On Saturday afternoons only the ambitious dare to drive down Whyte Avenue, particularly the 10-block strip between 109 and 99 streets. It’s not much easier as a pedestrian, thanks to an eclectic, moseying crowd of parents and their SUV-sized strollers, scruffy teenagers, fashionistas and aging hippies. Lattes in hand, they move at a snail’s pace, soaking up the atmosphere of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district and perusing the boutiques.
One staple Whyte Avenue boutique is Gravity Pope, a shoe store off 104 Street known for its chic imported footwear. Its window displays habitually lure the street’s caffeinated band of shoppers into the flagship store’s gleaming white walls and granite shelves adorned with shoes. For two decades, the small shop has sold a diverse array of high-end footwear, including tough-to-find brands like Camper and Fluevog. While it grew up at the same time popular multinational shoe retailers like Aldo began to dominate the Canadian market, Gravity Pope has held its own. It has survived economic challenges and fashion trends to become a $14-million, five-store enterprise spanning three cities. Once a small boutique in a mid-sized prairie city, Gravity Pope is now a recognizable brand and has turned a profit for 20 straight years.
Gravity Pope emerged from another enduring Whyte Avenue shop: Polly Magoo’s. As a young fashion student, Louise Dirks was intrigued by the idea of running an import business and partnered up with a friend to help start Polly Magoo’s. She wanted to run a street-side boutique, explaining, “I wasn’t really a mall girl.” At the time she recalls that Whyte Avenue “was sort of an up-and-coming street with a couple of shops. The rent was decent and it was close to the university.”
It didn’t take long for the shop to start turning a profit. One brand of shoes from the Czech Republic – Monkey Boots – did particular well. As it happened, the distributor for this brand also represented Dr. Martens, and after having so much success with Monkey Boots, the duo took a risk and tried the English brand.
“It was the height of the Doc Martens craze and we were on the forefront of bringing it in,” Dirks says. Soon it became difficult to meet the demand and inventory was steadily taking over the shop. Realizing the potential of the imported footwear – particularly Docs –
the business partners started a second enterprise, focused solely on shoes, and named it Gravity Pope. Two years later, Dirks’ business partner left to focus on Polly Magoo’s, giving her room to lead Gravity Pope.
With Louise Dirks as owner and proprietor, the shop’s revenues continued to grow. Another brand she introduced, a house label aptly called gravitypope, was a hot-seller and even garnered celebrity attention. In 2009, the stylist for comedian Ellen DeGeneres found Gravity Pope’s website and called the Edmonton store. “[The stylist] basically wanted a desert boot for Ellen and had been surfing the net and just came across ours and really liked them,” says Dirks. The Edmonton shop supplied a pair for the TV icon who wore them on her Ellen DeGeneres Show in September 2009. “Since then, I think she’s gotten about six pairs from us and just loves them.”
But while DeGeneres can afford to collect shoes, Dirks has targeted a different market. She figures most of her customers want high-end shoes that can withstand a lot of use over discount footwear. She says this is why her business has grown every year for the last two decades and comfortably weathered the latest economic downturn. Her customers, she says, opt to invest in a good pair of shoes at a higher price that will last. “I feel my business has gone up because I sell quality shoes and people are paying more attention to that.
Small boutique stores like Gravity Pope have advantages over the big-box stores, explains Kyle Murray, a business professor who heads the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing. With fewer locations and smaller volumes of product to deal with, businesses like Gravity Pope can offer a unique selection of shoes and change their product in a hurry. Boutique stores can also offer a better experience for customers since they can more easily train their staff to meet customers’ needs. This is especially important for stores in the luxury market where “you’re not just buying shoes to cover your feet, you’re buying shoes to express yourself,” Murray says. And, since you’re paying more than you would at a big chain, “you expect more from the experience and the products.”
“That’s one of the things I really do put a lot of emphasis on – making sure Gravity Pope isn’t run like a chain store,” Dirks says. This has been a conscious strategy while her small business expanded and opened four more stores including a clothing store in Edmonton, a shoe store in Calgary and two stores – one for shoes, one for clothing – in Vancouver. To keep the boutique experience, she has focused on training staff on all aspects of the products. “They know who designs it, how it’s made, how it fits in comparison to other brands,” she says. Dirks also tries to create an environment in which her staff enjoy working. “I still run it like everyone is an integral part of the business and everyone gets trained on every single brand.” Many of her staff members have been with the company long-term, including her director of retail operations, the manager of the Vancouver store and her senior brand manager who have a combined 34 years of Gravity Pope experience.
