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Retail Realities: Feet First in New Orleans

Footwear retailers in New Orleans live by five buying seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter and Mardi Gras.

“New Orleans is a bit of an anomaly. Our true spring doesn’t start until after Mardi Gras,” said Evie Poitevent, owner of Feet First, a family-owned business that has been serving New Orleans area since 1977. “Over the last several years, Mardi Gras has become its own micro season, so we stock accordingly.”

Mardi Gras season ended later than usual this year, meaning Feet First only began to swap out its selection of party swag and parade-friendly styles like Keds sneakers and Sam Edelman rain boots for fresh spring inventory.

“Otherwise, if we took the traditional shoe store approach, our sales would not be as robust as they are now,” Poitevent explained. “It’s about giving the people what they want, when they want it.”

Feet First, which Poitevent’s parents opened in 1977 originally in New Orleans’ university area, now boasts two stores in prime Nola locations—boutique haven Magazine Street in the Garden District and Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter. The stores stock a mix of comfort and fashion brands, including Naot, Summit, All Black and more, as well as accessories and goods from about 20 local designers.

The stores may be just a 45-minute trolley ride apart from one another, but they serve different customers. “We always say that we’ll split inventory 50-50 across the two stores, but then we end up consolidating to one store to another,” Poitevent said.

Heels have a better sell-through rate on Magazine Street, where Poitevent says locals shop. “We get a lot of wedding-goers and Bachelorette parties in the French Quarter and thought they might need a last-minute shoe, but time after time, heels perform better at the Magazine Street store,” she said. “The French Quarter store does well in flats and comfort shoes. Tourists come in with their feet killing them.”

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In those instances, shoes by Naot check off all the right boxes. Feet First has been a witness to the comfort brand’s style evolution. The store has sold the brand for a decade.

“In the last several years I’ve seen women younger and younger buy [Naot]. My employees—millennials—buy their pairs now, not only because the shoes’ comfort sells itself, but because Naot tries more than other comfort brands to include the right trends and Pantone colors,” Poitevent said.

Summit falls into a similar category. Feet First picked up the “Made in Italy” brand early and has reaped the benefits of the brand’s popular platform program. “Platform brogues and oxfords have been selling like crazy this spring—for all ages,” Poitevent said.

Other bestselling trends for spring include demi wedge sandals, bright shades of green, pink and blue, espadrille bottoms and embroidery. Poitevent said a floral embroidered wedge sandal by Coconuts by Matisse “flew out the door.”

The store prides itself in offering brands with widespread appeal for its multi-generational clientele. “We are not trying to be super niche,” Poitevent explained. “We have locals who grew up coming to the store with their mother and grandmother, and now they are bringing in their daughters. We’ve seen that cycle.”

While Poitevent says the battle against retail giants is real, family and community remain the backbone to Feet First’s success. Her mother is still involved in the “big picture, strategic planning” of the business and together they attend markets and plot buys. “My parents instilled a strong work ethic at an early age,” Poitevent said, recalling summers in the back office managing inventory books by hand.

The store also experiments with offsite shows, essentially bringing Feet First to New Orleans’ robust calendar of festivals, street fairs and holiday events. It is during these mobile store concepts that Poitevent really gets to show support for other local businesses and designers. “We are like a local designer emporium,” she quipped, noting that some of the brands Feet First has stocked has gone onto opening their own retail stores.

Poitevent left New Orleans for other pursuits in Virginia, Washington D.C. and New York, but returned after Hurricane Katrina.

“No place has a more pronounced local pride than New Orleans and part of that is because of Katrina,” she said. “We have a mentality of banding together and helping. That is still alive and in the urban center there’s a strong loyalty of shopping local. That is why Magazine Street is thriving.”