L&L Shoes: Last of the Nikes

Janice Schwab (left) and Marty Nash of L&L shoes stand in front of the last few pairs of Nike shoes on display in the store window of the small store in Palestine's Main Street district. Both Schwab and Nash are disappointed in Nike's final decision to close their sales account.

L&L Shoe Store has sold Nikes since the 1970s, helping the fledgling brand build its customer base.

Today, Nike is a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar sportswear and equipment company. But L&L co-owner Janice Schwab remembers a Nike salesman driving up to her new store, his trunk full of shoes to peddle.

That was 1972, one year after Blue Ribbon Sports officially became Nike Inc.

Since then, a few things have changed. Nike, with its Swoosh logo, “Just Do It” trademark, and stable of celebrity sponsors, has become one of the planet’s most-recognized brands. People now order Nikes directly off the store’s website, or shop at Niketown retail stores. Consumers seeking name-brand shoes at discount prices shop at big-box retailers like Academy or The Finish Line.

Small shops, like L&L, which back in the day helped this behemoth get its shoe in the door of America’s mammoth marketplace, no longer fit the company’s retail strategy or image.

Last month, Nike closed its nearly 50-year account with L&L. The last few pairs of Nikes are flying off the shelves—forever.

Schwab isn't taking this sea-change in market forces personally. Still, she's a little bugged that Nike has gotten too big to remember the “little guys” – stores like L&L – that carried Nike for years but eventually could not handle enough volume to satisfy the company's appetite for profits.

For L&L, this wasn't a slow separation. It was a divorce decree that came in an email from Nike U.S.A. on Aug. 21.

The note had all the warmth and grace of a subpoena.

“Unfortunately, we have recently determined that the L&L Shoe Store account no longer aligns with our distribution strategy,” the noted stated in business-speak jargon.

No phone call, no apologies, no thanks for all your years of service.

“From and after the date of this letter, Nike will accept no new orders (inclusive of Nike and Brand Jordan products) and we will also cancel any outstanding orders,” the note further stated.

To make sure there was no misunderstanding, Nike concluded: “This notice reflects a definitive final decision by the company.”

L&L and hundreds of other small retailers, hearing rumors of the coming break-up, had collectively tried to hire an attorney. But it's hard to fight a company that takes in $25 billion a year.

“The attorney wouldn't take the case,” Schwab said. “He said we would run out of money before Nike did.”

Calls to Nike U.S.A. World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, were redirected to a media relations firm in New York, which also did not respond.

Nike did not bring huge profits to the small shoe store on Palestine's Main Street, but it did draw foot traffic. Nike offered something for everyone in the family: practical dads looking for shoes to wear cleaning the garage, and brand-obsessed teen-agers seeking the latest kicks.

L&L always sold Nike footwear at a discount to attract customers, unloading three to four pairs a day. The footwear store continues to sell work boots and ladies' shoes, which are more profitable, but will also look for another athletic brand to replace Nike.

The break-up will not ruin this small local business, but it won't help, either. Meantime, Schwab encourages people to shop locally.

Nearly 50 years,after a Nike salesman drove up to her store and unloaded his truck, Schwab is starting to think about retirement.

Until then, she'll just do it.

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