It was two years ago in October 2013, I was jogging in Hyde Park down Jan Smuts Avenue, when I came across a billboard with a list of shops in a particular centre. One name caught my attention: Allen Edmonds, The Great American Shoe Company. It goes without saying that I was incredulous. I couldn't believe what my eyes were showing me; Allen Edmonds was and is available in South Africa. Naturally, my curiosity had been piqued and I had to take a closer when I had time. When I visited the store, I set up an appointment with one of the owners and scheduled to visit for an interview later on in the month. Unfortunately, I didn't make it and when 2014 also passed without a visit, I made it a point to revisit and schedule another interview in 2015.
When I made a stop in March this year, during a 5 day visit in Johannesburg, Richard Kushlick didn't remember me. So, I had to start afresh, introduce myself, what I do and why I was interested in Allen Edmonds. We set up a time for the following day and while he continued with his day's procedings, I proceeded to browse the store again and take pictures.
Richard Kushlick and Tyrone Ridgway are the owners and licensed distributors of Allen Edmonds in South Africa. The brand however, has a history in this country which dates back to the 1960s. In those days AE was very popular among black men and it was also easily available through a wholesale distributor in Johannesburg. The main retailers during that time were City Hall, City Outfitters, and Kayser. The distribution and retailing continued from the 60s to the late 80s. In the early 90s AE was discontinued in South Africa due to political unrest and sanctions; and for 15 years AE was not available in the country.
In the mid 2000s the AE brand returned to the country and a distribution license was granted for Sub Saharan Africa; the DRC, Angola, Botswana, and South Africa are where they can be found in Africa. The lack of widespread distribution throughout the continent is due to the fact that AE is strict about where it can be located and its shoes sold. In South Africa the situation is rather peculiar because there are distribution outlets in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, and they can also be found at Spitz stores ( I never knew this and I surely didn't fathom this kind of relationship). Spitz stores in Sandton, Eastgate, Rosebank, Menlyn, V&A Waterfront, and Century City, are where you can find AE.
Mr Kushlick and Mr Ridgway are well versed about the AE brand and are proud and ready to intimate to anyone about the brand, its heritage, history and how wonderful the shoes are. Mr Kushlick went on to tell me about the beauty of AE shoes in that they are classic, timeless, have a market in South Africa, and that they haven't even scraped the surface of the brand's potential because it is still in its developmental stages.
I asked about their relationship with the headquarters in Wisconsin, USA, and he said that they received full, extensive and on-going training from the Allen Edmonds University. This is where staff get trained on sales, distribution and customer service. Training for other retailers such as Spitz is expensive and is mostly centred around the overall AE customer experience. Therefore there might be a difference in the customer experience because with retailers it might be clinical but with the AE brand it is centred and focused on the overall experience.
Talking about growth of the business Mr Kushlick informed me that 10% of sales are from outside the US and 15% are online. There is also immense interest and buying power from markets such as China, Russia, France, and England. Mr Kushlick was bold in his assertion that AE has the potential to match Carvela in terms of popularity and sales.
One thing I wanted to know was the relationship between Allen Edmonds and Horween. Exactly how they fit together. Simply put, the Horween Leather Company supplies leather shells for footwear to Allen Edmonds. Horween is mostly known for its Shell Cordovan, which is a leather made from horse hide. Horween deal mostly in horse and cow hide in producing leather goods. The importance of shell cordovan is in its longevity. Shell cordovan shoes can last more than 20 years, and this is evident with AE shoes.
Apart from the top quality leather used for AE shoes, their construction is also of the highest standard. AE shoes are both Goodyear welted and hand sewn. There's a look and feel about welted shoes and when you try them on they feel solid.
The AE Dalton brogue boot made me rethink my stance on its suitability for a suit. My experience has always been via pictures on the internet and to me it always appeared as rather chunky, heavy and thick soled, which made it very unsuitable for business dress. My views changed however,when I saw it up close and felt it. It's very light and slim. I was truly surprised especially the fact it looked very dressy despite the broguing. Mr Ridgway expressed that what makes the Dalton such a unique boot is the character of the leather, the toebox, and its patina. It's the perfect boot for autumn and winter.
Part of the customer experience at AE is the fitting process. Mr Kuchlick stated that they may ask a customer what size he wears but they determine the customer's real size. The image above shows the foot measuring device which is used to measure the customer's foot so that the proper size can be ascertained. It is a meticulous process because the foot is measured from all angles. Factors that are considered in the measuring process are the fit, whether the arch of the foot is low or high, the length and width measurement, the flex point of the foot and shoe, as well as an assessment of the depth of the foot.
AE also has its own repair service called recrafting. This is when a shoe is sent to the AE factory for repairs in order to extend the life of the shoes. Recrafting can be done to restore the leather of the upper or replacing of the sole. It costs up to R1700 and despite the high price you're guaranteed an extra 20 years to your AEs.
Surprisingly, most of the AE clientele is black and they comprise 70% of the customer base. The remaining 30% is largely a racial mix. The fact that the brand has a history steeped in heritage, and products made of the highest quality, is what endears it to black customers who are in the 30-35 year bracket.
For me, this was a great lesson and wonderful insight into this venerable American brand. When I asked Mr Kushlick about their customer retention he said that the first encounter with a customer is about getting their buy-in, but he has full confidence in the brand because an AE customer is a customer for life.
Allen Edmonds can be located at Bakos Brothers, 226 Jan Smuts Avenue, Randburg.
PG: Man to man, generation to generation.