While 95 per cent of retailers in Alberta are small outfits, it’s quite a feat for a retail store – especially in fashion – to attain Gravity Pope’s kind of success, says Murray. “The majority of retailers are small and will never get to the multi-store stage. To have five or six stores is a success story for a local retailer,” he says. “It means they’ve survived the initial phase of the start-up and are on the verge of becoming a large retailer.”
Dirks has a lot to brag about. All of her stores are in the black, and since she opened the flagship store 20 years ago she’s turned a profit every year and in 2009, amassed $3.1 million in retained earnings for the company. Though year-over-year revenue growth fluctuates, revenue changes have always been positive. Last year the company earned six per cent revenue growth compared to 2005 when revenue grew by 45 per cent after opening the Vancouver store. At the moment, Dirks is considering expanding further. This time, she’s heading east. “I’m looking for space in Toronto and that’s definitely the next market I’d want to go into.”
Looking past Gravity Pope’s current success, transforming a boutique store into a chain with a recognizable brand is a difficult feat. “It was tough for many years,” Dirks says. “I guess it was growing the business from the ground up. There was a lot of juggling. I’d work the store, the stock room, the office stuff. I’d take payroll and accounts payable home at night. I’d do it all.” At times, Dirks had to ask her suppliers to extend the pay period so she could sell
Dirks still works with many of the same suppliers 20 years on and says those relationships have helped her navigate the financial ups and downs of a small business. “Ultimately, I worked it as far as I could and made sure I was honest with them and bought only what I thought I could sell,” says Dirks. At the same time, she focused on getting her customers unusual footwear they wouldn’t find elsewhere. This often meant trying out new brands that hadn’t been tested in Alberta, or even Canada, without knowing whether they’d sell.
It was a tough balance, but the strategy has worked for Gravity Pope. Customers were delighted with the off-the-beaten-track brands, and loyalty on the part of Dirks’s suppliers has made it tough for new shoe businesses in the area to get a toehold in the market. “If a store opens a block away and contacts one of my suppliers, they’ll say there’s already someone in that area who carries [their brands],” she says.
With an eye for fashion, she’s worked hard to offer a broad range of options and to cater to a wide audience. “I really try to give a wide perspective.” Her customers aren’t just fashionistas but “people who could eventually become fashion people,” she says. To that end, she sells shoes at a variety of price points and styles. Some of Gravity Pope’s brands are made by hand, but others are made in China. Some are made with leather, and others with synthetic, vegetarian-friendly materials (like canvas or linen). They include sporty shoes designed for trekking around and stilettos intended for short distances. She sells shoes for men, women and children.
For independent retailer Tressa Heckbert, who runs St. Albert clothing store Meese with her husband, Gravity Pope’s success is encouraging. “I think they’re really inspiring, being in business so long and expanding so much. I’m sure it’s inspiring for a lot of local independents.” Meese specializes in Canadian-made clothing and accessories and, like Gravity Pope, targets the demographic who spends more for quality. While fashion is always a risky proposition, she says Albertans are more receptive to independent retailers and emerging designers. Heckbert has also found that consumers have been prioritizing quality over quantity through the downturn.
Dirks is a lot like her customers who keep Whyte Avenue busy on lazy Saturday afternoons. She loves shoes and fashion in moderation. “I don’t have thousands of pairs of shoes.” In fact, on a recent trip to Spain, she had to laugh when she found herself, ironically, in need of a pair of comfortable shoes.
It’s this down-to-earth, reasonable sensibility that makes it easy to believe she’ll maintain the values of her small business as Gravity Pope continues to grow. She has no plan to cap the company’s growth, but says she’s committed to a boutique-store mentality, which makes product quality and customer service priorities above all else. “I feel I’m a real merchant, like the kinds that existed 50 years ago, where they’d actually buy shoes, and work the floors, and know the customers and the staff,” she says.
This fall, Dirks’ 18-year-old son begins university, and he has a business degree in his sights. He already has plenty of work experience: As an eight-year-old, he started in the stockroom, and now at 18 he’s on the sales floor. In fact, he hopes to take over Gravity Pope from his mom one day, and spent a few weeks this summer working in Spain for shoe manufacturer Camper.
But, while starting off in a business with “solid roots” would be a great opportunity for her son, Dirks is hesitant. “I don’t necessarily know if I wish this upon him,” she says. While proud of what she’s built, Dirks says she might not have started her small business if she had known about the challenges ahead. The idealism and ignorance of youth made it easier to take the leap.
“It takes a lot of care and attention. It’s never something I can put by the wayside,” she says of her store. “I’ve sacrificed many other things I would have loved to do in my life to run this business.”