History in the shoemaking

The following article appeared in the Fall, 2003 issue of Footwear Plus

Life magazine once called Sanford, Maine "the town that refused to die" - the reason being that it not only survived but managed to thrive after the mid-century demise of its primary industry, the textile mills built during the Civil War. In this sense, it is appropriate that Sanford is also home to one of the footwear industry's best examples of survive-and-thrive: Bergeron's Shoes and Podiatric Services, one of the oldest, most notable footwear destinations in the Northeast.

While tourists flock to Maine's lobster shack speckled coastline, hard-to-fit footwear customers head inland to Bergeron's. Like Sanford itself, this small, family business has an efficient, no-fuss kind of charm that results from weathering the times. The modest, two-floor shop doesn't have a flashy exterior or cutting-edge fashion in its windows. It doesn't run expensive TV ads or have plans to expand into a franchise. What it does have is a reputation that precedes it. "It's not just a shoe store, it's a complete foot care center," explains Dick Bergeron, whose father founded the business over 70 years ago. In addition to its wide selection of comfort brands, the store offers what most of the chains, discounters and even independents do not: fitting-even for the most difficult sizes-custom orthotics and personalized alterations to footwear. People frequently travel from as far as Boston (90 minutes away), unable to find that kind of service elsewhere.

The craftmanship that sets Bergeron's apart today is akin to that upon which the business was founded. Dick Bergeron's father Evariste moved to Sanford in 1914, working in the mills as a weaver. In 1932, with eight children to support in the midst of the Great Depression, he began supplementing his income working as a cobbler, opening a small shop using a $45 loan. At age 48, Evariste welcomed Dick and then yet one more child. Luckily, the repair shop turned out to be an especially timely idea. During World \\ar 11, you just couidift buy shoes," Bergeron points out. Any leather that would have been used for new shoes was used to make boots for America's troops. Therefore, pairs piled from floor to ceiling at Evariste's shop. In 1942, he left the mill to be a full-time cobbler-timely once again, as thousands of workers were jobless once the mills closed in the 1950s.

During the war, Evariste's second oldest son Maurice joined the business, and he took over in 1954, moving the cobbler shop uptown to a new location, at which point he also added 18 pairs of new shoes for sale. Customers immediately bought the shoes, heralding a new era for both America and the store. Gym sneakers, school shoes and work hoots filled the store. Teenagers came seeking Beatle boots during the '60s, and the store moved to its current Main Street locale.

Maurice then turned to Dick for help with the burgeoning business. Growing up, Dick didn't aspire to follow in thier father's footsteps. "My dream was never to be a cobbler," he says. But the store had since taken on a new dimension, and in 1971, Dick left a "promising" corporate job in Massachusetts to come on board. Since that time, he has helped the retail side of the business grow and evolve with the times, while three neighboring stores have gone out of business since Bergeron's moved to its current location, and the shop's last competitor closed three years ago. "Twenty-five years ago, everyone was saying the small stores like us would all go out of business," Bergeron says, noting that at one point, a bank wouldn't grant the store a loan because it was a risky proposition.

Bergeron's survival has been the result of adaptation. "The business has changed so much over the past 10 years, I can't even tell you," Bergeron says. Before Sports Authority and its teammates conquered the strip malls, the back half of Bergeron's resembled the Boston Garden, with faux parquet floor and green carpeting providing backdrop to an extensive selection of Nikes. "We used to call it the locker room," Bergeron recalls. "Then that business went away over the years because of the malls and the big-boxes."

As the store withdrew from the athletic business, an important new category began to emerge. In 1992, Bergeron's began picking up industrial accounts, capitalizing on a large blue-collar population. To edge out big-box competition, Bergeron's began offering packages to utility and other companies whereby they refer workers to the store to get properly fit for steel-toe work boots. Employers can pay 50 percent of the cost or allow workers to payroll-deduct the shoes. "It makes it easier for employees to come in and get a good pair of shoes," Bergeron says. Today, his store has the largest work boot selection in southern Maine, and the category accounts for about 35 percent of the store's business.

While building up work, Bergeron cut back on another area - fashion. Until a few years ago, his nephew handled buying fashion brands. However, as malls and outlets continue sprouting all over the region, that business has made less sense. When his nephew left the business, Bergeron decided to re-center around "the better brands you don't find in the outlets," which includes modern comfort purveyors like Birkenstock, Sebago, Haflinger, Finn Comfort, Blondo, Theresia M. and Zeeta. The store's top-selling brand is New Balance, available in the entire range of sizes and widths, up to size 13 in women's and 15 in men's. "The reason we do that is that, once people do find us and travel all the way here, we need to be able to fit them," Bergeron explains.

But far beyond providing off-sizes, the store now offers some of the best custom shoe alterations and orthotics in New England. Dick's wife Marie, whose previous endeavors included jobs as a seamstress and hairdresser, became a certified pedorthist (C-Ped) nine years ago. Their son Tom, 27, followed afterward. Together, they custom-build orthotics and shoes for those facing the most challenging of fit issues-from people with knee or back problems to overweight customers needing more width and support. Bergeron's also goes to great lengths to make those alterations as subtle as possible. For instance, to help a customer with a discrepancy in leg lengths, Tom or Marie will literally saw the bottom off a shoe, insert a lift, and then re-attach the original sole to make the two halves of a pair look as identical as possible.

Despite the store's history and solid reputation, Bergeron admits that running this type of store is a tough job, and he even recalls a time he hoped his son would choose a path of less resistance. "I think every parent wants their child to be a doctor, or something along those lines," he says. In one sense, though, that wish has come true: Many customers say that Tom's orthotics have helped them more than years of doctor's visits, not to mention that a sizable chunk of business comes a result of filling prescriptions.

