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Outlook 2013: Mobile shoe store takes product to the people

Bob Mulford, co-owner of Shoebox on Dawson Road, discovered a new market for work shoes by taking the "store" to area factories. Currently Mulford, his wife and partner, Debbie, and sons, Jason and Michael, enjoy some 49 commercial shoe accounts. (Outlook 2013)

Bob Mulford, co-owner of Shoebox on Dawson Road, discovered a new market for work shoes by taking the "store" to area factories. Currently Mulford, his wife and partner, Debbie, and sons, Jason and Michael, enjoy some 49 commercial shoe accounts. (Outlook 2013)

ALBANY, Ga. — Have a need for safety shoes but can’t afford the time to shop? Not a problem ... if the store will come to you.

While The Shoe Box, at 2601 Dawson Road maintains a thriving “brick & mortar” business, a sizable source of the business’ revenue comes from trucking safety shoes to factories via their “shoe mobile,” said Shoe Box co-owner Bob Mulford.

Mulford and his wife, Debbie, acquired the business from his father-in-law in the mid-1980s and made the decision to open at the Shoe Box’s current Dawson Road location. Unlike two less successful endeavors in Tifton and Panama City, the Albany store did well right from the start.

“It featured what the industry calls a ‘reverse stockroom,’ with the inventory out on the floor where customers could reach it,” Mulford said. “That was a new concept in Albany.”

As the years went by, the Mulfords began to stock more name-brand shoes, including Florsheim, Dexter and French Shriner, and for the first time ever, The Shoe Box even started to carry sneakers. But, as often happens, success brings competition. Along came Stein Mart, Mansour’s, Shoe Station, the Shoe Department at the Albany Mall and others. Suddenly shoe sales just didn’t seem so rosy.

One day, though, Mulford got a fateful call from a friend, Randy Skalla, with the S&S Company (now SASCO Chemical Group). M&M Mars was looking to buy safety shoes for its employees, but the product was not up Skalla’s alley.

“Back then, S&S sold all sorts of things,” Mulford said. “And Mars had been buying a variety of safety equipment from them.”

Even though the Mulfords had never even considered selling safety shoes, Skalla convinced Mulford to meet with the management of M&M Mars. The result was a lucrative contract to sell safety shoes to the company’s more than 400 employees.

“We learned early on, with the competition beating us up, that this segment of the shoe industry was just not being addressed in the area,” Mulford said. “(We thought) this would make us somewhat resistant to weekend promotions, season’s-end sales and all the stuff that goes along with fashion. (Safety shoes are just) brown, black, a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

From there, Mulford and his sons, Jason and Michael, who by then were partners in the business, went on to sign contracts with Procter & Gamble and many of the other area factories. The operation was so successful that over the next few years, The Shoe Box came to concentrate entirely on work, safety, and outdoor shoes and boots, Bob Mulford said.

According to Mulford, in the early days of selling safety shoes, there was a Red Wing shoe store on Dawson Road, which operated a “shoe mobile” to sell on-site to factory employees. Ultimately, Red Wing agreed to close its store and gave the Mulfords the right to sell their shoes.

One day Bob Mulford received a phone call from someone at Cooper Tire Co., he said, to confirm arrival of a shoe mobile on a date arranged by Red Wing. The only problem was, Mulford didn’t have a shoe mobile. Undeterred, he assured the folks at Cooper that the truck would be there as promised. After hanging up the phone, Mulford called Red Wing to arrange a deal. The Shoe Box would have to lease the truck and driver, who would also sell the shoes. In addition, they would re-stock the truck afterward and bill Cooper for the shoes.

In 2001, Jason Mulford became convinced their company would do much better with their own shoe mobile. His family was in agreement, and since taking that direction, The Shoe Box has built the number of mobile shoe accounts to 49, Bob Mulford said. The business stretches north as far as Atlanta and south into the Florida panhandle. There’s always competition, but the Mulfords claim their dedication to professionalism and fair pricing typically gets them through.

“It’s always one of us who drives the truck, not just someone who works for the company,” Bob Mulford said. “We do a better job at servicing than most other mobile outfits. We measure for the shoes, we’re familiar with the inventory and we know how to recommend the best shoe for a person’s job. Our slogan became ‘a shoe person driving a truck, not a truck driver selling footwear.’”