Robert Kaynes deals in nostalgia.
As the president and CEO of the Columbus, Ohio-based American Bronzing Company, Kaynes oversees a 25-employee operation that annually electroplates about 10,000 baby shoes, including Mary Janes, oxfords, sandals, sneakers and Crocs. Its bronzing prices range from $79 for a pair of shoes to as much as $250 to mount them on a stand with a nameplate attached to it. And for the past two years, it has been offering to drill a small hole into the bronzed artifacts to allow customers to string them as Christmas tree ornaments.
(Within the firm’s 40,000-square-foot warehouse, it also preserves shoes in a pewter finish, as well as restores silver objects, as in trays, candlesticks and the like.)
While sentimentality drives parents, as well as grandparents, to turn their loved one’s footwear into metal keepsakes for the ages, the company has also plated such items as baby pacifiers, army boots, track cleats, golf balls, football helmets, bras and even Big Macs. It bronzed Derek Jeter’s Yankees baseball cap, which the team gave Jeter upon his retirement, and it metalized the stilettos that Michael Strahan wore during a comedy sketch on the TV show Live with Kelly and Michael; Strahan received them as a parting gift.
“A lot of the bronzing is sports-related because that’s where the memories are.” said Kaynes, 60, whose grandmother, Violet Shinbach, founded the third-generation family business in 1934.
Shinbach’s Depression-era marketing approach was simple but effective. She traipsed around neighborhoods in search of homes with the telltale signs of young children – tricycles and toys outside. She would then pitch their moms about her emotion-infused service.
As the business grew, it created a direct-sales team that got its leads from independent children’s shoe stores and then met prospective customers in their homes to extol the merits of creating lasting mementoes from a precious time period. By the late 1960s, it was shipping bronzed footwear nationally.
But times changed, and the baby shoe bronzing business began to slip. The landscape of independent children’s shoe stores was rapidly evaporating, and big box and chain stores didn’t want to help promote a business that provided commissions that were “too small potatoes for them,” said Kaynes.
Unable to justify a direct sales force, the firm discontinued it, and began seeking out new ways to reach a new generation of moms. Bronzing shoes, Kaynes said, hadn’t gone out of style; it had simply suffered from a lack of visibility.
In the mid-1990s, “it became apparent that the Internet was the way to go,” and American Bronzing jumped on the bandwagon, he said. Students from a technical school across the street from Kaynes’ factory designed American Bronzing’s first website.
“It used to be all mothers read Parents Magazine – and while certainly a number still do – many are getting their information online, so we’re totally online with our business,” said Kaynes. “We’ve combined technology with tradition.”
Shelling out about $100,000 annually to make today’s young mothers aware of its keepsake-making service, the firm not only advertises on Facebook but has purchased a wide assortment of Google ad words which, along with its website optimized for search engines, has catapulted the company to first place in paid and organic search results.
And while experimenting with other online advertising opportunities to accelerate its growth, American Bronzing is also testing this fall IHeartRadio, an Internet radio platform that recommends free music and serves as a radio network with audio content from hundreds of stations.
With American Bronzing’s website designed for e-commerce and responsible for 90 to 95 percent of its orders, Kaynes has become a big fan of the Internet, describing it as a “simple and clean” way to conduct his business.
“In the old days, people used to have send for information, and there was a real long lag time when interest finally turned into a sale,” said Kaynes. “Now, it’s totally instant – you order right now, and we’re paid upfront.”