(Still) Open For Business

odney Chun keeps Ala Moana’s Robins shoe store running, even after its sister stores close their doors

November, 2002

When 93-year-old family company Chun Kim Chow Ltd. announced the closing of its retail locations last year, most Island residents counted Robins shoe store in Ala Moana as one of its 20-plus casualties. In the following months, customers watched as the longtime mall tenant slashed prices and allowed its once footwear-laden shelves to dwindle.

But come summertime, many shoppers were perplexed to find Robins’ doors still open — and its shelves completely restocked. The magician behind Robins’ reappearing act is store manager Rodney Chun, the grandson of Chun Kim Chow’s founder. Chun, with financial backing from his father-in-law Thomas Lau, took over the familiar retail outlet in April.

“When CKC announced it was closing all its stores, I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” says Chun, who began his Robins’ career as a stock boy at age 18. “I even thought about applying for a state job. But you know, it’s in my blood. I’ve been here 30 years — that’s all I know.”

Over the next three months, Chun contemplated taking over the store, crunched numbers and discussed the possibility with mall managers. But the clincher was the relocation of the Nordstrom shoe store from Ala Moana to Ward Centre. Robins was transferred into Chun and Lau’s hands on April 1. And that’s when the real work began.

Chun and his eight employees cleaned up the store and rebuilt its depleted inventory. “When we first started, it was like seven days a week, 12- to 14-hour days. Myself and the supervisors, we manage, sell shoes, do stock work,” says Chun, who jokingly adds, “Luckily, I had been a stock boy before.”

Highlighting women’s footwear while downplaying men’s lines was one of the few changes Chun made. The shoe-store veteran already knew what worked. “We knew that Robins was always a full-service, kamaaina shoe store, so we didn’t want to change that in terms of marketing,” he says. “When I say full-service, we put the shoe on the customer and, with elderly customers, sometimes help them put their own shoes and socks back on. And we’re local — people like that we’re not a high-pressure store with pushy salespeople.”

Dwight Yoshimura, general manager of Ala Moana owner General Growth Properties, is glad to see at least one retail survivor from the closeout of CKC outlets. Ala Moana had lost four tenants in that process.

“You never want to lose any merchant, but, obviously, economic challenges make it tough to do business,” Yoshimura says. “And a lot more retail has been coming on to the Hawaii scene ever since the big-boxers arrived. Local retailers need to establish a niche market.”

The end of what was once Hawaii’s largest shoe retailer didn’t come as a complete surprise to Renton Nip, acting president of CKC Ltd. At one time, the firm owned as many as 90 retail locations. But the company began scaling back operations with the closing of GEM department stores in the mid-1990s. CKC maintains some real-estate holdings, including a warehouse in Sand Island.

“It’s sad for the family and all of the employees, but we had to face economic reality,” says Nip. “Operating results were not satisfactory. And that’s what you’ve seen basically: All of the homegrown retailers have gone, including Liberty House and, most recently, McInerny.”

Robins in Ala Moana reported just under $2 million in gross annual sales last year. But with the change of ownership in April — set against the backdrop of a rocky period for Hawaii retail — Chun says the store’s true test will be its 2003 performance.

Although it’s been seven months since he took over the store, Chun still gets a kick out of the occasional customer surprised to see Robins in full swing.

“It’s great seeing the customers come in, and they’re so happy we’re still in business because a lot of them have been shopping at Robins since they were kids,” Chun says. “Everybody who was raised in Hawaii must’ve bought a pair of shoes from Robins at least once. So it makes us feel good to have such loyal customers in Hawaii.”

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