$500 million and counting

Footwear Redefined: Wesley's Shoes' Personalized Footwear Experience

Bruce Wesley, Owner at Wesley’s Shoes

Explore the world of Wesley’s Shoes, a renowned footwear destination with a legacy spanning over five decades. Join host Stephen Bland as he sits down with Bruce Wesley, owner of Wesley’s Shoes, to uncover the secrets behind their success. From innovative foot scanning technology to personalized service, Wesley’s Shoes offers a unique and tailored experience for every customer. Learn about their top-selling brands and commitment to community engagement. Step into comfort with Wesley’s Shoes and redefine your footwear experience today.

Wesley’s Shoes’ emphasis lies in delivering a personalized and holistic footwear experience, where comfort and quality reign supreme.

Bruce Wesley
Owner at Wesley’s Shoes

Hello and welcome to our latest white pod. I’m Stephen Bland, your host with wytlabs an e-commerce internet marketing agency. Today’s guest is Bruce. Bruce, feel free to introduce yourself and let our viewers know a little bit about yourself and your background.

Sure, thanks for allowing me to be on the show. Yes. My name is Bruce Wesley. We have the Wesley’s Shoes here in Chicago in the Hyde Park Shopping Center. We are the oldest ongoing independent black shoe store in the country. We’ve been in business now for 54 years since 1970 when my dad started it. And we’ve now been nationally recognized for our service and the quality of shoes that we carry. And we are online in 50 states. It’s a real experience coming into our store.

and what inspired you to go e-commerce?

Well, we’ve always had e-commerce. We did it when it first came out. We had a website. We get a sale every once a month or twice a month and we get all happy, you know, and we had it there. But then along came right before COVID it started kick-kicking in more. And then when COVID hit, it just started ding, all day long. And then so we upgraded our website to make it an experience like shopping in the store. So our website has, like we say, we’re in 50 states and it’s been growing astronomically. People are discovering us every day.

That’s awesome. So tell me more about your shoes. Tell me more about your products and your shoes.

Okay, yeah, we’ll get down to the shoes. Yeah, so what we’re known for is comfortable shoes. We import shoes from all over the world. You’re not going to find, you know, Nike Air Jordans and stuff like that here. That’s not what we do. We’re more into performance-type shoes, comfortable shoes, nothing against Nike Air Jordans, they’re great shoes, but we try to distinguish ourselves a little differently.

We don’t want to have shoes that you can go click on Amazon and buy. It’s in today’s market. You can’t make any money that way. And the bottom line is we all have to be profitable and everything else. So we try to find brand names that are not as, you know, heavily distributed like that, and just, you can go to the grocery store and buy them, you know? So you’re not going to find a Skechers and stuff like that. So we try to like, so.

So for instance, one of our top lines, a lot of people have heard of, I brought a few here here, is our Hoka line, Hoka.

Okay, yeah, I’ve heard of Hoka.

Yeah, Hoka is a line that’s been growing well. They make great shoes. They look kind of strange, but when you put them on your feet, they’re incredibly comfortable and lightweight, and they come in all kinds of colors. We have them for both men and women. And it’s just the kind of shoes that you just wanna live in. Once you try them on, they’re so lightweight and comfortable and people just love the feel of them.

So what we do a little differently here is when a customer walks in the door, the first thing we do is scan their feet. We measure their feet using a technology system that scans the feet and shows us the pressure points, and the arch height, and their pronation shows us if you had a mosquito bite on your foot, it’ll show us that. It’s very detailed. And what it does is it allows our staff, our experienced staff, to zoom in on what their problems are. Sometimes it even recommends orthotics for them, which we have on hand. We have an array of orthotics that we insert inside the shoe to give it even more support.

So then from there after we’ve got a good idea of their size and everything, we bring out the right shoes for them. We usually have them have a seat, and while they’re sitting down, they can get their feet massaged and we have little massage machines that massage their feet and tendons. Then we help them try the shoes on, which is a rare thing nowadays. That’s like going to the gas station and getting your gas pumped into the car. So we help them try the shoes on and then we let them try, and test them. They can test them on the treadmill. We have treadmills in the store where they can test them and see how they feel. They have hardwood floors to walk around and check out and see what they feel like in the real world. So it’s an entire experience coming into our store.

Awesome. That’s much different than I can ever imagine.

Yeah, it’s not like your big box stores where you just come in and you grab them off the rack and you help yourself and so forth. It’s not a self-service type deal. So we try to give you the full experience in a sit-and-fit store. That’s what we are. We’re a sit-and-fit store.

