MANILA - At a corner of one of billionaire Henry Sy's less glitzy malls, employees stack boxes of shoes in a warehouse-like space for budget shoppers.
Customers at Simply Shoes can pick out by themselves sneakers, sandals and heels from the plain displays that are piled up to the ceiling, as they would in supermarkets and outlet shops.
As it seeks to tap into the middle class that is growing more affluent, Simply Shoes is also a tribute to Sy's beginnings at the first "Shoe Mart" in downtown Manila's Carriedo, the seed of his mall empire, said SM Retail senior vice president for shoes and bags Eugene Saw.
"He got busy with other businesses, but his true love, his true passion is in the shoe business, so it’s really going back to the roots," Saw said of the country's richest man.
"As we grow big, we also want to stay true to ourselves. In fact, that’s one of Mr. Sy’s dreams. He stated years before that he wanted to sell a pair of footwear to every Filipino. So it’s part of accomplishing his mission," Saw told ABS-CBN News at a branch in SM Sangandaan Caloocan.
Simply Shoes has 29 branches and 2 more are opening this week, mostly in emerging cities. Only 5 branches are in Mega Manila, Saw said.
SM has 63 malls in the Philippines and 7 others in China, where Sy was born. The company has also been building a portfolio of "Premier" branded malls that cater to the upscale shoppers.
While Simply Shoes targets the budget conscious, its plain retail concept is a little different from the Shoe Mart of the 80s and 90s.
Customers before would ask sales representatives in navy blue uniforms for a shoe size on the department store floor. A second staffer will literally drop the order from a hole in the ceiling.
Simply Shoes thrives in cities and municipalities that are sometimes far from the regional trading hub. In Tacloban City, for example, shoe shoppers will no longer need to travel to Cebu, where SM has 3 giant malls, Saw said.
"May mga retailers naman locally, pero either more expensive or hindi na updated yung fashion. Siyempre, they’d want the latest,"
(There are local retailers, but they're either more expensive or the fashion is not updated. Of course, they'd want the latest.)
"We’re not blinded by the fact that we build malls so we (will) stick to malls. We will adapt to what the customers’ needs are," he added.
Sales are within expectation and "fast-growing," Saw said, adding he expected business to pick up after Simply Shoes tapped husband and wife celebrity endorsers Ali Khatibi and Cristine Reyes with their daughter, Amarah.
SM is building its physical retail presence as slow internet and low credit card penetration slow e-commerce in the Philippines, Saw said.
"We’re a practical organization. While we see it coming, digital is coming, we don’t want to look too far ahead that we forget that our day-to-day business is still bricks and mortar," he said.
If Simply Shoes becomes a big success, Saw said other SM in-house brands may get their own standalone store.
"I think our department being the DNA of the SM Store, people having so much affiliation with shoes in general, I’m sure we are the first, but we definitely won’t be the last," he said.