Sole Dreams - 344 Central Avenue, Jersey CityBy Tom Ciocco September 13, 2013
Sometimes it’s just time for a change, and those who were familiar with the store formerly known as “Nino’s Shoes” know what a big change has recently occurred there, but let’s begin this story at the beginning. In 1980, Messina, Sicily natives Nino and Lina LoSchiavo (pronounced low SKYA voh) opened up a shoe shop at the corner of Central Avenue and Charles Streets. The early ‘80s was a different time in Jersey City, and so was Nino’s business. Though he always sold all kinds of footwear, this was an era that had yet to see the birth of the “sneaker head” phenomenon, so most of his sales were done in men’s dress and business shoes.
In 1990, Nino moved into their current space in a building at 344 Central Avenue (a property which the LoSchiavos now own), and it was shortly after this move that he began to expand his offerings to include more trendy athletic and basketball shoes just as the market for these kinds of kicks really began to blow up. Through the ‘90s, and right up to the big changes in the shop that were made just this year, Nino, Lina, and eventually their son Marco continued to build a true “mom and pop” business not seen very much anymore – one based on good products, good service, and what Nino says has been the key to his success, honesty. “We built up a trust between the customers and us. We built a respect.” Nino said proudly.
But ‘round about 2012, Marco, who had by then taken over the daily running of the business as Nino moved into a more advisory role, began to feel that the look and the feel of the store had gotten a bit stale. “It really looked like a store from the ‘90s,” Marco told me. “We had the business of the ‘old Jersey City’, but we needed to attract the ‘new Jersey City’ too.” And it wasn’t only Marco that felt this way. Nike, the still unchallenged leader in putting out the sneakers that all the kids want, loved the work that the LoSchiavos had been doing with their shoes over the years, but they also wanted to see a major update in the retail outlets nation wide from which their products were sold. Marco told me that Nike had yanked their shoes out of over a dozen stores in Philadelphia and elsewhere for shrink-wrapping their sneakers and displaying them on dull “slat wall” shelving.
Marco definitely didn’t want to be the next shop to feel Nike’s ax, so he and his dad decided it was time to make a big move. “In retail, you constantly have to change,” Marco said. So $100,000 and a name change to “Sole Dreams” later, the LoSchiavos and their keystone supplier Nike were both pretty psyched with the results, and so far their customers seem to agree.
The name, apart from the obvious pun on sole/soul, came from an early prototype of their logo that Marco’s wife drew up depicting a figure reclining on the sole of a shoe. The final logo wound up to be something quite different, but the name stuck. But that was really just the beginning. The physical changes in the store turned out to be dramatic to say the least: a completely new display window, façade and sign, new wood flooring, a serious store-wide sound system, multiple flat screen TVs, and with many of the shoes displayed in front of large, multi-colored flashing LED panels. And with all of these changes also came a 21st century approach to marketing and advertising. Mostly gone is the reliance on just positive word-of-mouth promotion and the occasional newspaper advertisement. In their place, Marco has begun getting the word out about the shop and its new approach via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook - media that are not only free, but which also allow the LoSchiavos to precisely target their ideal customers.
The inevitable question to any brick and mortar shoe retailer eventually has to come around to how they’re dealing with online shoe sellers like Zappos, but when I put this question to Marco, he was unfazed. Marco told me that trendy shoemakers like Nike do not permit their newest, hottest styles to be sold like commodities at mass retailers like Zappos, so anointed shops like Sole Dreams emerge unscathed. Marco maintains that places like Zappos are bigger threats to retailers that sell more pedestrian brands like Clarks and Rockport.
And though a very sizable wedge of Sole Dreams business comes from males in their ‘tweens to late 20s, the LoSchiavos' have always sold and continue to sell infant, pre-school and women’s workout shoes, and as the demographics of this neighborhood continue to change, Marco expects these segments of the business to grow. “We believe in The Heights, and know that there’s big business to be done here,” Marco told me with the greatest confidence. And when I asked him about cultivating a market with folks from Downtown, he said though he’d never turn down business, he didn’t seem to believe that he needed that segment of the market. “A lot of the residents from Downtown shop at Newport because those spots are their local retailers. My goal is to keep people in The Heights from going down there.”
Since completing those big cosmetic changes, business is booming. In addition to Marco, his mom and dad, Sole Dreams now employs six salespeople. “People seem to love the change, and the big boost in traffic through the door makes it clear,” Marco said. “The main thing is that the customers love it, and they’re happy,” he added. And though he’s definitely keeping his eye on the ball with all of the changes he’s put in play, he’s courting the idea of a second store. The shot is still in the air, but if past performance is any gauge, I’m betting it will be a swoosh.
For more info, check out the Business Spotlight on Sole Dreams by ChicpeaJC.