Still, retail is always susceptible to the economy's twists and turns. As of August, 12 of the previous 13 months were off, sales-wise. "It's not an easy business, and it's not a get-quick-rich business," Bergeron says. "Most people just wouldn't have the desire to do it." That explains why such shops are increasingly rare and why customers flock to this one from so far away. Even with more people becoming C-Peds, most don't provide the level of service found at Bergeron's. "There are a lot of C-Peds out there now, but all they really do is fit shoes," he says - which used to be standard practice.

Not that fitting is insignificant. "Nintey-nine percent of our customers have not had their feet measured in years," Bergeron says. "A good number of them are wearing their shoes at least a half size too small." Some grossly miscalculate their size due to habit or don't account for changes with age or pregnancy. "A 21-year-old who wears a size 7 could wear a full 8 by the time she's 50," Bergeron points out. He recently served a woman whose true size was a 9, but she'd been wearing 6-1/2 for years while shopping Wal-Mart's self-serve shoe section.

In addition to properly measuring feet, Bergeron's maintains a select product mix that targets aging Baby Boomers and others seeking simple, comfortable style. Many of the brands have been at the store for decades. Bergeron does more looking than writing while at WSA, but he regularly attends the show and has made a few key finds as far as fresh brands go, including New Zealand-based Kumfs, which he picked up three years ago. At the time, his was one of just two U.S. stores carrying the brand. Finds like that are important for his business, as are the connections made at shows and other industry events like National Shoe Retailers Association seminars. "Part of why I'm still in business is that I go to these things and network," he says. For instance, at one NSRA conference, he was one of the first to learn about and utilize the software now known as Retail Pro: "It's the greatest retail software ever made," he exclaims.

The excitement with which Bergeron says this reflects his genuine love of the business, despite its challenges. That also shows when he effortlessly reels off details of recent customers' visits: the exact towns they traveled from, where they heard about Bergeron's, problems they were having that his wife or son helped them solve. The anecdotes sound like charming little pedorthic fairy tales. Over the summer, for instance, there was a teacher from Chicopee, MA, with a size 11 extra-wide foot. She'd searched far and wide for a feminine pair of shoes that fit. Employees at a Dexter store recommended Bergeron's. She left with an armload of solutions, including a pair of delicate, metallic Kumfs sandals and her first-ever pair of women's athletic shoes. She later wrote to Bergeron: "Thank you for allowing me to finally feel like a woman." Then there was a customer from Berlin, NH, who entered the store via wheelchair after suffering a recent stroke. Marie Bergeron worked with the woman, and she ended up not only purchasing four pairs of shoes but walking out of the store in a pair.

Despite the shop's healing powers, Bergeron doesn't take himself too seriously. His business card reads "Dick Bergeron, O.S.D." At first it appears to be a typo. (O.S.T. stands for orthopedic shoe technician.) But on Bergeron's foot-shaped card, the initials stand for Old Shoe Dog. Recently he altered that official title slightly to O.S.M. - Old Shoe Man. Three days a week, the O.S.M. still works alongside his wife and son as well as two additional full-time salespeople and an employee who helps with maintenance. But that is a recent luxury. Previously, Dick was a CEO who still swept his own sidewalk each day, and Marie still cleaned the store's bathroom.

The foot motif used for Bergeron's business card is also incorporated into the design of the store's ads, shopping bags, magnets and signs as a way to brand the store and make its materials instantly recognizable. A big, white foot sign just down the street from the store reads, "Feet Hurt? Help is just steps away." Catchy signage notwithstanding, Sanford isn't the best town in which to rely on passers-by for business. Therefore, Bergeron advertises in newspapers, recently branching out into the Greater Portland area. He also does some radio advertising on channels that target a more well-informed audience, such as classical music stations. He pays Verizon $40 a month to list the store prominently in its Boston-area SuperPages.

However, Bergeron's most lucrative marketing tool of late has turned out to be the store's Web site, Designed by an outside firm, it provides easy-to-navigate information on the store: its history, brands, store hours, directions and even a page of customer testimonials. Equally important is the fact that the site turns up on Google and other Internet search engines. Bergeron pays to have his store appear near the top of the resulting lists; it also helps that the store name begins with "B", which means it appears near the top of alphabetical store listings as well.

However, attracting customers from afar might not be such a concern in upcoming years; if a plan proposed by the local Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes gets the OK, a $650 million gambling resort may soon be built in the town of Sanford, meaning the masses will descend on this enclave of just over 20,000 people. The vote takes place Nov. 1, and the debate is still raging, with groups called "Casinos No!" and "Think About It" encapsulating the two poles of the argument. The consensus is not yet clear on what effect this development might have on the region.

Bergeron hasn't yet made up his own mind about how the proposed resort's presence might impact his store. On the one hand, the casino could increase visitors to the area and in turn create more traffic for his store. "People coming from afar might then say, 'let's head to Sanford and go to the casino and hit Bergeron's while we're up there,"' he says. "It would put Sanford on the map." Then again, being on the map has its drawbacks, including traffic gridlock. That's already been an increasing problem in the small town, as Portland and even Boston commuters move inland to escape surging coastal real estate rates. "A casino in the area would increase traffic tremendously and I'm sure that would cause some problems," Bergeron says. He worries that new customers might not want to fight that traffic and that regulars might even stop coming, at least as often as they currently do.

In the end, Bergeron says he supposes he'll vote against the casino. But whatever the turnout, he's ready to roll with the punches. "The times are going to change in spite of whether there's a casino," he says. And, as it has always done, Bergeron's will find a way to adjust its fit.

"Think of all the pain and suffering and money I could have saved over the years if I had heard of your services long before now!"

A customer from Littleton, N.H.