Happy Feet Plus owners find their fit in shoe sales

Jane Strong of St. Pete Beach and Jacob Wurtz of St. Petersburg have come a long way since opening a kiosk at Tyrone Square Mall in 1985 to sell Kenkoh massage sandals, pictured.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Jane Strong of St. Pete Beach and Jacob Wurtz of St. Petersburg have come a long way since opening a kiosk at Tyrone Square Mall in 1985 to sell Kenkoh massage sandals, pictured.

LARGO

Jacob Wurtz and Jane Strong, founders of Happy Feet Plus, a seller of health and wellness footwear, met as kids. Their friendship has weathered 40 years.

It survived when they moved from Canada to the United States in 1978.

It made it through their years working in the citrus industry with pennies in their pockets.

It survived when they went from being a romantic couple to letting go and seeing each other fall in love with someone else.

Through thick and thin, one fact has remained certain. "We make very, very good business partners,'' Strong said.

From their corporate headquarters on Clearwater-Largo Road, the owners of Happy Feet Plus have watched other companies come and go. They have thrived, growing from one storefront to a multimillion-dollar corporation with nine locations on Florida's west coast.

After high school graduation, Strong says they drifted apart for a time. Wurtz pursued jobs in landscaping and logging. Strong went on to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and received a degree in psychology.

"But when we met up again in our early 20s, we talked about how we both wanted to live in a place where we could eat fresh fruit and vegetables all year, a place where it was warm all the time,'' she said.

After the move from Ontario to Florida, Strong suffered constant foot pain. They came across a massage sandal, the Kenkoh, at a health food store. "It helped,'' she said.

She and Wurtz believed others would be interested in the shoe as well, so they began selling it at events such as the Florida State Fair. They immediately saw a return, and in 1985, they opened Health Shoes Plus, a kiosk at Tyrone Square Mall.

Soon, they added a second shoe, the German-made Birkenstock. "It was a shoe known as a hippy shoe back then,'' Strong said.

Fast-forward to 2011. Now they are in a storefront known as Happy Feet Plus. They have the buying power to offer customers 24 different brands of shoes, all designed to provide a healthier way of living, Strong said.

A visit to the store can include the I-Step to help determine what shoes would benefit the customer the most. At the center of the store, the computerized gizmo not only measures foot size, it also determines weight distribution and recognizes where the foot is suffering from too much pressure. Once it makes the determinations, the I-Step gives the data back to the customer with recommendations, including how much arch support is needed.

The first year Strong and Wurtz were in the shoe business at the kiosk, they saw sales of $330,000. In 2010, their sales reached $6.3 million, according to Wurtz.

He concedes the recession has been difficult, though, cutting into his return, as well as causing a few sleepless nights.

"Although in 2008 and 2009 we were still seeing an overall increase in sales, we saw a decrease last year,'' he said. "So we reformatted some things to still see a profit.''

They cut costs by bringing the payroll for their 40 employees back in-house rather than contracting it out. They also created a new marketing strategy and are redesigning the store's interior.

"We have shoes to strengthen, shoes to support, and other shoes that revitalize, and when the customer comes into the store, they can see the three different areas. It seems to be working,'' Wurtz said.

Customer Susan Davidson of Largo considers the aqua building at 485 Clearwater-Largo Road a landmark. "When it first opened, it was a diamond in the rough,'' she said. "As a resident of Largo, I remember when they built this store, and it quickly became an oasis. It was such a hip, positive thing when all around there was nothing.''

Both owners agree they've been lucky.

"When we first began, nobody had heard of what we were selling, but then Birkenstocks became more popular, and our customers put us on top of a wave,'' Strong said.

Now, those same customers are aging and realize they need to be good to their feet, Strong said. "The baby-boomer customers are now coming to us because of our wellness benefits,'' she said.

When it comes to success, Wurtz and Strong believe they can provide a few tips to other retail owners.

Strong thinks the key ingredient is customer service. Wurtz does too, however he stresses that the customer of today is thriftier and savvier than before the recession.

"Business owners need to constantly educate themselves on what's going on," he said. "They need to recognize that the recession brought in a different world.''

Piper Castillo can be reached at pcastillo@sptimes.com.

Happy Feet Plus owners find their fit in shoe sales 08/06/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 5:31am]

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