe retailer with a history in the city. Dan Bros. Discount Shoes on South Charles Street opened in 1933. Van Dyke & Bacon opened in 1936. The Towson Bootery, once on York Road in Towson and now in the Shops at Kenilworth, opened about 50 years ago. There are others.

The proprietors of those small independent shoe stores say they have survived in the shadows of the national chain stores by offering personal service and focusing on specific brands or styles -- something Hess never did.

Van Dyke & Bacon specializes in orthopedic and correctional footwear and hard-to-fit sizes, for instance. Dan Bros. specializes in exotic shoes made from animal skins and other materials.

"If you come into my store, you're going to get measured, you're going to get fitted, you're going to get service. Maybe they lost that," said Alex Rudolph, owner of the Towson Bootery.

"I'm in here seven days a week. There aren't many of us left, where the owner comes in and knows the customers."

Executives at Hess Shoes won't discuss the company's financial situation, except to say that its German ownership group was unhappy with the performance and decided to shut it down.

"In my opinion there isn't any one factor, whether it's pricing, competition, brand or location, that put us in the position that we find ourselves in today," said Larry Drombetta, president and chief executive officer of Hess Shoes.

"We have not gone out and changed [the stores'] assortment," he added. "You will find the same brands, the same quality, the same attempt to give service that we've always had."

But some think Hess should have changed.

While some retailers recoiled from the threat of the national chains and have become small niche businesses, Hess responded in the other direction. It grew -- to as many as 32 stores in the early 1990s -- and it expanded its product line by adding more brands and styles.

The result was an industry hy- brid that had difficulty capitalizing on the strengths of either a small business or a large retailer, competitors said.

With dozens of stores, Hess couldn't offer the specialized service and treatment that family-owned stores could. And without the buying power of large department stores, it was squeezed by its policy of matching prices with competitors -- particularly given its shopping-mall-size overhead expenses.

"They have mall rent, they have mall hours -- they have overhead that we'll never see here because we own our buildings," said Keith Heaps, part-owner of Dan Bros.

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