Entrepreneurial mums solve a footwear dilemma

Mums join drive to bring quality children's footwear to the city, write Elaine Yau and Tiffany Ap

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 11:30am

Anita Klaus and Shamsa van Keulen have a lot in common. Both quit their jobs 10 years ago to be full-time mums, both came to Hong Kong six years ago when their husbands were posted here, and both have eldest sons who are 11 years old.

There's something else they share: a passion for shoes. Van Keulen, a former real estate researcher, admits she has "a fair number" herself. But when it comes to buying shoes for their children, the pair have often been frustrated by the lack of shops stocking quality footwear that appealed to youngsters and also suited their growing feet.

Trying to find the right shoes for their young children usually required a wearying trek round many retailers, Van Keulen says. "Mothers can't predict how their children's feet will grow, especially if they are under-fives who are having a growth spurt. I have made so many expensive mistakes when buying shoes." Klaus, a former occupational therapist, felt the same way: "I have been in Asia for 15 years. I always had difficulty finding quality shoes that properly fit my children's feet."

Klaus and Van Keulen kept hearing similar complaints from their friends. "At schools where we have parent friends, we talk about the need to leave space in the suitcase on trips back to our home countries where we can buy shoes," says Van Keulen. "You cannot tell when your child is going to have a growth spurt. So if I buy sports shoes in summer, they may last only until Easter. What can you do in the six weeks before school ends?"

The two friends eventually decided they could be part of the solution, and opened a one-stop shoe shop for children in a gleaming new mall in Aberdeen in August. Apple & Pie (so named for the sense of warmth and comfort it evokes) stocks a range of well-known European brands such as Bisgaard, Primigi and Daumling. The store is associated with a podiatrist who can offer medical advice if a child comes in with foot problems. In the meantime, Klaus and Van Keulen have enrolled in shoe-fitting courses so that they can better train their sales staff.

Doing groundwork for the business has made them much more aware of the importance of good shoes for tender young feet, because children's bones are not yet fully developed, Klaus says. If the shoes are too large, for instance, their feet will constantly slip forward and backward, crushing the toes. As the bones are still soft, the child's foot moulds to the shoe. If it doesn't fit properly, the foot takes the shape of the insole, which must be avoided.

Shoes should also have heel support to help absorb the impact when stepping on hard surfaces. Without it, she says children will tend to develop an inward gait.

"Lots of damage you see later in life is due to the fact that children do not wear proper shoes when they are young," Klaus says.

Orthopaedic specialist Raymond Ng pioneered the idea of healthy footwear in Hong Kong when he launched his Dr Kong shops in 1999. Run somewhat like optometrist shops, it employs trained staff who can recommend suitable footwear after examining customers' feet.

The concept seems to have worked, and Ng says the business has enjoyed 20 per cent growth each year since its launch.

Dr Kong's focus has mainly been on older customers, but Klaus and Van Keulen also face competition from specialised shoe shops which have opened in recent years. British brand Start-rite has a shop in Discovery Bay, while LiFung Kids runs four outlets of American specialist label Stride Rite.

While the Stride Rite catalogue covers footwear for children up to 10 years old, their primary focus is on toddlers up to five years old. The chain has also introduced more personalised services: staff measure both the width and length of little feet before advising on footwear, and the chain occasionally organises expert talks to educate its clientele about foot development.

But Klaus says their investigations show there's demand for more specialist stores as the clientele for quality children shoes is growing fast. "Before, parents in Hong Kong didn't know the impact a bad pair of shoes can have on children. But that's changing. Our research shows that parents are willing to spend more to get the right shoes."

They have gone to great lengths to source from specialist suppliers of handmade children's shoes, she says. They stock a wide range of designs such as demure Mary Janes for school, chic ballet flats, shiny jazz shoes and brands that produce shoes in different widths. The idea is to ensure style is not compromised in the pursuit of healthy feet.

Many customers are fashion-conscious, and keen for their children to both look good and feel good. As Klaus knows full well, precocious youngsters make no bones about their preference for stylish gear.

"My daughter Annika, who is nine, wants different shoes for different occasions. She wants to dress like a princess and wear a ballerina [flat] if she goes to a party or wedding. If she goes to a playdate she wants to look cool and wear stylish sneakers. If she's running around on a beach, she wants to have a stylish Havaianas flip-flop. She has already found her identity. I can never impose shoes on her."

As exhilarating as it has been for them to return to full-time work, the partners reckon their children have been even more excited by the move. They have eagerly told their friends about their mothers' shop, and they take their pick of shoes there, too.

"We both have daughters. We can show them that, after motherhood, you can go in different directions and make contributions to society," Van Keulen says. "For some, it may be saving the world. If [our contribution is through] bringing good quality shoes, so be it."