When it comes to starting the school year off on the right foot, nothing gets kids over the back-to-school blues quite like a shiny new pair of shoes.
Companies know this, and are betting on parents to open their wallets for this year’s back-to-school blitz. DSW recently announced a major expansion of its kids’ footwear segment, and even Kanye West is making Yeezy’s for infants.
But while stylish kicks that make kids the envy of their all friends are one thing, according to two New York City children’s footwear retailers Vamp spoke with, parents are scrutinizing their children’s shoes more than in past years.
“Customers used to spend $100 on a pair of shoes and not even blink, but they don’t do that as much anymore,” said Carole Husiak, owner of Ibiza Kidz, located near Union Square. “The economy has changed people’s buying habits, it’s as simple as that.”
According to Husiak, the most important trend in children’s footwear at the moment is stylish versatility. With family spending on apparel expected to remain flat this year, parents want to know their kid’s shoes will go the distance. For kids, it’s still all about looking cool, and so buying shoes becomes a meeting of the minds.
“[Stylish versatility] is something that looks really cool and hip, but [is] practical at the same time,” Husiak noted. “Parents don’t spend as much on numerous pairs of shoes as they used to, so it has to have a good sneaker sole and look really cool.”
The tension between style and price affects consumer buying patterns as well. Husiak said customers are shopping later in the season to make sure they’re getting the best deals.
“It used to be earlier, but the trend now is that people are buying more what we call ‘in the season.’ They’ll wait until the last minute and then get their shoes and clothing because they don’t want to risk not having it fit or [it] not getting through the whole season—again that goes back to money. They want to know that one pair will last the whole season,” she explained.
Linda Scifo-Young, co-owner of Village Kids Footwear, concurs, “My customers wait for the last weekend before school starts and then we get a rush right after school starts.”
Scifo-Young said some of the most popular brands for back-to-school this year so far have been Pediped, Timberland, See Kai Run, New Balance, Puma and Vans.
At Ibiza Kidz, Husiak reported that brands like Naturino, Camper, Geox and Old Soles have been hits, adding that footwear companies have done a good job in recent years of adding more interest to the kids’ market.
“I think kids are more style-conscious now because more has happened in the industry, in terms of having more options and more playful looks and better materials,” said Husiak. “Parents love them and kids love them.”
But Scifo-Young says some of her bestsellers remain “perennial” styles, classics that sell year after year. “For us it’s not [about] hot brands for back-to-school but hot types,” she said. The store has a strong business with black and navy Mary Janes and black and brown oxfords for private and charter schools, and with sneakers for gym class.
She added that Native and Igor remain popular during summer break, as do Bogs waterproof boots. During the winter, Keen sells well at her store.
Village Kids, an offshoot of the long-standing adult footwear store Foot Gear Plus, opened six years ago in the heart of the East Village. Scifo-Young still prefers doing business the old-fashioned way, which means no online.
“Online is not a money-maker for us. Children need to be measured and when they are not parents are just guessing and order the wrong sizes or types of shoes. Not every foot is standard and no two sizes fit alike,” she said.
Ibiza, which has been in operation for 28 years and just opened a second Stuyvesant Town location last year, also claims online is a no-go, though they have incorporated some more modern selling methods.
“We do a lot of FaceTime selling. Customers who we know really well will call and we’ll show them the shoes and we send them,” said Husiak. “We don’t believe in online shopping for shoes because you really need to feel and touch and have us who are expert shoe-fitters measure the foot and recommend the correct style, which is really important,” she added.
More so than adults, growing kids need proper sizing and fitting when buying shoes. Scifo-Young said the biggest challenge when selling kids footwear is often parents who don’t trust professionals to do their job.
“We never sell a shoe that doesn’t fit. I have been known to not allow a parent to buy a shoe that is too wide or too narrow. But when parents ask their kids over and over again if they like the shoe, the kids start to think that the answer they gave is wrong,” Scifo-Young said.
“Then [the answer] changes from a yes to a no, at which point the parent says no thanks. I think parents need to put their trust in the professionals. I am aware not all stores offer proper sizing and fitting but we do,” she added.
Still, Scifo-Young believes that the positives of her job outweigh any of the negatives, “The best part of my job is buying the right product at the right price for my customers. But best of all is watching the kids grow from year to year.”
For Husiak, it’s the passion for her community that keeps her motivated to keep selling children’s footwear. At Ibiza’s new location, she hosts book readings and parenting workshops that go beyond normal retail experiences.
“It’s a real community-based store,” she said. “I’m a real people person. I love customer service and I think we have some of the best customer service in the city. I think people really appreciate what we offer, and that feels great.”