So I see who could be, who do you feel is your best target audience?

people who just want comfortable shoes. Now what we do do, we do some fashion too, but we try to do the comfort and fashion, put it together with the orthotics and you can have the best of both worlds. You can be cute and comfortable. Now we’re not going to have stilettos and clubbing shoes, but we’re going to have some really cute shoes and stuff that you’re going to really like, so for men and women. So we’re known for that. We’ve been doing it for over five decades.

You’ve touched on a few things while you’re different than your competitors. What makes anything else that makes you better than your competitors than you’ve already mentioned?

Well, that’s one. The other thing, is we just have a really good team of people that are working for us. I’ve got some experienced staff who have been with me for over 25 years and they know the business. It’s not like, you know, they’re running it like it’s their own business. You know, we built our business on relationships. You know, people walking the door. You got guys, they’ll know how the kids, grandkids, it’s like a family. They come in and we all, they come here, they know who we are, they know what we’re about. And of course, we’ve got our new customers too, but it’s about building relationships and experiences with different people.

Awesome. I mean, being in, you know, most of our listeners are entrepreneurs, being in business over 50 years, what are some notable challenges you’ve had and how’d you overcome them?

Oh gosh, we’ve had many challenges. I’ll tell you from day one, it’s not been easy. When my dad started it back in 1970, it was a different world back then, especially for a black entrepreneur coming into an area like this in Hyde Park. Hyde Park is a very diversified area, but in terms of retail and ownership, it was not black, it was very, very few black businesses and we were the first black business to even come into the shopping center where we’re at. At the time, it was a different world. So when we were taking over an existing store that was there, it had been there about five years, called the Shoe Corral, it was called, and it was in a key spot, like one of the, if you went into the center, that’s the spot you wanted.

So it was a couple of Jewish brothers that owned the place, Harry and Joe Devine, they knew my dad well, and they liked me a lot. I was in college at the University of Illinois and I did a little thesis paper on them and they asked me to come to work for them. And I said, oh, sure. I had already been working in my dad’s store, but it was a different world. My dad’s original store was in a different area. It was in an area called Roseland here in Chicago and that’s called the hood. Yeah, back then it wasn’t the hood though. Back then there were thriving stores everywhere. There were lots of businesses up and down the street and we had a great location out there. In 1970, my dad opened the first store out there and we did well. We built on our business and everything. So come around 1982.

We had the opportunity, we’d been in business for 12 years, and we were doing well. The Jewish brothers, Harry and Joe, wanted my dad to take over. They had a list of people that wanted that store. But my dad and him had a good relationship and they wanted to allow them to buy the store from them. And of course, yeah, we jumped at it and then we had already, like I said, I was working for them and they were kind of grooming me for it, you know and so it was a great experience because I had never sold shoes. I mean, honestly, in the Roseland and the Hood area, it was a 95% black audience. But in Hyde Park, it was like, oh man, you had Asians, you had black, you had white, you had everything because of the University of Chicago and different types of shoes I had never sold before. I mean, so Joe Devine, one of the brothers took me around to the trade shows.

You know, we were one of the first accounts to open up with Birkenstock and all these other different brands and he showed me the European sizes and everything I got to feel for the marketplace and so I learned the business. It was around 1982 when I graduated, it was time for me to make this transition. So the merchants at the time who were here, all the different merchants here like it was Woolworths and I can name a whole slew of companies that were here. When they got a hold that these young African Americans from out in the hood, Roseland, were coming to the shopping center, they were like, whoa, hold on, stop the music. We need to have a special, they held an emergency meeting with all the merchants at the time. They called an emergency meeting with one goal, just to block us from getting that lease. And at the time, the Divine Brothers insisted that we have the lease. So they did something unheard of for a business that’s established and doing well. They had the Divine Brothers sign a personal guarantee for something anyway. So anyway, they tried their best to block us out of the lease.

We wound up paying off the Devine brothers in about two or three years. And my dad didn’t want to make too many changes. So because of that, he kept the brothers working. The one brother would come in once a week. The other brother would come in about three or four days a week, just part-time. So we kind of like front, you know, like they still own the store, but we own the store and everything stayed the same. We kept a lot of employees, the name on the door, and merchandise, it was still called Shook-a-Rell.

And we made very, very little small changes. I wanted to come in and say, oh, let’s call it Wesley’s Shoes. He was like, no, we’re gonna keep it just like it is. They broke it, don’t fix it. So anyway, and slowly over the years, I started making little incremental changes, you know? And of course, we got over that hump, and all those stores that were trying to block us are gone now and we’re still here, ironically, you know? And yeah, they gave us a hard time. You know, so that was then. Now today’s market, what’s hard for us? Yeah, we gotta complete, compete against the Amazons of the world and all the, you know, Ebays and all that stuff. But again, we do it by having distinguished merchandise that they just can’t find. We shop all over the world and find good products and stuff that’s just not everywhere.

