Disrupting traditional and online retail with Shoes of Prey’s Jodie Fox
Online retailer Shoes of Prey is disrupting the traditional retail model by giving women the opportunity to design their own products online.
Using Shoes of Prey’s innovative design tools, customers can create their perfect shoe by choosing the style, materials, shape and colour. The company then custom-makes the shoe and sends it to the customer’s door – all with a 365-day money-back guarantee.
Since founding the online start-up in Sydney in 2009, founder Jodie Fox, along with partners Michael Fox and Mike Knapp, have expanded the business to focus in the opposite direction to many retailers – back to bricks-and-mortar. Responding to customers’ desires to see and feel the shoes and materials in-person, the company now has eight stores across Australia and the US, including a partnership with US department store Nordstrom.
Marketing caught up with Jodie Fox via phone from the US to talk disruption, retail and technology.
Marketing: To what extent do you see Shoes of Prey as disrupting the retail industry?
Jodie Fox: I do see it as being disruptive to the retail industry. I see it as being disruptive in many ways. I mean I think that it’s not only disruptive in terms of the offering we give to the consumer by being part of the creative process to get that product. I think it’s also disruptive because that kind of manufacturing means that we can start to produce things one at a time, and that enormous kind of sustainability advantage that people are buying things that they actually want as opposed to buying things that we hope that they will want.
If you think about the amount of designers who never get off the ground, even though they’re obviously talented, because they can’t fund what that they need to for their first collections, I think that production-on-demand could really make a huge change for people who have access to fashion businesses as well. I think that this is enormously disruptive, not just on the basis of what retail can offer their customers, but also in the way that the entire tradition and industry have operated for so many years now.
M: Taking us back to the beginning of Shoes of Prey, and looking at how the retail industry was previously, what inspired you, or what was the lacking in the market that you saw that this was a necessary move?
JF: I want to be honest with you, it was never that customisation was a trend and that’s what we needed to get ahead or anything. What it actually was, was identifying two things. From the boys’ point of view, Mike and Michael, I wouldn’t have thought how to turn ‘design your own shoes’ into a business, had they not been so passionate about online retail. They were both really excited about the opportunity, excited about the convenience and were incredibly surprised that there wasn’t more of it, particularly in Australia, back at that point in time.
And then from my point of view, I had been designing shoes because I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. And I found it to be so much fun. I really enjoyed being able to participate in creating the end-product and being quite specific about what I like to wear.
So it was more about identifying that and also noticing other things that weren’t catered for. For example, there are so many shoe sizes that aren’t catered for for women, the fact that there are only a couple of styles that are put out every season, with kind of a wish and a hope that people might buy them, and you get a specific heel height that comes into fashion and so many people are excluded because they’re too high. I saw that there were real functional problems, as I guess, part of the efficiency layer market.
M: Is it true that you’re targeting people with hard to fit feet, or is it more than that? What’s your target market?
JF: It’s definitely more than that. We definitely see a lot of traction in places where people have a specific need so that specific need could be a particular size or shape of foot, and on the other hand it might be a particular occasion like a wedding. So, there is definitely that specific need market but more broadly than that would be the majority of our customers are people who basically love being able to get exactly what they want.
M: My first initial worry is that situation where you’re out shopping for shoes and it’s really hard to find what you want and you’ve got to try stuff on because just looking at it you can’t tell whether it’s going to fit you. How do you tackle that being an online retailer? I know you’re also opening up some bricks-and-mortar stores as well, is that because of that?
Yes, that’s exactly why. It’s exactly why we’re doing it. We have to. The women were saying to us that their key concern was ‘what would my shoes look like in real life?’. When you have that question there’s only one way to answer it. When you’re in a business where women can design trillions of possible of options the only thing you can do is try and find ways to help them to know before they buy. In our case that’s being able to try the shoe on. Not trying the exact shoe on obviously.
When we looked into that a little bit more we discovered it was ‘I want to know how it feels on my foot, how do I do the sizing’. Also things like ‘what does that material feel like?’, ‘what is the make of your shoe?’, ‘what do those colours look like beside each other?’. Knowing that these were the concerns that women had, we had to work out exactly what we needed to do, give them the opportunity to be able to try things on. That’s exactly why we’re opening a new store.
M: Have you found that you’re able to be a lot more nimble in the fact that you started off as an online retailer? There are a lot of bricks-and-mortar retailers who are trying to go online and it’s kind of a clunky experience. For you is that quite seamless?
JF: I guess there’s nothing ever that’s totally seamless. It’s been a great adventure so far. Things that we’re doing that we’ve discovered, it goes both ways. Everyone at Shoes of Prey does shifts in-store and that’s because we believe the more that we watch what happens naturally when you go and see someone in a shop, we can bring that into make our online experience as well.
