COLUMBIA, SC — The calls and customers started pouring in as soon as the email was sent Monday saying Kicks Shoes on Devine Street was closing forever.
“Customers from all over have been calling,” said Jackie Scott Howie, who opened the shoe store 15 years ago as a small department in another Devine Street shop. She moved three times, expanding in those first few years, before ending up in her current spot at 2921 Devine.
For loyal customers, Kicks became more than just a shoe store.
“We were such a hangout. People came and sat and visited,” Howie said. “It was like the old ‘Cheers’ thing — ‘where everybody knows your name.’ ”
But, in the end, Howie couldn’t compete with the double-whammy of a devastating recession and the rising popularity of online retailers.
“For the little guy, it’s not easy,” she said. “You’re paying 8 percent more (in sales taxes) to buy it from me than to get it from zappos.com and get it delivered to your door.”
In 2007, sales at Kicks were more than $1 million. Then, came an 18-month-long recession and the rise in online shopping. Last year, sales were about $400,000, Howie said.
“This is not a decision that I have taken very lightly,” she said. “It’s just a very different world than when I first opened.”
In fact, Howie said she crafted the letter telling customers the store would be closing in January 2013.
But she didn’t send it.
“When I wrote it back then, I was a whole lot more emotional, and I thought, ‘I need to think this out; I don’t want any regrets,’ ” she said. “I had so much fun doing this, until I didn’t.”
A year and a half after composing the letter, Howie had worked through her emotions. The lease for Kicks was expiring, and she had time to cancel her fall order.
She finally hit the send button, letting all of her customers know she had one more month in business — and everything was marked down. Her last day will be Aug. 3, the same day as the Devine Street merchants’ sidewalk sale.
“Owning your own business is a daily fight, and I’ve done it for 16 years, and I’m ready to take a break and do something different,” she said. “I will not miss the sleepless nights. I will miss the customers.”
Customers also will miss out on the personal touch that can’t be replicated by online retailers, including:
• An “approval policy” that allowed customers to take home a pair of shoes to make sure they matched an outfit before the customer’s card was charged. “You think it’s going to match, but you just don’t know,” Howie said.
• Free repairs on any shoe bought at the store. Howie used a fourth-generation cobbler in West Columbia, and paid for the repairs herself.
• Free layaway, with no interest charged.
When Howie had a store in Lexington from 2007 to 2011, she would run shoes between the stores whenever a customer wanted. But the Lexington store — with boutique hours in a bedroom community — never got a foothold, she said.
Howie said she will hold on to the good memories as she says goodbye to her customers over the next month and prepares for whatever next challenge comes her way.
She hopes other small Midlands shop owners will be able to hold on despite the changing retail landscape.
“It always creeped me out, even as a young child, that a McDonald’s hamburger tasted the same in Columbia, South Carolina, as it did in Ontario, Canada,” she said. “Independent business owners make a city interesting.”