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Euro-comfort has helped Happy Feet Plus become a leader in footwear.

By MARK ALBRIGHT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2001


Jacob Wurtz used to joke that Birkenstocks came in two colors -- brown and brown.

"They were so ugly, it was hard to get people to try them on," recalled Jane Strong, Wurtz's partner in Happy Feet Plus, a Largo shoe retailer that grew from a booth at the Florida State Fair into a chain of 12 stores.

Times have changed. Thanks to casual dress codes in today's workplace, comfortable shoes -- once sold mainly to flower power types, retirees or people with foot problems -- have grownpopular among all age groups. With big clodhoppers in style, Birkenstocks and several brands of Euro-comfort shoe brands are scrambling for traction in the fastest growing niche of the otherwise stagnant $40-billion shoe business.

Indeed, the eight original styles of clunky old Birkenstocks were broadened to 440. The French brand Mephisto -- the industry's Mercedes with prices that start at $200 a pair -- brought fashion to the Euro-comfort crowd with its own styles of penny loafers, clogs andeven wing tips. Other manufacturers such as Clark from England, Ecco from Denmark and Finn Comfort from Germany are selling walking shoes for work and dress occasions.

To contain the sticker shock, some offer to "reconstruct" their shoes for $60 to $80 a pair after five years of wear and tear.

Meantime, Strong and Wurtz's Happy Feet Plus followed the Euro-casual trend to become one of the fastest growing shoe retail chains in the Tampa Bay area. In five years, the Largo chain's store count tripled to 12.

Revenues are projected to hit $7.25-million this year, up from $4.9-million in 1999. All this with pricey Euro brands normally seen only in boutique settings.

For Wurtz, 50, and Strong, 49, self-described New Age free spirits who once lived six months in a tent in a remote part of British Columbia, business was self-taught after they moved to Florida to seek their fortunes 25 years ago.

A winter freeze killed their first effort: picking, packing and shipping organically grown Florida citrus. Then they tried selling tube socks at six for $5 at local flea markets. Finally, they hit pay dirt with a booth of Kenkoh rubber massage sandals at the Florida State Fair. After selling $10,000 worth in 10 days to foot-sore fairgoers, Strong and Wurtz saw a future.

Using $4,000 from an auto insurance settlement, the couple in 1985 opened a handmade kiosk in Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg in 1985. Six months later they began selling Birkenstocks, too.

The booths had seats for three and a reflexology chart pinpointing the pressure points of the foot. The vegetarian couple sold the health benefits of Euro-casual walking shoes.

Store No. 1 went in next to a Nature's Harvest store on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa in hopes of capturing the attention of health food fans.

Unfortunately, Nature's Harvest moved to its current home in South Tampa a month later.

"We couldn't afford to move," Wurtz said. The store survived despite being flanked by nude bars.

Undaunted, the couple, who lived together for 10 years but now live apart as "best friends and business partners," added more stores.

To them, paying cash for everything was a virtue.

"We never borrowed for the business until two years ago," Wurtz said. "It took us five years to get our first million-dollar sales year; our second came only two years later."

Happy Feet Plus is trying other growth vehicles.

Its online store generated sales of $843,000 in 2000. To lure new employees with a stake in the business, the company became employee owned. The couple opened a boutique in Tampa's Centro Ybor that sells only Birkenstock and another in St. Petersburg's BayWalk that sells only Mephisto shoes.

The Mephisto store, which carries 250 styles of the brand, is one of 18 nationwide. "You won't find a larger selection of Mephisto anywhere," said Richard Meckfessel, president of Mephisto USA.

Such boutiques are the Euro-casual import brands' way of separating themselves from huge department store shoe departments, where they thought their pricey shoes were poorly sold and lost in a forest of mass-market casual shoe brands.

Nonetheless, sales of Euro-comfort brands quadrupled nationally in the past three years.

"Casual fashion has pretty much put Florsheim and Bostonian out of it," said Mike Kormos, who follows the footwear industry for NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y., market research firm.

"Baby boomers today are at an age where they want comfort and will pay top price for it. As for the young, I don't think my 25-year-old son ever has worn a rigid shoe and he's not about to start."

He credits the trend to athletic-footwear manufacturers teaching consumers to expect padding, air support channels and other comfort features.

Some, such as Easy Spirit and Rockport, have adapted by adding padding and shock absorption.

The Euro-casual brands go farther. Their shoes need not be tied tightly. A wider design provides more toe wiggle room. A higher arch and lowered heel shifts the weight load off the toes, distributing it over a deeply curved footbed that cradles the heel.

"Our shoes just don't hurt your feet," Meckfessel said.

Customer Jan Cohen, a Largo woman who bought two pairs of $50 clogs at Happy Feet last week, agreed.

"I was miserable until I came to Happy Feet. I just went to a wedding wearing a pair of rhinestone-studded Birkenstocks. Those are my dress shoes."

-- Contact Mark Albright at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252

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