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Date added: 05/01/1999 A Perfect Fit

The Marketeer Magazine, By Sarah Jacoway Hill

It was the law of supply and demand that brought 70-year-old Friedman's Shoes into the marketplace as a supplier of big shoes. "We had always catered to athletes," explains Friedman's representative Randy Teilhaber. "As they got larger, they needed bigger shoes. We had to pretty much force our suppliers to make larger shoes. Manufacturers, especially those in Europe couldn't identify with the need."

It was Friedman's insistence with its manufacturers that once again expanded the market. "We just got our number one factory, Mezlan, to start making size 22 for Shaquille O'Neal," Teilhaber says. "The sales rep and Shaq together called the owner and only then was he convinced that there was really a market for this size. It costs a lot to make the last [shoe form] and it was hearing about the need straight from the source that convinced them to expand into this market.

ADAPTING TO MARKET TRENDS

Bruce Teilhaber, owner of Friedman's Shoes and Randy's father, puts it this way. "Times change. You have to be like a branch that can bend rather than one that breaks." And being flexible is one of the things that this company does best.

The business was founded in 1929 and still bears the last name of Teilhaber's father-in-law, Phillip Friedman. They began quite simply selling previously worn shoes that had been refurbished by a shoemaker. Their next venture was in selling factory-damaged shoes or seconds that were also repaired by a shoemaker. Then they began selling new first quality shoes.

"It was then that we got lucky," Teilhaber says, recalling the expansion into the larger shoe market. "When I started in the business 40 years ago, size 13 was a large-sized man's shoe." Although today the average size man's shoe is size 11, Friedman's sells shoes from size 7 to size 22. It is these large sizes that have made the store known as the unofficial supplier of designer footwear for the very big. Many of his regular customers are professional athletes who routinely order several pairs at a time.

DIVERSITY OF PRODUCT

Shoe prices range from two pairs for $100 to $850 a pair. Many customers routinely purchase several pairs at a time, spending several thousand dollars. The current record holder is Don King, professional boxing promoter, who bought 110 pairs, spending $65,000.

Another contributing factor to Friedman's success is the variety of styles offered. "In the 1990s, men like a lot of diversity in their shoes," Teilhaber says. "This year the square toe is the in-fashion. Next year the oblique toe [cut at an angle] will be the new look." The most popular selling brands are Mezlan, Fratelli and Delarentis.

Diversity plays a significant role in Friedman's success -- not only diversity in size but also diversity in style. Friedman's carries everything from the classic loafer and wing tip, to athletic shoes, sandals and exotic skin shoes.

EXPANDING THE BUSINESS ON-LINE

Still operating as a family business, Teilhaber has been joined by his four sons. "I listen to them and I've learned a lot." At his sons' suggestion, they have added both catalog and Internet shopping.

"Our choice of a company to design our Web site wasn't the most expensive or the cheapest. We went with the one that we thought could supply our needs," says Brett Teilhaber, who directed the expansion. "Basically, I had two requirements: I wanted a site that could be accessed quickly and I wanted a way for customers to order on-line."

"When we began the Web site three years ago, we didn't have a way to track hits on the site," he says. "But since we've been able to track on-line activity, we average about 600 hits per day. Although we currently aren't able to track how many of these result in orders, we should be able to do that soon."

Friedman's has made on-line shopping so easy that even a novice to the Internet can enjoy the convenience. On-line shoppers can order a catalog, fax in an order to Friedman's toll-free number, or e-mail their orders. Shoes are listed by both brand and by category -- athletic, boots, casuals, exotic skins and fashion dress. There are cowboy boots suitable for ridding the range or house shoes for relaxing at home. Customers can also choose from 32 styles of belts in sizes up to 54. Athletic clothes are another store and catalog offering. There are two lines Available, one with sizes up to 5XLT and the other up 6XL.

Customers can also search for a particular brand, get the price of the different styles and then click on their choice, size and the quantity; with a click of the mouse, the order is processed on-line. Bargain hunters for whom no shopping expedition would be complete without a visit to the sale rack can visit the on-line closeout specials. Without ever picking up a shoe and gazing casually at the sole to see the markdown, shoppers can easily find out the sale price.

THE FASHION ANGLE

Realizing that women also have special shoe needs, Friedman's added women's shoes 20 years ago. Accommodating those sizes not readily Available in an average department store -- the very small and the very large -- the selection begins with size 4 and goes up to size 14.

Both a catalog and on-line shopping are also Available for women shoppers, offering 13 brands in the latest fashions, with choices of heels fashionably high or comfortably low, dress shoes, casual wear, boot and formal wear. Colors include black, navy, brown, taupe, bone, white and red, with some fun additions such as metallics and lime green, as well as satin for formal wear. In many cases, matching handbags are Available.

As convenient as catalog shopping and on-line shopping are, many customers still prefer shopping in Friedman's showroom. There is always a Teilhaber on site in the store, Bruce says. "The service aspect is what draws many professional athletes. We open the store at odd hours to accommodate team schedules." Friedman's will quite often dispatch vans to hotels to shuttle visiting players to the store. Word of mouth is what draws the professional athletes as well as other customers.

A "DREAM" JOB

That word of mouth has brought Friedman's national recognition. Recently Bruce Teilhaber was one of the featured guests on an Oprah Winfrey show focusing on people who have dream jobs. Teilhaber, a life-long sports fan, was recognized because of the opportunity that his business affords him to work with professional athletes. He admits, "This is a dream job, but just like any other dream, it has taken and continues to take a lot of work to make it come true."

"You still have to know your market," continues Teilhaber. "Even as you bring new people into the business -- whether family members or others -- my advice is 'Learn to listen.' "