Unedited Interview with Molly

The Michigan Retailer Association interviewed me for a series titled In Her Own Words. The article was printed in their February/March 2021 issue and can be viewed here (pg. 18). To prepare for my conversation with Rachel Schrauben of MRA, I sat down for a few hours and wrote about Mast Shoes’ beginning, a summary of our almost 80-year history, and where we are now. As anyone whose livelihood is built on in-person shopping and services knows, the pandemic has been no picnic. Pausing amidst the daily flurry of near-constant adaptation in the store, writing the words that follow had an unexpected grounding effect on me. I thought I’d share the unedited version of the interview here as a way to record this unique time and as a way to tack it on to Mast Shoes’ long story. 

What is the store’s history?

Mast Shoes was founded in 1942 on Main Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan by my grandparents Walter and Helen Mast. Shortly after, my grandfather was drafted to fight in WWII. Helen lived in the apartment above the store, ran the business, and cared for their first baby, Tom until Walter returned. Thankfully, he made it home! 10 years later, my dad, Greg was born and enjoyed growing up in the family business, spending a lot of time working alongside his father. Walter and Helen both passed away in the mid-1990s and their two sons, Tom and Greg, who had been actively working in the business for many years, continued carrying it forward.  At that time, there were three locations in Ann Arbor. One was on Main Street, one was on Liberty Street near UM’s campus (where I started fitting shoes in my early 20’s) and one location was brand new. 

Tom and Greg had recently opened a third location in the Westgate shopping center on the west side of town (we’re still here today!). Walter, at the time in his late seventies, had been skeptical of expanding outside of downtown but nonetheless showed his support by building all the backroom shelving in the new store. The new location had ample parking, a complimentary mix of shops and restaurants, and a public library branch. Customers began choosing to visit the new location over the two downtown stores because of the ease of parking and accessibility of storefronts. By 2000, the downtown landscape had lost many mainstay anchor retailers and had transformed into a centralized location for restaurants and bars. It was lively and vibrant at night but had slowed down during daytime business hours. Our Westgate store grew busier and busier and by the summer of 2004, it made sense to consolidate all operations and staff to that location.

Having all of our long-time shoe fitters, managers and owners working together under one roof made it easier to concentrate and grow the business based on our strengths. We’re confident that the best, most successful and fun way to shop for shoes is in-person.

For the past 20 years, as most retail went the way of big box, chains, and online, we doubled down on our intention to remain customer-centric, specialized, unique, local, and brick and mortar.

Our team possesses a vast amount of institutional knowledge. This knowledge covers curating collections with foot health and style in mind, technical shoe fitting, foot biomechanics, and running what many customers call a “Real Shoe Store.” We are fortunate that many area health care providers trust us with their patients. We have developed strong relationships with several hundred referring providers who send their patients in to be fit with shoes that alleviate their foot pain. All of our team members receive extensive training in foot anatomy and physiology and we have two staff members with pedorthic education. It’s very rewarding to play a key role in helping people’s feet feel better.

It is our team’s collective effort, desire to learn, and adaptability over the years that is responsible for our success.

Ultimately our annual report card consists of two main things: customer happiness and sales. Both continued to consistently tick up every year between 2004 and 2019. We’ve won our local Current Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best Shoe Store every year since 2013. In 2018,  we were recognized by Inc.com as one of four businesses from across the nation for outstanding customer service during Small Business Week. Most importantly, the daily smiles, appreciation, and delight expressed by our customers confirm we’re on track.

In 2017, a bigger space became available right next door to our location in the Westgate Shopping Center. It is 4500 square feet, which is nearly double the space we had. Collaborating with my husband, Bartek Koss* who has a gift for design and a deep understanding of how we work, we built a new, beautiful store designed to serve our evolving operational needs with an updated and modern look and feel. We moved in August of 2018 and celebrated with the community during a HUGE grand opening party on Black Friday 2018. Many, many friends (new and old) showed up to write and hang their favorite Mast Shoes memory on a timeline we made, to experience the new space, and to be part of marking the year we turned the page to a new chapter. Remembering that day gets me so excited for a time in the future when we can have parties again!

Like every business built on in-person services, the pandemic brought challenges to just about every nook and cranny of Mast Shoes. As soon as we could reopen after the shutdown, we immediately implemented stringent safety procedures to protect our team and customers. To save our livelihoods, we needed to reopen and remain open. To keep ourselves and our customers healthy and safe from covid, we needed new processes. Some of the things our customers tell us they appreciate is that we limit capacity, provide socially-distanced seating areas, provide freshly laundered socks to try on shoes, and gently remind everyone to keep their masks on over their noses and mouths while they’re in the store. They notice the total commitment of our entire team to making it a safe and enjoyable experience. We’ve gotten really good at hosting socially-distanced shopping! Customers have also appreciated our phone consultations, new online shoe refill shop, and curbside pick up options. Again, our team’s adaptability, inventiveness, and perseverance were and continue to be the key factors in getting Mast Shoes through the pandemic.

What is your specialty?

Our specialty is helping people feel good starting with their feet. When our feet hurt, it taxes our entire system, making it difficult to enjoy life’s many activities. When our feet feel good, it’s easier for the rest of our body to feel good, too. We don’t think in terms of there being “bad feet” —  just bad matches between feet and the shoes they’re in. Studies show that around 60% of foot pain and discomfort is caused by ill-fitting shoes. Our goal with every customer is simple. We want them leaving Mast Shoes feeling better than when they arrived and confident they have what they need to achieve and maintain their foot comfort.

