Jackson — In the mid-1990s, Wiley “Buzz” Lowry was trying on dress shoes at Brogan’s, a small, independent shoe store located in Maywood Mart, when it was casually mentioned the store might be for sale.
“I told this guy to let me know if he was serious, but I thought it was kinda like asking people, ‘How’re you doing?’ and they respond, ‘Just fine,’” said Lowry, with a chuckle. “A year later, he called me back.”
Lowry had been a faithful customer of Brogan’s since Jackson city councilman Ben Allen and a partner established it in the mid-1970s and later sold it to the Sherman family in Greenville.
“It needed a shot in the arm,” Lowry surmised. “It’d had absentee ownership, which is difficult, and sales had gone down. Even though it needed retooling, it was still the best store to buy traditional dress shoes from.”
Lowry bought Brogan’s in 1996 and, as part of the retooling, decided a name change was in order. When he was vacationing with his family in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, Lowry stumbled into a hiking store called Footsloggers, and the name fit.
“It doesn’t mean anything to anybody here, but it’s an old colloquial expression in the Appalachians, as in, ‘I’m just footsloggin’ down the mountain,’” he said. “I’ve done a ton of that in the last 25 years, hiking and camping along the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway.”
But there was a hitch. Lowry didn’t want a franchise, and Hanes Boren, the owner of the Western North Carolina chain, didn’t want Lowry to sell the same products. Buffalo Peak was already an established store in Highland Village selling similar outdoor gear, and Lowry didn’t want to radically change his inventory. Boren sold him the rights to the name for 99 years for Mississippi and its contiguous states.
Lowry beefed up the inventory with name brand men’s shoes, including Johnston & Murphy, Clarks of England, Cole Haan, Allen-Edmonds, Minnetonka and Hush Puppies. He added some styles of Timberlands for women and included some hiking patterns in the mix, along with belts by Brighton and Torino, and Burlington and Cole Haan socks.
“Serious hikers go across the street,” he said. “I handle the recreational guy.”
All retailers had to make adjustments after the telecom bubble burst in 2000 and the economy slowed down.
“Men became more conservative and reverted to the basics instead of high fashion,” said Lowry. “We had to adjust to the tried-and-true traditional men’s fashions.”
Lowry learned to adapt to market changes while growing up in an entrepreneurial family. His dad, the late Wiley Lowry Sr., had a bottling business in the metro area, and introduced Gatorade to Mississippi. “At that time, it was carbonated in a tin can,” said Lowry, with a laugh. “It was terrible and didn’t go over well. Then Stokley Van Camp took it back, and it was reintroduced in a bottle. We all know how that turned out.”
Even with making timely adjustments to market trends, competition remains fierce in the independent shoe business, said Lowry, and is exacerbated by the lack of negotiating power with manufacturers.
“We noticed a difference especially after 2000, when manufacturers also had to retool and readjust,” he said. “Manufacturers want to sell shoes to any retailer, and that’s increased competition. There’s plenty of population base here, but it means you have to be very careful about how you buy, you have to know your customers, and satisfy them with colors, widths and sizes. Good customer service is still really the name of the game.”
Internet sales have also impacted the retail industry, particularly shoe sales because manufacturers can sell them cheaper online.
“It’s not the way to go, because manufacturers have gone offshore to make these products,” said Lowry. “If you took an American car to China and had a flat tire, a replacement wouldn’t fit. That’s the way our shoes are, but manufacturers deny this. There’s a tug of war going on between people who make the brand names and people who sell them because the Chinese want to have control over the manufacturing process. So do our vendors. The consumer can’t get a consistent size. If you order over the Internet, you’d be shocked at how sizes vary. Plus, any time you buy over the Internet, it takes away from the local merchant.”
Lowry, who works in business development for the Reformed Theological Seminary, has overseen store operations on the side from day one. He doesn’t plan to expand Footsloggers into Mississippi or its surrounding states. His older son works for Morgan Keegan in Memphis and his younger son, a senior at Ole Miss, is headed to London to work for a year.
“It doesn’t appear either of my sons will return to Jackson,” he said. “If both came home, I’d say, ‘Guys, take it and run.’ They’re young with unlimited energy, but they’re going to do what they want to do, and I don’t blame them.”
In the meantime, Lowry will continue to focus on the Maywood Mart location.
“I was born and raised in Jackson, and now live in my grandparents’ house,” he said. “I haven’t moved an inch — and don’t plan to.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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