Stout's Shoes still in step after 123 years

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Tough as it was, the Great Recession paled in comparison to the Great Depression, when Stout’s Footwear Co. closed three stores.

Last year, the family-owned shoe retailer saw revenue slide 7 percent, to $3.5 million, but Stout’s held its own against Nordstrom, Shoe Carnival and other big competitors.

Indianapolis-based Stout’s isn’t just surviving. It also is proceeding with plans to open a store next year on the city’s north side, bringing the number of Stout’s Shoes locations to four. The company owns a New Balance store in Greenwood, too.

Stout’s also is beefing up its expertise in children’s shoes, and—after several failed attempts—renewing efforts to sell online.

“It’s day-to-day,” said co-owner Brad Stout, the fourth generation to run the company. “Every day, you have to fight a good fight or it’s gone. It’s been one pair of shoes at a time for [123] years.”

Stout’s version of the good fight involves leaning heavily on its history. Its landmark downtown location is a throwback of sorts, from the store’s décor—old-fashioned clocks and photos from the early days—to the personal service that sets Stout’s apart from big-box competitors.

“Every day, you have to fight the good fight or it’s gone,” says co-owner Brad Stout. (IBJ Photo/Robin Jerstad)

“If you’re really taking care of your customer, your business can be very good these days,” said Sam Poser, a senior research analyst at the Birmingham, Ala.-based Sterne Agee investment brokerage. “We think there is opportunity in this market for developing relationships with the consumer.”

Another distinguishing characteristic for Stout’s: its Baldwin Flyer system.

Installed more than 81 years ago, it is a series of pulleys, wires and baskets designed to move shoes across the Massachusetts Avenue flagship. When a customer is ready to purchase a pair of shoes, an employee places the product in a basket. He or she then pulls on a connecting wire that elevates the basket high in the air, near the ceiling, then across the store to the office loft.

A second employee checks the shoes for any abnormalities, wraps the shoes and shoots the basket back down, diagonally across the store, to the checkout counter. The shoes are packaged and the customer is on his or her way.

“It’s all part of the show,” said employee Walter Kuhn, smiling.

The Baldwin Flyer system is no longer the time-saving device it was when Stout’s first used it in 1928. The manufacturer is out of business, too, which makes Brad Stout the one responsible for making repairs. But the novelty machine brings customers back to see the store.

Brad loves going down to the often-overlooked basement, which has remained almost untouched since it was constructed. The basement looks much like a dungeon, with mostly gray, cement walls and tight spaces. The non-concrete walls are made with wood from shoe crates and decorated with graffiti from employees dating as far back as 1935.

After a pipe leak flooded the basement three years ago, an employee found the original ledger used to keep the company’s finances. It still has the original submission of $51.36 on March 20, 1886.

Now a co-owner along with his sisters, Wendy O’Brien and Julie Stout, Brad returned to Indiana in 1982 with an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and plans to attend law school or pursue a career on Wall Street. He had no intention of entering the family business.

But the shoe store was growing and his father, Harry Stout, was renovating property around the Mass Ave location downtown. Brad had enjoyed working at the store as a child, pasting labels on shoeboxes for his grandfather. So he started working for his father.

Within a few weeks, Harry dragged him down from the office loft to start selling shoes. Brad didn’t like it at first but, looking back, he said he never would have learned how to run the business without knowing how to sell.

The business’s long-standing success is a testament to the family’s ability to do both.

 “[Stout’s] has been a retail anchor and continues to be,” said David Andrichik, co-founder of the Massachusetts Avenue Merchants Association. “They have the history and the expertise to stay successful and continue to draw people from all over Indiana to their stores.”

Indeed, Stout’s old-school service keeps customers coming back.

Repeat customers include Michael Theobald and his wife, Mary Ann. The store is especially important for Mary Ann, who suffers from plantar fasciitis, a foot inflammation, and needs to be sure her shoes fit correctly.

The couple, who travel to the Indianapolis store from Greensburg in southeastern Indiana, have shopped for shoes online but keep returning to Stout’s.

“I learned a long time ago, if I can keep [Mary Ann’s] feet happy, she’s happy,” Michael Theobald said. “We just like the brands and the people [at Stout’s]. They are professionals. They know what they are talking about and they are not pushy.”

Stout’s also is adding expertise in the children’s market through its recent hiring of Sue Axlerod-Tooly. Axlerod-Tooly brings 40 years of experience running Indianapolis-based Richard’s Shoes for Children, which is closing at the first of the year.

Stout said the addition will bring more inventory and knowledge to make the shoe store more competitive.

Stout’s also is trying to make a better presence online through Brad’s son, Brady Stout.

“We’ve failed at e-commerce so many times,” Brad said. “I can’t do it. [Brady] has a real sense for how to get it done, though.”

Brady, 23, a recent graduate of Indiana University, also sells shoes at the company’s Carmel location.•


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. I had read earlier this spring that Noodles & Co was going to open in the Fishers Marketplace (which is SR 37 and 131st St, not 141st St, just FYI). Any word on that? Also, do you happen to know what is being built in Carmel at Pennsylvania and Old Meridian? May just be an office building but I'm not sure.

  2. I'm sorry, but you are flat out wrong. There are few tracks in the world with the history of IMS and probably NO OTHER as widely known and recognized. I don't care what you think about the stat of Indy Car racing, these are pretty hard things to dispute.

  3. Also wondering if there is an update on the Brockway Pub-Danny Boy restaurant/taproom that was planned for the village as well?

  4. Why does the majority get to trample on the rights of the minority? You do realize that banning gay marriage does not rid the world of gay people, right? They are still going to be around and they are still going to continue to exist. The best way to get it all out of the spotlight? LEGALIZE IT! If gay marriage is legal, they will get to stop trying to push for it and you will get to stop seeing it all over the news. Why do Christians get to decide what is moral?? Why do you get to push your religion on others? How would legalizing gay marriage expose their lifestyle to your children? By the way, their lifestyle is going to continue whether gay marriage is legalized or not. It's been legal in Canada for quite a while now and they seem to be doing just fine. What about actual rules handed down by God? What about not working on Sundays? What about obeying your parents? What about adultery? These are in the 10 Commandments, the most important of God's rules. Yet they are all perfectly legal. What about divorce? Only God is allowed to dissolve a marriage so why don't you work hard to get divorce banned? Why do you get to pick and choose the parts of the Bible you care about?

  5. Look at the bright side. With the new Lowe's call center, that means 1000 jobs at $10 bucks an hour. IMS has to be drooling over all that disposable income. If those employees can save all their extra money after bills, in five years they can go to the race LIVE. Can you say attendance boost?