We do this by guiding customers through our fitting process, which starts with a measurement and observation of both feet. We listen for what goals our customers are here to accomplish. We then set to work collecting shoes for them to try on. The collection we present is completely tailored to the person, desired activities, style preferences and their unique feet. When it’s time to leave customers often say “wow, that was so easy and fast” or “I’ve ordered so many shoes online that didn’t work. I should have come here first.”

While many, many things are done behind the scenes to successfully accomplish our customer experience, these three things stick out as the most important.

1. When foot comfort is desired, shoe shopping is most successful when done in person, in a real shoe store. Period.

2. Working with a shoe and fit expert speeds up the shoe shopping process exponentially. Our team’s 150 years of combined experience works for our customers (and we don’t charge extra for it).

3. Mast Shoes has over 10,000 pairs of shoes in stock. We have our customer’s interests and preferences in mind as we hand-pick collections every season. We carry only the best models from the best suppliers, which provides us the tools (shoes) to achieve our main goal of helping people feel good starting with their feet.

How did you have to change your business strategy due to COVID-19? What other ways did it affect your day-to-day at Mast Shoes? Will these changes stay in place once COVID-19 is not as prevalent?

Most of this was covered in my answer to the first question.

The safety procedures will stay in place until it’s safe to ease up. I predict it will be a gradual process once it’s time and our entire team will be involved in making those decisions. It’s impossible to know when that will be and I’m starting to be at peace with that (it only took 10 months!). We’re all eager to get vaccinated to have one more layer of protection at work. We don’t want anyone getting sick working or shopping at Mast Shoes, so the safety procedures will remain a high priority.

I see the service additions we made in 2020 as silver linings of the pandemic. We’ve received great customer feedback about our curbside pick up service, phone consultations and online shoe refill shop. The changes the pandemic caused in consumer buying habits is likely to stay. Our new offerings position us to not only survive the pandemic but to thrive post-pandemic. We’re always looking for effective, well-aligned ways to serve our customers and will continue evolving as we go. I predict that the shops and restaurants that can keep holding on and survive the pandemic will be busier than ever once we come out of it. 2021 will be another tough year but I’m optimistic about 2022.

What do you predict for 2021 – hot items, how consumers will shop in 2021, sales prediction, etc.?

All signs are pointing to the sales of athletic, outdoor and house shoes dominating the market again in 2021. We had a record-breaking year of supportive house shoe sales in 2020. Makes sense, right? A friend of mine recently said he now better understands the  Roaring 20’s. Since that conversation, I like to imagine we’re on track for my lifetime’s Roaring 20’s.  Hopefully 2022 will bring many occasions to gather, dress up, party and travel again. We’ll give our hiking shoes a rest and resurrect our dressy attire. On a more serious note, I also like to imagine we will have had so much time to reflect on what’s important to us and how to care for each other, we will emerge from the pandemic as better versions of ourselves on a personal and national level. 

How have consumers in your area shown up and made more of an effort to support small businesses over the past year?

Our community has shown up for us in so many supportive, caring and touching ways. Early on, a couple who have been regular customers for years, handmade our entire team beautiful fabric masks. Others called to see if we were ok. Many purchased gift certificates during the shutdown to use when we reopened. Friends and family members volunteered to deliver shoes to our customers’ homes to save on shipping costs. A neighbor offered us a loan if we needed it to make it through. A customer who had retired from business consulting provided us a much needed sounding board via Zoom because he “just wanted to help out.” A friend took on the enormous task of setting up our online shop because she could and wanted to contribute something positive in a dark, dark time. Many customers purchased gift certificates for the health care and grocery store workers in their lives knowing that a sturdy comfortable pair of shoes would help them keep going.

Several customers called and asked if they could purchase gift certificates for people who need shoes and asked if we could find those people (we did). These customers inspired the giving program we ran during the shutdown. For every $1000 in gift certificates sold, we gave away one pair of shoes (valued around $150) to an essential worker. It felt so good to give supportive shoes to a group of chefs making and giving food away to laid-off restaurant workers, nursing home staff, and grocery store workers. During the shutdown, the back doorbell would ring, and treats like chocolate caramels and loaves of bread would be sitting out there (thanks, MG). Before we reopened, a family friend whose profession involves setting up waiting rooms for one of the area’s hospitals consulted with us on how to best set up the store for social distancing. In June when Michigan reopened and everyone was getting used to the new ways of doing things and being in public, our team was consistently re-energized by the positive feedback, encouragement, and kindness our customers generously offered.

One last silver lining of the pandemic is that there seems to be a much greater public awareness of the need to shop locally. Local and national media have highlighted the struggles that so many independent retailers are trying to maneuver through, and we’re finding that our customers want to help us survive.

This period has been and continues to be very challenging, but it’s also been a great time to strengthen the mutually beneficial relationship we have with our customers.

*I asterisked Bartek’s name because I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Michigan Retailers Magazine. When I met my husband, his pick up line was “Are you Molly Mast? I saw you in the Michigan Retailers Magazine.” I laughed, was amused and of course, was curious about why he’d be reading this niche publication. At that time he was managing a local restaurant and saw my picture in an article. We’ve been married for 11 years and share a daughter, Penelope, and a mutt named Tina.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for staying with me! I’ll look forward to seeing you next time you pop into Mast Shoes. In the meantime, stay safe.

Thank you to the Michigan Retailer Association for reaching out. Their photographer, Steve Jessmore and writer, Rachel Schrauben were a pleasure to work with. The (much more concise and professional) article can be found here.