Perfect fit for shoe store focused on custom fittings

Couple preparing to open third Vancouver-area shoe store

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

When the Shoe Fits

What: A men’s and women’s shoe store and pedorthic center.

Where: Two Vancouver stores in Fisher’s Landing and Salmon Creek.

Owners: Alan and Amy O’Hara.

What’s new: The O’Haras plan to open a third store next month in the Grand Central retail complex off state Highway 14 and Columbia House Blvd.

Employees: 15 full- and part-time,

Founded: 2004.

2010 sales: $2.5 million.

Website: http://www.whentheshoefits.com.

In an era of self-service retail, Vancouver business owners Alan and Amy O’Hara say customer service and custom fit are the keys to growth for their small shoe store chain.

So far, those old-school notions seem to be bringing clientele running to the couple’s two Vancouver-based When the Shoe Fits stores. Their business model relies on both O’Haras’ experience — his, as a certified pedorthist, shoe salesman and former Nordstrom shoe buyer; and hers, which includes a background in shoe sales and experience working for a wholesale shoe manufacturer.

The O’Haras are set to open a third store in September in the Grand Central retail complex off state Highway 14 and Columbia House Boulevard.

Seeing the professional contractors work on the store’s interior reminds Alan O’Hara how far the business has come since When the Shoe Fits opened in 2004 next door to the Whole Foods supermarket in east Vancouver.

“We painted the store ourselves, until three in the morning,” he said.

Amy insists Alan’s confidence and attention to detail have fueled the company’s growth.

To draw up a business plan, he got help from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SCORE program.

After three months of business planning, the couple pitched their idea for a shoe business to nearly 20 banks before landing a small business loan.

“Everybody said it was a good idea, we just didn’t have enough capital,” Alan O’Hara said.

When it came to hiring staff, the O’Haras, both 43, looked for experienced shoe sellers, according to Amy O’Hara. The stores now employ about 15 people,

She compared the store’s service model to a decades-old tradition of customized shoe fitting.

“That’s exactly what we try to do with every customer,” she said.

The O’Haras, longtime Clark County residents, did their due diligence when deciding where to open their third shop.

After looking at other markets in the Portland-Vancouver area, they decided to round out their coverage of Southwest Washington, staying north of the Columbia River.

They might open a Portland shop “down the road,” Alan O’Hara said.

For now, he continues to see opportunities selling to Clark County’s baby boomers. Born between 1946 and 1964, the population comes with a host of special-fit foot needs for everything from comfortable running shoes to orthotics. By 2025, one-fourth of Clark County residents are projected to be age 60 or older, according to the Washington Office of Financial Management.

“It’s a great group,” Alan O’Hara said. “They’re not going to sacrifice style for comfort.”

When the Shoe Fits carries brands such as Dansko, Keen, Merrell, New Balance and Brooks. Store personnel are trained in custom fitting and gait analysis.