Little’s Shoes in Squirrel Hill is ‘like walking into Cheers’
Little’s Shoes first opened its doors on Forbes Avenue in 1932. Three families and 87 years later, the store continues to thrive on a business model characteristic of Pittsburgh: kindness.
The shoe store, located in Squirrel Hill, is one of the biggest on that retail block. The business offers dozens of different brands and is Pittsburgh’s largest full-service family shoe store.
Co-owners of the store, Justin Sigal, 39, and his father Joel Sigal rely on several techniques to make their business stand out among competitors like big-box discounters or Zappos, the online shoe retailer owned by Amazon.
According to the Sigals, any customer can walk through the door and expect an experienced employee to welcome them, measure their foot and talk them through what they want out of a shoe and give recommendations based upon their needs.
“When I go there it’s like walking into Cheers. Everyone knows your name,” said Carol Mannix, 64, who travels from West Mifflin to shop at Little’s. “I could go to discount stores or shop online … but I like the human touch.”
Mannix has shopped at Little’s for around 30 years. She appreciates how the staff is “very professional” and that they cater to customers’ preferences.
The Sigals said it’s rare to find experienced salespeople who are willing to take the time to help customers and engage with them as friends. This business model allows the store to retain its loyal customer base and attract new ones at the same time. The store has been known to stock certain products based on specific customers’ preferences.
“When we go to buy, we always have (customers) in mind,” Joel Sigal said. “Because I always say to people we love our customers. Our customers I think are the best customers anywhere anybody could have.”
The owners pride themselves on providing customers with a variety of shoes and international products.
“We’re ahead on product. You might get brands in here that you haven’t heard of,” said Justin Sigal. “We go to Europe and get a lot of brands from factories that you can’t find anywhere. … If you Google them, you’ll find our website or maybe a couple of our friends that carry them. But these aren’t going to be brands that you’re going to see anywhere else.”
Justin Sigal has plenty of experience in shoe business, as well as the shoe market in Europe. In high school, he worked five days a week in his father’s stockroom. After finishing college, he worked in two separate shoe factories in Italy and Denmark. Justin Sigal has been at the store since the early 2000s, and he is the fourth generation in his family to pursue a business in shoes.
His father, Joel Sigal, formerly operated a chain of shoe stores, J. Sigal Shoes, before purchasing Little’s Shoes in 1985 from Jerry Slomoff. Slomoff had purchased the store from the Little family, the founders, in 1973.
Joel Sigal’s original plan was to continue expanding J. Sigal Shoes, which had locations in Squirrel Hill, Monroeville and Pleasant Hills at the time. He was later convinced that operating Little’s would not only be profitable but was an essential part of Pittsburgh.
“I felt it was an institution in the city,” Joel Sigal said.
Legacy endures not only in the Sigal family but resonates with their employees as well. Gerald “Jerry” Antoncic, 59, has worked at Little’s for 40 years in sales. He sets up displays in the windows in addition to working the sales floor.
Much of Antoncic’s loyalty stems back to the Sigals’ friendly and fair treatment of its workers.
“Most definitely the owners of the store go well beyond the call of duty. It’s just not strictly business. I mean, family matters,” Antoncic said. “Going through a health crisis myself, or when my parents were sick. ‘Whatever you need,’ the Sigals said. They were there to help me every step of the way.”
Both the Sigals and Antoncic stated some customers go back four generations. With some customers, Antoncic even texts and calls to notify them of new deals. The appeal of the store that Antonic and the Sigals emphasized over anything else was the focus on relationships with their customers.
Mannix said that Little’s recently sent her flowers and a pair of sandals for being such a loyal customer.
“Everyone should go there,” Mannix said. “It’s the greatest place on Earth.”