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50 years and counting. Customer service, hard-to find brands help EASTON SHOES survive - May 12, 2004

The Columbus Dispatch

by Jeffrey Sheban

Easton is 50.
No, not that Easton. Easton Shoes, 2052 Crown Plaza Dr., along Bethel Road on the Northwest Side, is celebrating 50 years in business, a feat unmatched by most shoe stores.

By stressing customer service and hard-to-find brands, the family-owned business has survived fashion trends, cheap imports, the widering of Bethel Road and, most recently, the arrival of Easton Town Center.

The Far East Side shopping center didn't steal customers so much as confuse them when it opened in June 1999.

"It's a real problem because we've lost business, no doubt," said Lenny Comeras, who owns the store with his wife, Marcia. "They go there looking for our store. They assume we're out there."

Calls poured into Easton Shoes after the shopping center opened. People wanted directions, movie schedules and leasing information.

It got so bad that the Comerases started logging calls. After six months, Lenny said, they had hundreds of pages of town-center inquiries. Even now, he said, they sometimes get five or six calls a day for the other Easton.

"It's good and it's bad," he said. "It's good to have that name recognition but bad that we're not out there."

They gave some thought to moving to the town center, but worried about alienating longtime customers.

"Even when we moved two doors down (in the current strip center), some customers couldn't find us," Marcia said.

Easton Shoes carries 80 product lines and specializes in hard-to-find comfort brands made in the United States and Europe. Examples include SAS (San Antonio Shoes), Finest, Finn Comfort, Theresia M. and Solidus.

"Our shoes are made in countries that treat their employees well and pay very good wages," Lenny said.

The business was founded in 1954 in Graceland Shopping Center by Lenny's father, Reuben, and Bill Easton. At it's peak, there were five locations in central Ohio, but changing consumer tastes and self-service competitors took their toll.

Fewer than 4 percent of U.S. shoe retailers make it to 50, according to the National Shoe Retailers Association.

But Lenny and Marcia, sole owners since 1992, have made the store work. They make several trips a year around the world to scout out brands customers won't find elsewhere.

Laraine Levine started shopping at Easton Shoes when she moved to central Ohio from Chicago 14 years ago. She recently moved to Houston but remains a customer.

"I was in Columbus on business one day, stopped in on my way to the airport and bought five pairs," the independent meeting planner said.

She said Easton's selection is tremendous, rivaling Nordstrom, a high-end department store known for its shoes.

"I was in London in Harrods (department store) and I saw the same line as I saw in Columbus, Ohio, and that doesn't happen a lot," Levine said.

Robin Dew is another happy customer. She makes regular trips from Marion to buy shoes.

"They care, they follow up," she said. "This is the only shoe store I come to."

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