Prevailing wisdom among retailers these days is to woo customers via on line marketing rather than conventional "bricks and mortar" outlets. But one international PPE boot proprietor -- HAIX North America -- is testing the opposite direction.
In July, as industrial emergency responders converged on College Station, TX, to participate in the 80th anniversary of the Texas Engineering Extension Service's annual summer fire training schools, HAIX opened a local boot store catering to firefighters, EMS and police. Along with the store out of Haix's corporate offices in Lexington, KY, it remains the only retail outlet for HAIX, a German boot company ranked as one of the largest PPE footwear makers in the world.
"The owner of the company, Ewald Haimerl, has been wanting this type of store for many years," said store manager David Thomas. "He visited College Station on one of his trips to the U.S., saw Brayton Fire Training Field. Based on the concentration of municipal and industrial firefighters, rescue responders and police in this area he decided this is where he wanted to make the debut of his first outlet store."
With two factories in Europe and a North American Corporate office / warehouse facility in Lexington, KY, HAIX introduced its first line of leather fire fighting boots in 1992. By 2005, HAIX produced more than 400,000 pairs of boots designed for emergency responders.
"In the U.S., the company has the country divided between five sales managers who spend more than 300 days a year on the road making physical calls on fire departments to do product presentations," Thomas said. The company also maintains an Internet website to conduct business with individual customers online.
Opening a retail outlet in College Station has been a "fabulous experiment" for the company, Thomas said.
"I can do individual custom fittings and still have the ability to fill large orders for big departments and companies," he said. "It has been really neat to start from the ground up with a fresh idea for the company and move it forward."
Thomas and Haimerl share a similar background in the world of PPE boots. Beside selling footwear, both have had lengthy careers as firefighters.
Haimerl's father, a master cobbler, founded the family shoe business shortly after World War II. Ewald Haimerl, also a certified shoe maker, pursued his interest in fire fighting, rising through the ranks of Germany's largest volunteer fire department. As president and CEO of HAIX, Haimerl applied what he learned to a new line of PPE boots for emergency responders.
Thomas details those innovations using a cut-away cross section of HAIX's best seller for firefighters, the Fire Hunter AF. A cushion of injection molding that serves as thermal protection runs the entire length of the sole, reinforced by a layer of high tensile strength steel. Another piece of steel protects the heel area and the arch of the foot. A steel cap protects the top and bottom of the toes.
"The raised toe cap protects the boot from cuts and scrapes while giving you a little more toe protection while you're on your hands and knees," Thomas said. "An elastic tape holds the boot to your foot better so you don't get that "ka-klunk" feeling like walking in rubber boots."? This patented? Haix Ankle Flex System dramatically improves the fit and comfort of the pull-on boot, giving the feeling of a zip-up boot with the quick in and out advantage of a pull-on.
HAIX boots are made exclusively from bull leather, which is twice as thick as either calf or cow, Thomas said. Beside durability, leather is important with regard to decontamination. Published studies show that with normal washing and air-dry decontamination procedures, leather boot materials retain substantially lower amounts of contaminants that rubber boot material.
Whereas many boots use a plastic counter to support the heel, HAIX uses leather which molds to the wearer's foot. The liner and the heel are both glued and sewn into place to guarantee it becomes a permanent part of the boot.
"This boot is designed to be taken off using the other foot," Thomas said. "With most fireboots on the market, the heel will separate from the back of the boot if you try that. Ewald Haimerl is a firefighter himself, so he knows how most firefighters take their boots off."
The boot is designed with an insole that can be taken out and washed with the rest of a firefighter's PPE, Thomas said. Together with the insole, HAIX uses a proprietary cooling system consisting of vent holes at the top of the boot to release personal heat.? All Haix boots are designed to meet NFPA standards.
Buying a pair of boots at the HAIX store in College Station is not like running into Foot Locker and grabbing the first size elevens on the shelf, Thomas said. The average customer spends 45 minutes-to-an hour getting fitted for the right boots. Many factors come into play. Is the customer wider in the toe area and narrow in the heel? Does he need an extra wide boot or a half size? Does the customer need a different insert for the best fit?
"The owner of this company is fixated and finite on customer service," Thomas said. "That means making sure that the fit of the boot is right. He believes that 80 percent of people using PPE are not wearing the right size boots."? The boot(s) are designed to be comfortable and at the same time providing the most durable and safe boot in the marketplace.
Having a retail outlet dedicated to emergency responders has taken on a social aspect, Thomas said. Every afternoon, the store begins filling with people that Thomas has dubbed "The Friends of the Boot Store."
"We have police officers, fire inspectors, firefighters, EMTS and fire school students that come by because this is a store geared for people involved in the fire business," Thomas said. "These are people we work in the same field with but may never have had the chance to meet in a setting outside the job. The store is a place where we congregate as a family."
Contact HAIX in College Station at (979)696-4567 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.