How a Stratford, Ont. biz owner turned her high school job into an award-winning online store

Ten years since she worked at White-Balmer Shoes during high school, Karina Bogle took over as owner of the store and created the award-winning online component.

Karina Bogle was named Emerging Ecommerce Entrepreneur of the Year by eBay Canada

White-Balmer Shoes owner Karina Bogle of Gads Hill, Ont. pictured outside of her storefront in Stratford, Ont. She was named eBay Canada' Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year for 2021. (Submitted by Karina Bogle)

Imagine returning to your high school job and turning it into an award-winning business in the online era.

That's precisely what Karina Bogle did.

Nearly a decade since her days as a teenage sales associate at White-Balmer Shoes in Stratford, Ont., Bogle took over as owner in 2019 and pivoted to online sales at the start of the pandemic.

That pivot helped earn Bogle the Emerging Ecommerce Entrepreneur of the Year Award at eBay Canada's annual Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Today, White-Balmer Shoes continues to operate as both an online shop and as a physical location in Stratford.

Bogle shared her story with CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive. Here's part of that conversation, edited for breadth and clarity.

You have a pretty long history with the company. Tell us a bit about your first exposure to the business.

I started working for White-Balmer Shoes as a sales associate during high school in 2009. That's where the development of my passion and interest for shoes started, and I knew then that I wanted to stay within the footwear industry. I went to the University of Guelph and moved to Toronto after that, where I worked for a Canadian shoe distributing company. I was there for about five years when Pat White and Glee Balmer, the previous owners of White Balmer, contacted me and let me know that they were ready to retire. I jumped at the opportunity to purchase it from them and I've had the store now for just over two years.

Did you have any idea back in high school that you would eventually want to come back later in life as the owner?

No. Not specifically here. I thought maybe I'd own some sort of shoe-related business. But as soon as I heard this, it was like, 'yes, this is what I'm meant to do.'

A polaroid of Karina Bogle as a sales associate, dated December 2010, is tacked onto the wall of White-Balmer Shoes in Stratford, Ont. (Supplied by Karina Bogle)

You took over as owner in summer of 2019. How much of the business was being done online then?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

And in less than a year in your time as owner, COVID hit. What was that like?

It was very challenging. I was just learning the ropes of owning the company, and then it hit. So, trying to pivot and adapt to all of those challenges was something that was very unexpected.

White-Balmer was one of many businesses that had to pivot to become an online store during lockdown. What made you decide to concentrate on eBay, as opposed to focusing on building a White-Balmer webstore?

I did build a website first, actually. And that was going okay. But I found that being a new website, some people weren't comfortable purchasing on a site that they don't know much about. I already had some experience selling personal things on eBay, so I thought, 'OK, I'll link our website to eBay and give that a shot.' And that has worked really well because it's a global marketplace that people know and trust and are comfortable shopping on.

There's certainly a convenience in online shopping, but I imagine some would say it's not nearly as personal as having the owner of the store with you as shop in-store.

That was a challenge (while the physical store was closed during lockdown). We tried to do everything that we could: we did a lot of local deliveries, lots of emails, sending photos and phone calls back and forth. And as online orders come in, we always write little notes to the customers, whether if it's special care instructions they need to know about their shoes, or really just thanking them and letting them know that we really appreciate their business and choosing to shop with us.

You get $10,000 as part of this award. Have you decided how you're going to spend it?

Yes, a big chunk of it is going to go toward bringing new brands to the store. And I was also able to give a nice little gift to my two employees who have been so flexible and patient and understanding through the whole pandemic.

What would your advice be to any small business owner trying navigating a path for themselves during a pandemic?

I'd say just try to keep a positive, happy outlook on things. I chose to be optimistic about it. And with the pandemic challenges, try to pull away positive things and use it as a learning experience, and jump on all the potential opportunities that you could have.