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How An Independent Sneaker Boutique Survived (and Thrived) In 2021

Rick and Ky Cao of P's & Q's
Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

2021 was a turbulent year for sneaker retailers all over the world. We chatted to Rick and Ky Cao – co-founders and owners of Philadelphia-based store P’s & Q’s – on how they made it through the pandemic and came out swinging on the other end! Read on below.

When asked what the biggest shift he saw in sneaker retail over the course of 2021 was, Rick Cao didn't hesitate. 'Inventory', the P's & Q's co-founder and co-owner told us with emphasis. 'Most of our vendors sent us emails saying that their stock was limited, so the clothes, shoes and accessories we ordered might not come at all. We had to do so much reordering and shuffling that it felt like musical chairs!'

Cao, who runs and owns P's and Q's with his younger brother Ky (pronounced 'key') wasn't the only retailer to face an inventory issue – or a wealth of other ones – in 2021. This year was a hard one for sneaker shops both big and small. Chief among the challenges they faced were a plethora of supply chain snarls (explored in depth in the pages of Sneaker Freaker Issue 46), an industry-wide decline in in-store traffic due to capacity restrictions, general uncertainty about the coronavirus and a shift to online buying that harangued stores reliant on in-person sales to provide the majority of their business.

However, P's and Q's was able to survive the storm – and eventually thrive – by focusing on what they've always put first: their community.

Located a few blocks away from world-famous cheesesteak spot Jim's Steaks on Philadelphia's South Street, the P's and Q's store is an airy space with warm wood detailing, friendly staff and a staple streetwear brand selection like New Balance, Diadora, Stussy, Carhartt WIP and The Hundreds. They've been open since 2012, and along with other Philly retailers like Lapstone & Hammer and atmos ( formerly UBIQ), make up the backbone of the city's sneaker and streetwear scene. Like so many other cities across the world, this scene was forced to go digital in spring 2020.

It's no secret that shoppers have headed online en masse since the pandemic started. Look no further than Nike's fiscal results from the last two years, which jumped in even in the darkest days of 2020 and 2021 due to robust growth in their e-commerce business. This bump was due to increased convenience (really, who doesn't love two-day free shipping?), safety concerns and lockdown measures. Even a store like P's and Q's that usually does the lion's share of their business in person saw a jump in online sales. 'Our online business has increased dramatically since the start of 2020,' says Rick. 'Even our Philly-based regulars started to order their stuff online and have it shipped to their homes.'

Though an online pivot was necessary for survival, Rick and Ky made sure to strike a balance between commerce and community. The community took care of P's and Q's when online ordering was the only option, so you can bet the brothers wanted to be damn sure they took care of the community when in-person shopping began picking up again! And pick up it did – P's and Q's served as the exclusive retailer of a Diadora colab created by Philadelphia students, celebrated their 9th anniversary with a packed party and a sold-out drop of their in-line apparel, then saw a busy Black Friday sale with customers lining up for hours to secure primo deals on new kicks and apparel!

The Philadelphia community had been champing at the bit to get back 'outside', in East Coast parlance, and when they could they made a beeline for their neighbourhood hub because of the genuine relationships P's and Q's has cultivated. 'As a community-focused business, our job is to make sure the people that walk through our doors are cared for', says Rick. 'A principle from the Japanese retail world we've always stood by is that customers are God. You walk through our door, you'll be treated with the utmost respect no matter if you're buying something or not.'

No matter how keenly formulated your predictions are, you can't pretend to know exactly what's going to happen in the world of sneakers over the course of 2022. That kind of clairvoyance is impossible in today's world of hyper-accelerated trends, where a single Instagram post from the right person can serve as better marketing than a carefully-laid six-month plan! However, two things are for certain: one, that as long as there are communities of sneaker-loving individuals who want to gather in person, places like P's and Q's will be there to serve them, and the other, that lending your support to local establishments that keep our beloved sneaker culture alive is a must!

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