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Photos by Suzanne Monteverdi/QNS
Customers being helped at Turnpike Comfort Shoes in Fresh Meadows

While “Fit makes the difference” is the motto posted on the front of third-generation shoemaker Steven Rueda’s Fresh Meadows store, a unique customer experience is what makes the mom-and-pop shop thrive.

To customers at the sit-and-fit Turnpike Comfort Footwear store on Union Turnpike, football season brings Sunday hot dogs and game broadcasts. An upcoming event with Australian shoe retailer Vionic will feature wine, cheese and raffles.

Rueda and longtime store manager Robert Hauer are still brainstorming for a May gathering with German vendor Waldlaufer. Bringing in German fare, music and lederhosen were among ideas floated, half in jest, by the personable duo.

“As retailers, we have to become entertainers, ” Rueda said. “We have to figure out how to get people into stores and entertainment is part of that, I think.”

Along with experience events, shoppers are offered a free beverage when they walk into the store. Customers can also request a free shoe shine, whether they bought the shoes in the shop or not.

These services bring “an added value” to the customer experience, Rueda said, and are a way of ensuring customers enjoy their experience and return to the store in the future.

Staff

The Turnpike Comfort Footwear staff

Rueda has owned and operated Turnpike Comfort Footwear for 39 years. He was introduced to the business by his father, who ran a shoe-fitting business in another part of the borough.

Like many of today’s brick-and-mortar store owners, Rueda knows one the greatest challenges he faces is online retail. Many of his sales stem from commercial or big-box footwear from brands like New Balance and Rockport, he noted.

“These are all brands that not only sell direct to consumers, but people have access to these brands through retailers on Amazon, Zappos and all these major websites,” Rueda said.

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While much of his business is driven by big-name brands, Rueda also prides himself on the store’s selection of unique and private-label brands. Many products offered are exclusive to the store or imported from foreign trade shows.

“That helps us because they can’t go online and find it everywhere. Those things help us and helps our customer because they’re getting product that’s not seen anywhere else,” he said. “We will not put anything in the store that we don’t feel is delivering quality, value and comfort.”

Still, Hauer added, it is a challenge to compete with the selection available online.

“It’s challenging as a small business to invest in stock when you don’t really know how business is going to be,” he said. “On the internet, it’s just a picture. People are not necessarily investing in the stock … Whereas we have to have stock here so we can try things on.”

Service is the greatest combatant to the online shops and big-box stores, according to Hauer.

“We sit, fit and get to know our customers. We build a relationship with people,” he said. “You have to be as good as you could possible be at what you do. You have to give the best possible service.”

The shop is succeeding at delivering top-notch service, according to Rueda, who says the vast majority of customers who come into the store leave satisfied. The shop has also received a number of accolades — including the 2015 Gold Medal Service Award from Footwear Insight — and positive customer reviews online.

Rueda has also embraced the digital world to compete with the online retailers. He operates a website and does offer an online store; however, it is used more as a marketing tool than as a point of sales.

The site offers a venue to connect with customers, who can sign up for email updates, and serves as an online lookbook. Rueda is also beginning to maintain a presence on Facebook and Instagram pages.

What also helps the mom-and-pop store thrive is the ability to offer a unique service from a medical standpoint. Rueda and Hauer are each certified pedorthists who are trained in bio-mechanics, anatomy, footwear construction and manufacturing and to fill footwear prescriptions.

Shoe fittings are the norm at this family-owned operation, which also features a selection of bags, jewelry, socks and other accessories.

“Most people who come in say, ‘Wow, I haven’t had my feet measured since I was 10.’ Or they never have,” Rueda said. “Anyone can hang up a shingle and say, ‘We’re in the comfort shoe business.’ We are actually certified in the comfort shoe business.”

Turnpike Comfort Footwear is located at 184-20 Union Tpke. Visit their website or call 718-454-5870 for store hours or more information.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of an open-ended series in The Queens Courier and on QNS about small businesses across Queens. The goal is to highlight mom-and-pop shops and their history, as well as their successes despite facing competition from bigger, well-known retailers; and the challenges they face in the current economic environment. If you’re a Queens small business owner and interested in speaking with our editorial staff about your successes and challenges, call 718-224-5863, ext. 204, or email rpozarycki[@]qns.com.

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