The other shoe has dropped
After nearly 70 years downtown, Van Hoecks Shoes is closing.
Greg Clarin, who has owned Van Hoecks for nearly 15 years, began his going-out-of-business sale late last week. The store at 95 Monroe Center sold quality name-brand men’s and women’s casual and dress shoes and was especially appreciated by customers who had difficulty in finding a proper fit because Van Hoecks offered a larger inventory of sizes and more personal service than national shoe chains and department stores.
“We have been down here forever and we have fought the battle of less and less retail for the last 20 years. And we’re not an anchor; we can’t sustain retail by ourselves,” said Clarin, who has been in the business for 45 years. “The lease kind of did us in. A lack of retail customers besides our destination customers has done us in.”
Clarin said the appraised value of the building his store occupies was $2.9 million last year, and over the time he has leased space there he figured he has made rent payments totaling $1.5 million. “I’ve bought my space three times. The store is way too big,” he said of the large space he needs for the extensive inventory.
“When we built this, City Centre was here. Steketee’s was here. Herkner’s was here. Fox Jewelers was here. There was a lot of retail on the street. There’s nothing left.”
Besides the costly lease, which he hopes to end, other contributors to the store’s demise are how today’s consumers shop and make purchases. Clarin said customers who are younger than 35 haven’t experienced much in the way of personal service in their lifetimes: No one has pumped their gas or delivered dairy products to their homes. So being waited on isn’t a valued service as it has been for the previous generation. Today’s shoppers are used to helping themselves.
“The young customers today don’t understand service. They don’t understand what we do here, and it’s hard to teach them,” he said.
Then there is the Internet, where price draws consumers, shipping is often free and sales tax usually isn’t charged. Clarin said he has had customers who come into his store, find the right shoes and then go online to buy them.
“The Internet is taking more and more of a brand store’s business like ours every day. People can go and find Johnston & Murphy on the Internet or Florsheim on the Internet, and people are looking for price. Everybody is out there hurting and everybody wants a low price,” said Clarin.
“What we offer is size and service, and some people have had no qualms about coming in here to get fit. When I’ve been in the backroom, I’ve seen them take a picture of the shoe and say they’ll think about (buying) it. I know where they’re going.”
Clarin said when he took over Van Hoecks, he assumed a debt of roughly $1 million incurred by the previous owner, and he used the revenue from good sales years to pay off that debt.
“But for the last four years, we’ve just been digging ourselves a hole because the traffic isn’t there. We’ve had people come here religiously — they’ve been in here all the time — but I need new customers. But young people aren’t coming down here.”
Clarin said there are many more young adults going to the downtown restaurants and taverns at night than are on the streets during the day. He said First Companies, which manages the building, brought a couple of prospective tenants through who were interested in taking part of the space. Clarin said they remarked there wasn’t much foot traffic along Monroe Center.
“There’s no anchor down here. There’s nothing really to draw people here,” he said.
Van Hoecks’ current staff consists of two full-time sales personnel, both with decades of experience, and two younger part-timers. All work on commission.
Clarin didn’t think his going-out-of-business sale would last longer than 60 days.
“I had 10 or 11 good years after I bought this place. But the last four have just been less and less and less,” said Clarin.
“This is the worst week of my life because I’ve been in the shoe business for 45 years, but I’ll have nothing left if I let this thing run another year.”