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Small Business Center

Sole Success: From Sneakerheads to Store Owners

September 11, 2023

Childhood friends Peter Flores and Serapio Gonzales are sneakerheads. They love buying, collecting and selling sneakers. “Everybody wears shoes,” Flores said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or working at Taco Bell. Shoes are the center of what brings people together.”

To finance their obsession and to make extra money in high school and on into college, they flipped sneakers. They had a process down: Figure out when the new releases were coming out, hire friends to wake up super early and stand in line hours before stores opened all across Ohio, acquire as many new releases as they could and resell them for an uptick in price. “It’s just a race to the lines, and you gotta beat them there,” Flores said.

Flores and Gonzales sold the sneakers on Instagram, Facebook and Facebook Marketplace and to resale shops, which then resold them for an even higher price. “Resale stores don’t have contracts because [sneaker brands] only sell to retail stores, so [resale] stores have to look for people like us, people who can go to events and line up early at stores to get their stock,” Flores said. “We were filling stores throughout Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.” A few years after college, they got sick of being the middlemen, so on Sept. 10, 2021, they and two friends, Danny Assaf and Kasym Assaf, opened their own sneaker resale shop, Laced Midwest, at Glenbrook Square mall in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Finding a location was a big hurdle, but the challenges didn’t end once the doors opened. In fact, opening day was so successful that they sold out of nearly half their inventory on the first day. “It was like the city had been waiting for us,” Flores said. Luckily, there was a sneaker convention three hours away in Chicago that weekend, and they stocked back up. The team has not run out of inventory since, even through the opening of their second store, in Southlake Mall in Merrillville, Indiana, in April.

Flores talked to ICSC Small Business Center contributing editor Rebecca Meiser about the founders’ journey from being a supplier to opening their own stores — and how they make sure they’ve always got inventory to fill those shelves.

The stores’ owners from left to right: Danny Assaf, Serapio Gonzales, Kasym Assaf, Peter Flores

The impetus for you guys to open your own store, came from your experience selling to resale shops, right?

Yeah. As time went on, we were like: “These stores are constantly buying from us, and we’re leaving money on the table here.” We were only selling our shoes to them for a certain amount when, really, they were worth more and the resale stores sold them for more. It wasn’t crazy more, but it was at least like 25% to 30% more than what we were selling them for. We thought if we had a storefront, then all sorts of people could start to trust us and know us as a brand and then they’d feel comfortable spending more top dollar for the shoes we sold. So we sat down with Danny Assaf and Kasym Assaf. Along with being enmeshed in the sneaker culture themselves, they’re businessmen. They owned a very successful roofing company. They knew what it takes to start and run a business. They agreed to partner with us on a store.

How did you choose the location?

We wanted to go to Columbus, where sneaker culture is really popular. If you throw a rock in Columbus, you’re probably going to hit a sneaker store, which didn’t scare us; the inventory was where a lot of stores were kind of lacking, but that was our strength. As we were looking at spaces, though, we realized in addition to the store, we both would have to find a place to live, and that seemed expensive. Then, we remembered this Glenbrook Square mall in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was only about 45 minutes from us. We’re like: “Fort Wayne is the second-biggest city in Indiana. There’s got to be a market there.” At the time, we thought the mall was above us, that we’d never be able to get in, but I’m the type of person who believes if you don’t ask, you can’t get. I talked to somebody there and they told us a number for rent, and we were like: “You know what? That sounds doable.” There was one space that we really liked, but it was too close to a Foot Locker. We were a little bummed, but then we found this other space that used to be a Coach store. It was super clean and set up nice, and we decided: “OK, let’s do this.”

Why do you think you were so successful?

It was just being in the right place at the right time. Unlike Columbus, where there were a bunch of sneaker stores, there was nothing like that here. And we weren’t just attracting customers from Fort Wayne. In a two-and-a-half or three-hour radius, there were no other stores like us. Another thing is that in Fort Wayne, the mall is so alive. There’s so many people from all the small cities around Fort Wayne who come to the mall for their back-to-school shopping and regular shopping. People relate to that mall a lot versus when you go to bigger cities, where they might not visit malls at all.

Had you quit your other job yet when you opened the store?

We had been trying to save up money because starting your own company is kind of a big endeavor. One thing we learned, though, is that if you’re looking to save a certain amount, you’re never going to get to that amount. You’re always gonna say: “OK, I’m here, but maybe we really need more.” So a few weeks before we got the store, Serapio called me and he said: “I just quit. We’ve got to make this happen.” So I put in my two weeks’. A week later, we were in the store. We got the keys in July. We set up in August. Then, Sept. 10, we opened up.

How many shoes did you think you needed to carry?

When we started the store, we started with about $80,000 worth of inventory. We had sat down with a lot of other store owners, saw what was on their shelves and had a lot of folks tell us that $80,000 would be more than enough. It was not enough.

What happened? What went wrong in your calculations?

We didn’t think we were going to be as busy starting out, but Day One was just crazy. It was like the city was waiting for us. There were a line at the door the minute we opened up the store, and from open to close, the store was just packed. We sold like $32,000 worth of shoes on Day One. We weren’t sure what to do, but luckily, there was an event in Chicago called Sneaker Con that weekend. We bought a ton of inventory for that Monday the following week, and we just kind of kicked off from there.

What have you learned about inventory control? How do you handle it now?

We have a certain level that we don’t want to go under: $350,000. And we know that at certain times like August [when kids go back to school] and December [holiday season] and tax [reimbursement] season, we need more inventory than we even think. So we’re always going to events to restock the store just because it’s always growing.

You don’t have direct contracts with any of the national name brands. Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of shoes?

Those first few months, we were worried, but we’d all been doing this for many years before we opened the store. I, for instance, am a big networking guy. Whenever I went to events, I would get to meet the vendors and keep in touch with them. We’ve all built up big networks through the years, so when the time came where we needed some inventory, we could hit them up and there was a good chance we could get the shoe.  We’ve all spent a lot of money with [these vendors] through the years. And people love when you spend money with them. The more money you spend with them, the more willing they’re going to be to call you or give you a deal or let you know when they have a shoe they think you’d like.

Why did you decide to open a second store?

We had created the name Laced Midwest because we wanted to show people that the Midwest could be big in sneaker culture just like the East Coast and the West Coast. Our plan was always to grow within the Midwest, but we weren’t going to force something that didn’t work. We always said that when an opportunity arises, we’ll sit down and get more serious. Southlake was that opportunity. The store fit within our plan and is close to that Chicago market where we knew there were a lot of potential customers. We opened in April.

Are you profitable?

Yeah. After our first eight to 10 months, we’re like: “OK, this is definitely, definitely working.”

Is there anything you would have done differently, now that you’re two years in?

We talk about this all the time, especially now opening up a second store. We thought: “Is there something we did the first time that we shouldn’t do this time?” And I actually don’t think so. We understood sneakers, and we understood how to sell sneakers.

If you were going to give one piece of advice to someone looking to start a small business, what would you say?

Do it. You can’t overthink it. You can’t keep having [goal] posts like “I need this much money” or “These things have to happen before I open.” You’ve just got to do it. If your job’s in the way, you’ve got to quit. If something else is weighing you down, you gotta move it. Because you’ll never know if you can do it until you try.

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

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