Out of This World

By Miriam Driot

Like many successful tech startups, Philippe Meynard launched online retailer Planet Shoes in his garage. It has since evolved into a major player in the digital tier and expects to make the leap into brick-and-mortar in 2014.

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By Miriam Driot

Like many successful tech startups, Philippe Meynard launched online retailer Planet Shoes in his garage. It has since evolved into a major player in the digital tier and expects to make the leap into brick-and-mortar in 2014.

Life has a funny way of working out. A car aficionado growing up, Philippe Meynard envisioned himself owning an auto dealership one day instead of following in the path of his father, Michel’s, footwear career. Yet that’s exactly what he ended up doing when, back in the early ’90s, he made the leap into the family business, living for several years in China while overseeing quality control and development of his family’s private label shoe business. Toward the end of that decade, Meynard felt it was time to return to the United States and start something of his own. “I really wanted to put my stamp on something that was mine and I felt that the whole online platform was the way to go,” he says. Meynard believed the Internet, coupled with his growing knowledge of the footwear industry, could be the makings of something big.

Planet Shoes was your typical entrepreneurial web-based venture when Meynard launched it in 2001. The site launched selling just one brand, Earth, which Meynard happened to have direct access to since his family bought the rights to it a few years prior—thanks to a fortuitous billboard he spotted while driving with his father through Italy. The billboard was an old Levi’s jeans ad dating back to the ’70s featuring a model wearing Earth shoes. He instantly believed the brand had the potential to be reborn. Earth was in step with an overall retro fashion revival, the comfort category showed no signs of contracting and the brand had a cult-like following for its unique negative heel construction. Little did Meynard know then the brand would serves as the launching point for Planet Shoes as well as Meynard’s father’s design career working on his own brands, (which now includes two successful offshoots in Kalso by Earth and Earthies), instead of focusing solely on making shoes for other companies.

The Salad Days

Planet Shoes was a one-man show for the first year. Meynard handled everything from incoming orders, to packing and shipping. It wasn’t until a year or so later that he was able to hire his first employee to take phone calls. Since there was no outside investment, the company grew slowly and organically. But the initial demand was there and was further boosted when Meynard started to target college students, advertising in university publications across the country. And die-hard customers conducting frequent Google searches for Earth shoes would be directed to the Planet Shoes site. Meynard notes it was fairly easy to capture those customers because, in those days, there were very few online footwear retailers. He adds that oftentimes customers called in their orders.

It may seem as if everything fell into place, but Meynard says the early days weren’t all a breeze. For starters, it was extremely difficult back then to get additional brands to come aboard. Meynard says it took a lot of negotiating and in-person meetings to convince execs, but Planet Shoes’ strong Earth sales eventually swayed more established brands to sign on. Early joiners included El Naturalista, Cushe, Jambu and Rieker. Meynard believes what helped make a difference—and still does to this day—is the fact that Planet Shoes offers a unique environment for each brand. Individual landing pages allow each brand to feel that its DNA is well represented.

Today Planet Shoes carries 195 brands and expects to hit the 200 plateau by the end of this year. Meynard attributes the success also to the fact that Planet Shoes acts as a true partner with its wholesalers, something that anyone in this industry knows is not always the case. “We are extremely respectful of each brand’s image and communicate their message accurately in order to help them grow their business,” he says. “We are on their side and act as a true partner.”

Green is Good

Another key point of differentiation for Planet Shoes—as well as considered a major factor in its sales growth—is its eco-friendly platform. Executed not as a gimmicky sales hook, Planet Shoes has walked the walk from its very beginning and still does today by offering eco-friendly brands and supporting enviromental organizations. In fact, Meynard purposefully chose the name Planet Shoes to fit with the company’s M.O. and the fact that Earth was its first brand. On the site’s “about” link the message is straightforward: “We’re big fans of Mother Earth. But we also like to look good, which is why we endeavor to bring you the best shoes, bags and other accessories in the most eco-conscious way possible.”
That commitment includes partnerships with 1% for the Planet, where member companies pledge to donate at least one percent of their annual sales to environmental causes. Launched in 2002, the charity has more than 1,200 members in 38 countries. In addition, Planet Shoes supports the Conservation Alliance, an organization of outdoor industry companies that disburses its collective annual membership dues to grassroots environmental groups. Grants to date have helped protect more than 50 million acres of land, stop or remove 28 dams and preserve access to thousands of miles of rivers and hiking areas. Planet Shoes also supports the World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Green America and the industry charity Soles4Souls.

Taking its green initiative even further, six years ago Planet Shoes implemented a carbon free shipping option, partnering with carbonfund.org to allow customers an opportunity to offset the carbon emissions resulting from their order. When a customer places an order during checkout he or she is offered several shipping options, one of which is the carbon-free version. If clicked on, it informs the customer exactly how much will be donated depending on their location. Overall, Meynard says it only adds a few dollars to an individual’s order but the customer has the understanding that their contribution will go to an organization that is dedicated to the fight against global warming via education, carbon offsets and reductions, and public outreach. Meynard reports the effort has received amazing feedback since its debut.

In an effort to let consumers choose which charities they may want to contribute to and how much, Planet Shoes has tied in its frequent buyer program, Planet Rewards, for those who sign up. Every dollar spent earns a point. Customers have the option to use the points to shop or to donate to one of these charities.

