Shop Local: Second Sole Runs on Word of Mouth
BOARDMAN, Ohio – Supply chain and other pandemic-related issues are the strong headwinds in the face of Second Sole in its race for growth.
The locally owned retailer, the second to be featured in our new Shop Local series, has been selling shoes – particularly for running – and other fitness gear since it opened 40 years ago.
“The sit-and-fit process is really what we hang our hat on,” owner Steve Hixson says.
By focusing on helping customers choose the right shoes to fit their individual needs, Second Sole has found a lane, allowing it to grow, even in the face of rising online sales.
Hixson opened the first Second Sole location in 1981, just down the road from its current location at 755 Boardman-Canfield Road.
Hixson ran competitively in high school and at Ohio State University. He worked at a running-shoe specialty store while attending college.
“There was lots of unemployment and very high interest rates. Thank goodness my dad loaned me the money to start it,” he recalls.
“He and I had a Shark Tank moment way before Shank Tank happened. We went to lunch and I sold him.”
Upon entering Second Sole, each customer will have his foot measured. Then a staff member observes him as he walks to see how the customer’s foot functions before recommending shoe options based on what the staff member saw, the customer’s goals and history of injuries.
“Our goal is to provide a service that you can’t find anywhere else,” says general manager Mark Lipinsky.
“Our process allows us to find and target how much support each individual customer needs. And then, based on that, we can provide an orthotic insole or a shoe with better arch support built into it.”
A common issue is plantar fasciitis. The Mayo Clinic describes this condition as an inflammation of a thick band of tissue running across the bottom of the foot from the heel to the toes, a primary cause of heel pain.
“On a day-to-day basis we can see an eighth-grade athlete starting cross country, a 90-year-old hip surgery patient that needs better walking shoes,” Lipinsky says.
Many customers walk into the store after being referred by health care providers such as podiatrists or physical therapists, Hixson adds.
“I think it just developed over time from helping people. Word of mouth is our best form of advertising,” the owner says.
Indeed, referrals from friends and family brought in several customers on a snowy morning in January.
Kristie Robison, a corrections officer living in Lake Milton, came in on her mother’s advice.
“My mom has shopped here several times for shoes,” she said. “I used to buy shoes just for looks. But now that I’m getting a little older, they have to be for comfort as well.”
Michael Livosky works 13-hour days filling orders for Macy’s department store. “All on concrete. I walk like 10 miles a day,” he said.
On this day, he walked out with a new pair of Glyserins, a max-cushion shoe made by Brooks. “My boss bought his shoes from here so he was the one who was really recommending it,” Livosky said. “He said they did a really great job with him.”
Focusing on the customer’s needs has helped Second Sole stand out among other running-shoe retailers across the nation.
More than once, Second Sole has been named a top-50 store in the United States by the Independent Running Retail Association.
Such distinctions, and its loyal customer base, have helped Second Sole to grow over the years. The company now boasts eight locations – all within a few hours of Boardman – and employs about 70 workers.
“Over time, we’ve added stores as we see a need,” says Hixson. “We looked for under-serviced communities and built it that way.”
But selling shoes is only one aspect of the mission of Second Sole. “We can facilitate a race from head to toe,” Lipinsky says.
Through its sister company, Second Sole Racing, Second Sole hosts between 80 and 90 races each year.
Second Sole employees are responsible for every facet of a race, from creating the graphics and website, to working with local jurisdictions for approval of the route, to timing the race.
Several local races, such as the Peace Race and the Youngstown Marathon, were created by or with Second Sole. “With some of the races, we try to give back to a variety of organizations,” Lipinsky says.
That’s one reason Rick Blair of Boardman volunteered to help Second Sole when it launched the Run Y-Town 10-Miler race in 2017. Blair, a customer since about 2009, got to know the staff well over the years and grew to be friends with Lipinsky.
“If we look at the idea of living in a space and we have to invest in where we live in order to see it thrive, sometimes we have to sacrifice our personal time in order to do that,” Blair says.
“As a runner, I want to support the local community more than just being a taker,” he says. “But also by being a giver and someone who invests. And I want to see other people get involved.”
Recently, Second Sole has had to pivot on more than one front to overcome challenges the pandemic caused.
In 2020, Lipinsky says, Second Sole began to focus more on online sales. “We’re hoping to continue to grow that side of the business.”
The biggest hurdle for the business right now is getting product.
Many of the countries where shoes are made – Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea – experienced shutdowns in the third quarter of 2021, Hixson says. “The shoes we order now will come in around the holidays,” he says. “What happened back then is just hitting us now.”
Second Sole adjusted by placing larger orders and by using its eight locations to shift product to where it’s needed most. “We’ve had to bring in some colors and styles we wouldn’t normally because they are available,” Hixson says.
Still, if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, Hixson says, it’s that people have become more health conscious. “It has caused a lot of people who were sedentary to get out and do something. A lot of people are more active now than they were.”
The Mahoning Valley is a great place to open a business, Hixson says, because area residents make an effort to shop local, which could lead to more Second Sole stores in the near future.
“Once we get through the supply chain issues, it will be easier to make that decision,” he says. “But we’re looking.”
Pictured at top: Steve Hixson opened the first Second Sole location in Boardman in 1981. Today the company operates eight stores.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.