Just past the busy intersection at Diversey, Kimball and Milwaukee Avenues, large, signs on colorful paper point to Kay Shoes (2839 N. Milwaukee Ave.), all with the same message: big sales are happening at the shoe store. “Inventory reduction sale” reads one; “final sale” reads another. The family-owned business has been in the neighborhood for nearly 50 years but will soon close its doors, leaving a gap for residents on where to find affordable shoes of all kinds, said owner Monyca Price Flack.
“I don’t know where these people are going to go,” Flack said, citing the lack of retail stores in the area apart from Gap.
Flack said the business is closing because of increased online competition and people’s changing shopping habits. She said she does not have a specific date in mind, but it will be in a couple of months. For now, she is focused on selling the entire inventory at steep discounts and looking for a future tenant who will benefit the neighborhood. The news of the closing and its big sales have gotten people in the shop she has never seen before. The community seems to like discounted deals, but what does that mean about customer loyalty? It’s a question Flack has pondered recently, especially as she sees business spike after the news.
“Business has been a downward spiral; it has been a tough go the last couple of years,” Flack said.
While it’s good people are coming in and taking advantage of the bargain sales Kay Shoes is known for, Flack said the steady decrease of in-store sales over the years represents the largest shopping trend affecting all industries. Online shopping is the new normal for everything from shoes to medicine to dog toys.
According to a 2017 Statista survey of online shoppers, 43 percent of respondents had searched for goods online and also purchased them online. A further 14 percent of respondents stated that they had search for goods online and then bought them in a store. Only 21 percent preferred to buy items in store. And online shopping trends are only increasing. A global online retail report by online selling site Invesp found that the U.S. is eight in the top 10 countries who have high e-commerce retail sales. The U.S. has climbed steadily in the last four years, and in 2018 the percentage of total retail sales was almost nine percent.
Flack knew this trend would pick up and began selling Kay Shoes online nine years ago, which is what has kept the business afloat during the last couple of years, she said. But it’s not the business model she wants to follow, nor could get much profit in because the competition from sites such as Zappos, owned by Amazon, Foot Locker and Shoes is tremendous.
Kay Shoes was always a family-style, community-driven business model, she said. Besides bargains, the store used to have sidewalk sales with other businesses on the block, which used to be “booming,” she said. Five or six independent shoe stores used to line the street but now, vacant storefronts line Milwaukee Avenue, many that have been on the market for years, Flack noted. She even had another shoe store at Milwaukee and Central Park Avenue but closed it down about 10 years ago.
“I was depressed when Payless closed because you need healthy competition,” she said. “Competition is good [until] you realize you are the last one left.”
Flack said the gentrification of the neighborhood was in no way a reason for the business’ closing. If anything, she tried to move with new demographics moving in, acquiring bigger brands and various styles for different occupations and activities. None of that helped.
Photos: Tom Vlodek
Lynn Basa, artist and owner of the Corner Project at Milwaukee and Drake Avenue, has been invested in connecting the neighborhood’s business owners and bringing life to the empty storefronts through partnerships, community activism and art, and recently started the Milwaukee Avenue Alliance, a group that brings together business owners in the area like Flack—a board member of the alliance—to create a stronger and more vibrant business community.
Basa, a longtime Logan Square resident and who began the Corner Project in 2017, is crushed that Kay Shoes is closing.
“It is as regrettable as it is inevitable,” Basa said. “I am surprised that the business has hung on as long as it has.”
She said Flack’s determination to keep going through the recent years of difficulty show her commitment to the community and her strong business model. Basa called Flack a tribute to the
She is working to gather business owners and neighborhood activists to be part of the inaugural Milwaukee Alliance board meeting in May. She wants to get the community talking about finding creative solutions to the problems the strip faces by working toward common goals. But first, those goals need to be visualized.
“We need to get on the same page about what our values are,” she said. “The talent pool we have is vast. I want to find a way to activate [creative solutions] without dictating that.”
Even though it’s an end for Kay Shoes, Flack will still own the building and is looking for the right tenant that will feed the neighborhood. She said she has already received many offers but nothing is set yet. The three-story building, which was an old department store, has a full basement, a loading dock, a conveyer belt
“As much as booming Logan Square is—there are a lot of restaurants on the other part; there is really nothing down here,” she said.
She is remaining hopeful that new life will take over the Kay
“I would like to see something here; I don’t want it to be vacant,” she said. “This is going to be a huge
Basa is not picky about what will take over the building next as long as the exterior is preserved. She said she would be happy with anything, and agreed a restaurant or incubators for small businesses would do well in th space. More coworking spaces is an increasing trend around Chicago and in Logan Square/Avondale, where Second Shift, Ampersand and the Logan Share have created spaces for small business owners, entrepreneurs
“The opportunities are out there but we need a day and night presence,” Basa said. “Offices would be great. We need people to live here so apartments above would be awesome. I am picturing Andersonville [and Lincoln Square]. And those did not happen by accident—there was a lot of community effort.”
Featured photo: Tom Vlodek/LoganSquarist