It hasn’t actually been that clunky I don’t think, because we’ve done a lot of research about customer service before we actually decided to go offline at all. We always ask them a lot about what they need from us. There are certain stores that we opened in 2013 that didn’t see a lot of customers or revenue in the first 12 months and then it won the World Retail Awards for the world’s best store design under 1200 square metres and I don’t think you can ask for a better start than that.
The other thing that’s been nice is that the translation of the technology and using the iPad to seamlessly bridge in that technology and take the experience offline to make it a more seamless, whole experience.
M: There are a lot of people out there saying that retail is dying and that everybody is going to shop online in the future. Would you say that there’s a balance that needs to be reached in that sense?
JF: Oh, definitely. I don’t think that that offline will ever be dead. I think it probably needs to evolve a bit but like I’ve seen countless times with Shoes of Prey, turning up and having a face-to-face conversation is so critical and that also applies in retail.
M: Would you have any advice for bricks-and-mortar retailers who are hoping to go online?
JF: I guess it would be just the fact that it’s a one-to-one conversation; it’s a 24-hour salesperson who’s always working for you when you think about your online experience, just knowing that people expect far generous service. I find that I’m so close to everything that we do on the website that I could have overlooked some things that our customers are experiencing. Just because I’m not going through it with fresh eyes. It’s just really important to make sure that you do the best you can, to keep up and seeing what you can do better.
M: A big benefit of Shoes of Prey is that area of personalisation, which everybody is talking about these days. How does that work in terms of manufacturing and supply chain?
JF: It’s pretty intense. We thought about working with some suppliers but we ultimately have ended up building our own factory. We opened that last year. We did that because there was nobody who could make one pair of shoes at a time at scale. We had to figure out those systems and processes and hack traditional manufacturing software and machinery to be able to optimise the back end of our business to survive.
M: Where’s the factory?
JF: It’s in China. There’s one part in China that’s got the majority of the world’s shoe manufacturers and it’s fantastic. There’s just so much talent there. There are so many Italians and Brazilians and Spanish there as well.
M: Tell me about some of your digital marketing strategies. One of the things I noticed, which was quite a bold decision, is your 365-day money back guarantee. Why did you feel the need to go so extreme when designing that offering?
JF: I think for us we were very conscious of the fact that we were a new brand and not only that but we were asking you to try your purchasing of shoes in a completely different way. For us it was something that was very important in acquiring customers to have that generosity. We’ve had that since we started the business and returns are far below the industry average. It just goes to show that when you give people the opportunity to create the product that they want to buy that there is a higher level of satisfaction and emotional connection to that.
M: Can you tell me about some of the biggest challenges you’ve had with technology?
JF: We’re really fortunate that one of the co-founders, Mike Knapp is such an extraordinary thinker. Not only in terms of his technical ability but he’s been our CTO for a number of years. He studied software engineering and was actually a software engineer with Google before we started the business, so we’re really fortunate to have him. I’d say some of the biggest challenges have been creating that 3D rendering tool that dynamically visualises the shoe as you’re choosing all of the different colours for it. As well as the system that connected the factory with the placed orders and that sort of thing has also been very challenging to develop and put together.
M: How do you keep up with new trends in technology and decide which tools you’re going to adopt and what you’re going to use?
JF: I think the technology team are very well-read and kind of keep on top of those things and it’s really an amazing forum. Even I can contribute to the new things that might be helpful. Admittedly I’m not that close to the technology work that we do, unlike someone like Mike would be or even our director of marketing, Joel. But a good idea can come from anywhere and we try and inspire each other. We all work pretty well together and we like to share those ideas around.
M: Do you have any other exciting developments coming up?
JF: It’s been so exciting, we finished rolling out the sixth store with Nordstrom in the US, in addition to our two stores in Australia. I think we’re staying focused on the offline roll-out but we’re always looking to improve the website as well and making it a more seamless experience. We’re also working on some online experiences that will connect up with the department store platforms as well. Nordstrom will have a part in that, we’ll have some more work to share in that space as well.
M: And you’re still just focused on women’s shoes, right? Are you tempted to go into men’s or children’s or anything like that?
JF: There’s a statistic out of the UK that says that women on average buy 13 pairs of shoes per year. I think guys like shoes and will spend money on shoes but that a pair of shoes goes in the wardrobe and they won’t buy a new pair until one of their other pairs wears out. Whereas for women, we’ll buy several pairs at any time before any of our shoes wear out. The value in the market is much higher, and I guess just the way that women and buy shoes, woman are much, much more open to, and excited about, and see the value in creating their own.