Another key aspect of Planet Shoes’ green mission statement is reflected in the brands it carries. Many are involved in eco-friendly initiatives. Meynard says his intention has always been to create a site that would foster a community where like-minded consumers would come to shop from like-minded brands. Think Merrell, Ecco, Patagonia Keen, Teva, Timberland and Dansko in terms of company principles and the types of consumer followings they possess. Soon after, health and wellness brands joined the fold, understanding that consumers who care about the environment’s health are likely to care about their own wellbeing. Brands like Birkenstock, Alegria, Dr. Scholl’s, Aravon, Dr. Weil Integrative Footwear and New Balance have become important players in this segment, Meynard reports. Coinciding with that growth was the emergence of a strong Euro comfort segment, including Wolky, Finn Comfort and Fly London. The fact that many of the aforementioned brands hold premium market positions enabled Planet Shoes to add niche brands like Arcopedico and Loints of Holland.

Taken as a whole, Meynard describes the Planet Shoes merchandise mix as one big happy family that its customers enjoy visiting and shopping from frequently. “We are not experiencing any resistance to the higher price point,” Meynard notes, adding it’s the selection and not price that primarily drives traffic to Planet Shoes. “Our customers are looking for quality product that is comfortable and fits well.”

Meynard prefers not to look at the Planet Shoes customer demographic in terms of a specific age, but rather in terms of a certain lifestyle. While customers are generally environmentally minded and health conscious, he notes that they are also loyal and affluent. If you needed an actual APB, think a college graduate-turned-professional who shops organic at Whole Foods or the local farmer’s market, drives a Prius (even better, rides a bike to work), enjoys the outdoors and probably does yoga regularly. Meynard, an avid hiker, skier and runner (he ran the Boston marathon for the first time this year and plans to do it again next year despite the terrorist attack), is one of those customers. Such synergy cannot be overlooked when analyzing Planet Shoes’ long-running success.

What must also not be overlooked in the Planet Shoes recipe is its commitment to top-notch customer service. “Keeping our customers satisfied is our number-one priority,” Meynard says. “We really strive to never leave a customer unhappy—if need be I speak to them directly.”
Along those lines, all orders placed by 4 p.m. on any given day are shipped that same day. Meynard says it all boils down to keeping things simple. “We focus on our customers: who they are and what they want. We are not interested in offering thousands of brands, but on growing our family of brands according to our customer needs and to our company philosophy.”

A unique brand selection topped off with excellent customer service has enabled Planet Shoes to remain competitive in a retail tier that is increasingly driven by lower price. In fact, Meynard says the site has actually been able to increase its starting price point to above $100 on many styles. This is remarkable in today’s retail environment—online and brick-and-mortar—and Meynard admits that it’s been no easy feat. “What has allowed us to keep growing despite the fact that our price point has gone up is that we keep our operating costs to a minimum,” he says. “Planet Shoes does not rely on venture capital money so we are very careful in the way we manage the business.”

From Clicks to Bricks

Planet Shoes has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings in Meynard’s garage. Today, the website attracts 30,000 unique visitors per day with peaks of activity during lunchtime and evenings. Orders come in from all over the country with a heavy concentration in Southern California and the Northeast states. But Meynard says there’s room for improvement, noting the site will be completely revamped within the next six months. “Time is such a rare commodity for people today and we all spend too much time clicking around online. We want to simplify the shopping experience further,” he says. The plan is to use what Meynard refers to as behavioral merchandising, which keeps track of what customers like, purchase and their geographic location. The site will then guide them throughout their shopping experience, making it more enjoyable and efficient. “Ultimately, it comes back to customer service and keeping our down-to-earth approach to business,” Meynard says, adding that reinvention is key to remaining relevant in the online space.

From a sales standpoint, 2013 has been very good to date for Planet Shoes. “We are extremely excited,” Meynard reports. “Our first quarter is up 30 percent and we are looking to continue at that rate through the year. We think that our fall business is going to be outstanding.”
As far as the future of Planet Shoes and online footwear retailing in general is concerned, Meynard offers a surprising perspective: “I see online retailers slowly [transitioning] into brick-and-mortar.” To that end, he says Planet Shoes plans to open its first retail space in Massachusetts sometime in 2014. For Meynard, this is a logical next step—one he sees as an extension of his current business model and a step up in customer service. Also, having worked in retail management when he was younger, Meynard confesses that he misses the in-person interaction with customers and products. “That whole aspect of selling shoes: going back into the stockroom, pulling out actual shoes and making recommendations to the customer… I truly miss it,” he says.

Meynard believes some online companies will use brick-and-mortar outlets as showrooms where they can feature their bestsellers and enhance the customer experience by allowing them to interact directly with the product. “It’s not so much of an ROI proposition but more of a brand success to bring our digital piece into an area that can be touched,” Meynard offers. He believes that seamlessly blending a physical retail space with an online business will be a powerful combination. He cites the success of the We Got Soccer store located in Foxboro, MA, where customers can play with the merchandise via an Adidas digital wall. Bringing the virtual and physical world together makes perfect sense to Meynard because it essentially goes back to the backbone of his business philosophy: keeping customers happy in an exciting shopping experience.

In addition to the physical retail world, Meynard believes Planet Shoes still has a long way to go in fulfilling its online potential. The company is embarking on a big international push. There is a Chinese Planet Shoes website up and running where visitors can shop Kalso, Earth and Earthies along with select brands such as Naturalizer and Vivobarefoot. Future plans also include opening an office in China.

To be sure Planet Shoes’ future appears as promising as it did when Meynard started dreaming big in his garage. And while he says seeing that vision become a reality is extremely rewarding, there are additional perks to being the head of a leading Internet shoe retailer—like the opportunity to wear test hundreds of products on a regular basis. Meynard, who confesses to now owning way too many pairs of shoes, credits his father’s advice to always stay focused and never give up as founding principles to his company’s success. He is as excited as ever to go work, relishing the fact that each day presents new challenges and, thanks to the speed technology moves today, new chances to learn something new every day.

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