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Business Observer Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009 12 years ago

Little Feet, Big Feat

Leigh Peters has found a successful retail niche by offering hard-to-find, high-quality children's shoes.

Leigh Peters has found a successful retail niche by offering hard-to-find, high-quality children's shoes.

Tampa native Leigh Peters spent part of her earlier adult life selling clothes for manufacturers like Calvin Klein, DKNY and OXO.

Visiting her sister in New York, her sister introduced her to Italian-made children shoes. The styles, quality and fit impressed Peters. So she bought some for her daughter.

Peters and her husband eventually moved back to Tampa and after reading a magazine article on mom entrepreneurs, she decided she was ready. Peters decided to open a women's boutique. But there seemed to be many of those. The Tampa she had left many years ago had changed. What business could she start that was truly different?

She did remember all the compliments her daughter got on her shoes. So after research and a lot of discussion with her husband, Michael Peters, president of Spark, an advertising firm, Peters opened Poco Pattino, Italian for “little shoes,” in South Tampa, in February 2005.

The business strategy was to offer unique, high-quality shoes and a staff that fit the customers well.

“It was a tough learning curve at first,” Peters says. “We weren't soaring.”

But things improved. Michael designed her signs, logo and business cards. Customers enjoyed the hard-to-find shoes from Italy, Sweden, Japan and the United States and the attention the staff gave them.

Things have been going moderately well, but Peters wanted another location to draw from more than just mainly South Tampa parents. So she spoke to customers and got some ideas.

This month, she opens a second location at International Plaza in Tampa's Westshore Business District.

“Customers told me they go to that mall to make a number of purchases and that it was easy to park and get to,” Peters says. “One of the business advantages of the Bay area is that we have a huge area to draw from. We can reach Odessa, Ocala, St. Pete, Clearwater. International is one of the most successful malls in the country.”

What stands out are the kinds of shoes in Poco Pattino. About half are imported. Peters attributed her experience as a manufacturer's rep as a “big help” when she jumped to the other side as a retailer.

“I learned how to speak their language,” Peters says.

It was also a help in one of the most difficult areas of the business: Figuring out what will be popular, keeping up with fashions and being confident enough to buy merchandise months in advance of it hitting the shelves. And
Peters, with her native's knowledge of Tampa, is very careful to buy brands and styles that will appeal to residents here.

“Florida is different and Tampa has its own tastes and style, so I go with my gut many times,” she says.

The reverse is also true. On one trip she took to Miami to meet a supplier, she had to talk him into selling her shoes. “I had to sell him on the store and its uniqueness,” Peters says.

With a modest budget, Peters can't carry the variety of department stores. She does not buy two to three styles in every brand. She carries about 20 brands in a few colors. Part of her store also displays some women's shoes, because many moms shop there.

The store carries shoes, from athletic, to sandals, to casual to dressy, from infants to juniors size 6, or infants to children about 9 or 10 years old.

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