Spartanburg shoe store owner survives COVID with online sales

COVID-19 hit many retailers hard last year, but shoe store owner Duffy Baehr survived her worst year in sales to become an inspiration for others in Spartanburg.

“Duffy embodies what Spartanburg’s success is all about,” said David Britt, co-chair of OneSpartanburg’s Bringing Back the Burg Task Force. “Particularly through this pandemic, we are all in this together and together we will come through this stronger than we ever imagined.”

Baehr of Baehr Feet Shoe Boutique at 401 E. Kennedy St. said her store was ordered closed last March as part of a statewide COVID-19 shutdown of non-essential businesses.

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By reducing inventory and turning to social media and the internet, by year’s end she was able to withstand a 32% drop in store sales and avoid laying off any of her five employees.

“Last year was the largest I’ve ever been down,” Baehr said. “My web sales increased 20% and is now 40% of my business. That’s kept me going.”

Home-grown entrepreneur

Baehr, who opened her store in 2005, said she helped other boutiques in Spartanburg stay afloat through her involvement with Bringing Back the Burg, a chamber initiative aimed at restoring businesses to pre-COVID levels.

“If you don’t have a website, get one,” Baehr said. “I do believe that’s where everything is moving. That keeps me going.”

Baehr is a 1986 graduate of Spartanburg High School and attended College of Charleston, where she co-majored in math and physics. While at college, she worked at Pete Banis Shoes in Charleston and fell in love with the business.

“When I moved back to Spartanburg, I knew we have McMahan (Shoes), but we didn’t have a trendy shoe store,” she said.

She opened her store and started selling such name brands as Ugg, Stuart Weitzman, Kate Spade, Tory Burch, Woolloomooloo, Jeffrey Campbell and Rebecca Minkoff – from flip-flops and sneakers to boots and runway heels.

“We were killing it until 2008-09 with the big slump, then things picked back up again,” she said. “We were on target to have another record year, then COVID hit.”

Weddings were canceled and demand for dress shoes dropped, although casual shoe sales remained steady, she said. Her store has an array of accessories such as handbags, cosmetics and jewelry, but the bulk of her business turned to online sales.

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She obtained CARES Act small business loans to cover payroll for five employees and she increased advertising on Facebook while boosting her store’s website presence. She also boosted her search engine optimization with Google.

“We partnered with fellow local small businesses, we promoted them and in turn, they promoted us,” she said. “We did combined basket giveaways tagging each of the small businesses and encouraging more followers for everyone.

“With one local clothing shop, we shared some of our spring arrivals and put them together with her new arrivals on both our social media posts. Both of our customers loved that.”

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A blessing

Looking back, Baehr said COVID was a blessing of sort because it opened her eyes to the world of online sales.

It also opened her eyes on the importance of each local business supporting one another.

“I’m humbled to be among all the business people on that task force,” she said. “Everyone is more concerned how Spartanburg is doing as a whole, how we can help everybody do better.

“We all promote each other. This is still a small town. Now it’s growing a lot with young people, a lot of diverse people. It’s exciting.”

Britt, who besides the business task force also serves on Spartanburg County Council, praised Baehr’s tenacity.

“Duffy has shown the rest of us what inspiration mixed with hard work can do in the middle of the world’s most challenging business climate,” Britt said. “Duffy did not accept defeat but pivoted from her traditional walk-in transactional customers to a robust online/dot.com business model.”

Contact Bob Montgomery at [email protected]