When Pat Yates, President of Louisville-based NJD Specialty Retail, Inc., the creator of Happy Feet, bought the house slipper distribution business from his father nearly 10 years ago, he had big ideas for the company. Those ideas have led him to the feet of MTV’s Jersey Shore star, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.
You may have first seen the oversized house slippers (that look like soft athletic sneakers) at one of Louisville’s shopping malls as you did your holiday shopping. Kiosks full of colorful slippers, sport-themed slippers and plush animal head slippers have been a holiday tradition in Louisville-area malls for over fifteen years. But now the comfy shoes are popping up on national television programs since Snooki became Happy Feet’s spokesperson last October. In fact, if you’re a viewer of ABC’s Bachelor Pad on Monday nights, you may have noticed the pink and white sneaker-style slippers on the feet of more than one of the female contestants.
NJD Specialty Retail, Inc. sells and distributes its slippers through its website Buyhappyfeet.com and through franchises, typically located at mall kiosks. When Yates’ father decided to sell the business in 2002 it was a natural decision for Yates to purchase it.
“I was already involved in the business,” said Yates. “I made him [original owner Chet Yates] an offer and took it over because I sort of looked at the business and thought it had much more potential than what they were getting out of it,” he continued.
Yates has definitely been able to get more out of it. Within two years, Yates grew the business from around 30 to nearly 300 mall locations. He also expanded the company’s website.
“Their website was only doing just a few thousand pair at the time that they sold it to me and now it’s a big seven figure website itself,” said Yates.
Yates has continued to find new and interesting ways to grow the business, including teaming up with the often loved and often hated reality TV star, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi. This time last year Yates’ teenaged sons were watching MTV’s Jersey Shore, cable TV’s #1 show, and noticed that Snooki was wearing a pair of Happy Feet—the pink and white slippers to be exact—on the show.
“She bought them herself,” Yates noted. “She was in a position where she started wearing them all the time and we started getting all of these emails and web hits and things related to it, and that sort of spurred us to think about doing something with her. So we contacted her management, told them that we were interested in her being able to carry the product as well as her design her own stuff and use her as a spokesperson. They were more than open to it and we signed the deal last October. I was her first licensee actually, first product,” said Yates.
Yates, a married father of three, prides his company on being a family-oriented business, so hiring a company spokesperson with a persona like Snooki’s might seem risky. The decision was a no-brainer for the forward-thinking Yates. At the time Happy Feet contracted with Snooki, she had about 1.2 million Twitter followers. Today, nearly 3 million people follow Snooki and hang on her every tweet.
“That’s a lot of people to tell about a product,” Yates said. “Especially when they can electronically link and that was the reason that I really wanted to do it. And plus, you know, she is just a fun person,” Yates continued.
Snooki indeed has had fun with the slippers and introducing them to her many fans. Just last month she made appearances on Good Morning America, Regis & Kelly, the MTV Video Music Awards, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. She used her appearances to promote the shoes. At the end of her segment on the Tonight Show, she presented Leno and fellow guest, Jeff Bridges, a pair of metallic neon purple slippers. On Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Happy Feet slippers served as the “ball” when Fallon and Snooki played a round of Slipper Golf (video below).
Snooki doesn't just promote the slippers bearing her name. She is very involved in the products and has helped the Louisville company design a new line of sheepskin boots and scuffs to be released next month. When describing Snooki’s involvement with the new line Yates said, “She actually, in the end, designed the different spots on it. It’s not just something where she gives a rubber stamp and just collects a check.”
Since working with Snooki, Yates has begun to know the real Nicole Polizzi. He describes her as simply an actress playing the role of “Snooki” and is more considerate and intelligent than she portrays herself on TV.
“Now while she’s very genuine at some times and she has some arguments and fights and does some different things, she embellishes just like anyone else because she knows what butters her bread,” Yates stated.
“When we spend time with her alone, and it’s just us going to dinner and talking about business or something, she is just a delightful person,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t realize that she was in college to become a veterinarian when this show broke,” Yates said. “I have a sister who’s a veterinarian and she’s one of the smartest people I know!”
As Yates expected, teaming with the controversial star has made a tremendous impact on the business of Happy Feet. The company’s sales are up 300 - 400 percent a month. It equates to an increase in sales of about four to five times what sales were the same time one year ago. The biggest change has been in the website traffic. Buyhappyfeet.com is the retailer’s primary website, but they also bring in sales from SnookiSlippers.com , which promotes the Snooki line of slippers, boots, shoe bags and fleece throws. Buyhappyfeet.com was accustomed to an average of 18,000 web hits a month and now sees over 250,000 web visitors a month.
“We’re now a multi-million dollar website business and it’s growing exponentially,” Yates expressed. “The great thing about the web business is that it just doesn’t go away. People continue to come back.”
And come back they will as the Snooki line of products continues to grow and Snooki continues to make the rounds on the talk show networks. Happy Feet is about to release three new Snooki products that Yates promises will be very exciting for fans of Jersey Shore and he will break the news first with Louisville.com.
Photo: Courtesy Pat Yates