One of the longest-running family owned shoe stores in Billings is closing.
Bob and Debbie Kuntz of Great Falls are closing their stores at Rimrock Mall in Billings and the Holiday Village Mall in Great Falls so they can retire and spend more time with their grandchildren.
"It was a very hard decision," Bob Kuntz said. "Not only are we having to tell our people, but we've had a tremendous outpouring from our customers in Billings and Great Falls."
His parents opened a shoe store in their hometown of Great Falls in 1962 and one in Billings at Herberger's in 1975. In high school, Kuntz worked at his folks' store in Great Falls, earned a college degree and then returned to the family business.
Village Shoes employs about 10 people in Billings and 15 in Great Falls, and the owners are helping them find new jobs.
"We're allowing people to schedule interviews during the day, as needed" Bob Kuntz said. "There's always a place for good or great people."
As Americans moved toward a more casual lifestyle, Village Shoes had to change, and that was one of the company's strengths, he said. Today's top sellers are European shoes and MBT Shoes, based on Masai Barefoot Technology, which didn't exist a few years ago.
"We've always tried to be aware of what our customer needs, and give them the best service we possibly can," he said.
Debbie Kuntz, periodically worked at the store while raising a family and returned full-time a decade ago to specialize in merchandising. Over the past 40 years, domestic shoe manufacturing gradually moved overseas until only a trio of major U.S. manufacturers remain. Brazil, Spain and Italy and then Asia became dominant in shoe manufacturing.
"They were places that had very well-made shoes, so having shoes from other areas isn't a big concern for us," Debbie Kuntz said.
As Americans embraced the casual look for work and play, there is less demand for party shoes. The demand for specialized sizes, such as extra narrow and wide, also declined, she said.
Department, chain and big box stores and Internet e-businesses all got into the game of selling shoes, changing the shape of the industry.
In addition to the two Montana stores, Kuntz' corporation, the Shoe Corp. of Montana, used to operate two stores in Spokane, Wash.; a Naturalizer Shoe store in Boise, Idaho; and also operated a SAS (San Antonio Shoes) store in Sandy, Utah.
The family used to operate three shoe stores at Rimrock Mall: Village Shoes; Naturalizer Shoes, which was absorbed into Village Shoes four years ago; and Cobbie Shoe Store, which sold women's footwear in hard-to-find sizes in the early 1990s.
The two Montana stores will close after the inventory is sold, he said.
Rimrock Mall Senior Manager Kendall Merrick wished the Kuntzes well.
"While we are sad to see this store leave, our shoppers will be glad to know that collectively our department stores and specialty retailers carry the majority of brands that were available at Village Shoes, and they are working to secure any additional lines," Merrick said.
The loss of such a landmark family business means Billings shoppers have only a handful of choices left to buy shoes or boots at specialty stores that are locally owned and aren't part of a national chain.
Twenty-one years ago at age 21, Brenda Zoanni started working at Naturalizer Shoes in Rimrock Mall, gradually working her way up to manager of Village Shoes. Zoanni and controller Nanette Cummings in Great Falls have been the other key people behind the company, Bob Kuntz said.
Zoanni said she doesn't know what comes next for her career, but said she will really miss the loyal customers and employees. Her sales team always joked about getting together some day and writing a book about selling shoes, she said.
"I think everyone should work retail sometime in their life. It makes them a better customer," Zoanni said.
Liz Hitchcock, who is graduating from Montana State University Billings and intends on becoming a physician assistant, has worked at Village Shoes for four years.
"We are all really close. Brenda is like our mom. Whenever we have problems, she is the one we go to," Hitchcock said.
Bob and Debbie Kuntz said their three daughters chose different careers. Two now live and work as professionals in other cities, and one is finishing her doctorate degree in education. The Kuntz family has leased retail space in the two Montana malls rather than purchase property, so Bob Kuntz said they never gave much thought to selling Village Shoes.
With an eye toward his 65th birthday next August, Kuntz said, at this stage in life the grandkids take precedence.
"After 48 years, we feel we've put in our time," he said. "We've had a tremendous, tremendous experience."