Awesome. Speaking of your products and shoes, what are your best-selling shoes?

So another brand that we carry here that does well is On Running. We call it Run on the Clouds. They’re lightweight and comfortable. This particular one, you just slip it on, you’re not able to tie it. This particular one is waterproof too. It comes in lots of colors. People love the shoes because they’re so comfortable. We have them for both men and women. This is one of our top brands online and in the store. Once you get them on your feet, I got a pair on myself today.

Once you get them on your feet, you just don’t want to take them off. They’re just incredibly comfortable. They make a lot of different models and different styles. Some people call it OC, but it’s actually on the clouds. It’s like a QC. It looks like it’s a European style. Made a Swiss line. Another good seller, of course, is our New Balance, which we’ve been around forever but they make great classic shoes that never go out of style, very comfortable. We carry them both for men and women. And what I like about New Balance, is they come in widths. Very few shoes come in widths. People have wider feet, you know, and that makes a major difference. Another line I mentioned briefly, is one of ours, we have a corner allocated for just for Birkenstocks. For men and women, we carry a lot of their shoes.

Classic styles like the Boston here with the soft footbed. These are shoes you can stand in all day comfortably. Lots of different colors, men and women. We’ve been carrying the same shoe for the last three decades. All they do is change the colors and improve it slightly here and there. And so those are some of the lines. Oh, one last one. You know, we do carry dressier stuff like.

Echo makes a great shoe here. This is lightweight and comfortable. I like about these, you can kind of dress them up or down and they have a comfortable feel to them, you know. So we have, of course, women’s shoes too, which are, you know, heels and different things. And you’d be surprised at the different items you’ll find in our store. Yeah.

Great, that’s awesome. Ever do golf shoes?

We do one shoe, a golf shoe from Echo. It’s a nice golf shoe. We like it because it can, the way it’s designed, you can wear it as a street shoe or a golf shoe. And we have it for both men and women. It’s a nice shoe, yeah.

Cool. So what are some activities that you’re doing to promote the brand and the business?

Well, we’re always having different promotions going on. And, throughout the year, we keep our customers updated through our email blast and things. One thing we do year-round that’s unique, is we have what’s called a walking club that meets at the Museum of Science and Industry Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the mornings, like eight to nine every morning. They meet on the weekends on Sundays from seven to nine and it’s free to get in. You walk inside the museum, which is an awesome place, yeah, and during the cold weather.

You’re very close to the museum, right? Your location?

Yeah, you could walk to the museum from here we’re a few blocks away. Yeah, so it’s a great area to walk inside. You get a good feel for your shoes and it’s just a nice little environment. That museum is just historic. It’s a vintage building that makes you, you know give you a nice experience. So we meet there, it’s free to get in, you join, we send you a pass, so you can park your car in there free, and you have a couple of hours to get in there and just enjoy walking, yeah.

That’s great. Are you doing any SEO on your website or any paid marketing you’re doing online?

Yeah, we, web designer Ashley Rice, she’s awesome at doing creative things that kind of pull us into the, get people in the store. Right now, we’re just working with the Google platform to try to get on the first page so that we can, people can come in and see the product we have, you know, and it’s hard to do with all. All these, you know, the big companies, the Zappos and the Amazons and all that. But we try what we can to do to get in there to get them the right data, to keep us afloat there. Yeah.

Awesome, that’s very important. So Bruce, what’s your plan here with your brand?

Well, we want to continue to grow it. We want to keep growing our business online and get people to get into the store. I’m trying to get a family involved you know more, unfortunately, my son passed but trying to get my daughter involved in the and get keep it in business keep the family for the next generation going and just trying to grow the business in the right way and get people a lot of people don’t even know we’re here we’ve been here for over fifty years people don’t know who we are so you know so But there’s learning every day we were nominated as the number one independent shoe retailer in the country like What I’m Sorry in Illinois for several years and we were like last couple last year we were nominated as number two in the country in the USA. And that’s through the industry trade.

Awesome. That’s great. I appreciate you coming on. Is there anything else that you want our viewers to know about you, about your, about Wesley’s Shoes, anything else?

No, we just really thank people for shopping with us and we look forward to them coming in the store and we’re going to help them find the right shoes and walk out with a smile on their face and comfortable shoes. It’s an experience, like I said, that you’ll never forget. I think if you try us, give us a shot. We got a lot of people who used to shop in Nordstrom to come visit us first. We’re right here in the neighborhood.

We like people to shop in the neighborhood because we invest back into the neighborhood. We have people that work with us who live in the neighborhood and we work with the banks in the neighborhood and everything recirculates right here.

Awesome. Bruce, I appreciate you coming on. Thank you.

Thank you, appreciate you inviting us in, and have a great, great day.





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