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Sandy Welch: Big business in little feet Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

Many women in business experience a constant tension between the demands and challenges of their work and the joys and responsibilities of family life.

Not Sandy Welch. She designed her children's shoe business precisely to fit her role as mother.

Welch, who started the business 10 years ago, has three locations -- Squirrel Hill, Mount Lebanon and Aspinwall -- featuring premium children's shoes.

She says the shoe business was a natural choice. Her father, long-time Pittsburgh advertising icon Bob Lando, founded the highly successful Athlete's Foot shoe store chain. Consequently, she knew that business cold and had contacts when she ventured out on her own.

"When our first child arrived, I decided to not have a 40-hour-a-week job," Welch says of her entrepreneurial desires. "And that's how it's been. My children are now 17 and 13. I'm there to see them off in the morning, and I'm there for them after school."

Money has not been Welch's prime motivator.

"I'm sure I could have grown a larger business, and I know for a fact that I could have made more money, but those have never been the prime objectives," she says. "I'm very big on family life, and this business has always been a way to a better family life."

Shops inside stores

Welch's business is unusual in that she owns only one of her three stores. At Squirrel Hill and Mount Lebanon (The Galleria), she has shops within stores -- shoe departments within Newmans Youth Center stores. The Waterworks Mall store, hers alone, is freestanding. All three feature the Stride Rite brand.

In the Newmans locations, Welch sells only shoes, so that she doesn't compete with the larger store surrounding her department. At her Aspinwall location, where she can sell what she chooses, the merchandise mix after nearly eight years has inched from 100 percent shoes to a mix of 70 percent shoes and 30 percent clothing and accessories.

"I started with a leased department in Newmans Youth Center at 5834 Forbes Avenue -- a landmark in the East End, located in the center of that prime retail block between Murray and Shady avenues," Welch says. "It's one of those great arrangements where everybody is happy. I don't have a register and many of the owner-style concerns, and they don't have to worry about shoes -- a major department in a quality children's store."

To make it happen, Welch designed her role as that of proprietor. She handles the broad strokes of planning and buying for the business, but the daily minutiae is handled by a general manager.

"So sure, I have an extra level of management," Welch says. "In a more traditional arrangement, I would be my own general manager. But this is the secret ingredient that makes the business work for me and my family."

Customers in diapers, customers with briefcases

So who buys the shoes -- the parents or the children? Welch says young children are often her customers -- as soon as they're able to talk and express an opinion.

"It once was the case that the parents were the customers," she says. "That's changed. Often a child as young as two will express a strong preference about his or her shoes. And it's a relatively short-lived relationship we have with these young customers.

"By the age of nine, they're gone."

Welch says she maintains a small but loyal clientele of "tiny-footed adults" who find children's shoes fashionable, well-made and dependable.

"These are very stylish shoes, and we sell only the best," she says. "People know they can trust the quality of these shoes, whether for their children or themselves."

Next steps

Are there plans for growth, expansion or change of direction for this shoe maven?

"That's not what this is about," Welch is quick to respond. "I didn't set out to create a children's shoes empire but to have an interesting and worthwhile business that supports my larger goals and lifestyle. In time, I'll move on to something else."

That "something else" likely will be as unusual as Welch's shoe business style. She speculates that she might like to become active in the field of pet therapy for seniors, something she does now on an occasional , volunteer basis at one of the city's leading retirement institutions in the East End.

That seems an utterly appropriate change of direction for Welch, a woman whose business sense is tuned to unusual sensibilities.

"Just don't quote me on that," she says, laughing. How to reach: Sandy Welch, Stride Rite, Waterworks Mall, (412) 781-1951

William McCloskey is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.