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The New Retail

Solestruck’s innovative “medical clinic for the shoe addicted” rethinks retail with its new oFFline showroom approach to sales.

Solestruck’s innovative “medical clinic for the shoe addicted” rethinks retail with its new oFFline showroom approach to sales.

By Kathy Passero

Solestruck’s showroom format features 450 SKUs rather than approximately 100 SKUs that carrying inventory would require.

BRYCE MORROW HAS a sharp eye for trends—and for tectonic shifts in the shopping landscape. Back when he and a silent partner founded Solestruck in 2004, e-commerce was in its infancy. Morrow, then a freshly minted college grad with a modicum of website-building experience and no background in the footwear industry, felt sure shoppers would respond to a site featuring cutting-edge women’s footwear.

He was right.

In just 10 years, Solestruck has burgeoned into an omni-channel business that includes everything from four of its own labels (sold wholesale and retail around the world) to a brick-and-mortar store in Portland, OR. The Solestruck site has expanded to include men’s footwear as well as a collection of vintage styles curated for customers with a passion for retro fashion.

Ever keen to adapt to emerging trends, CEO Morrow is now re-engineering the Solestruck store, morphing it into a sort of gallery of Solestruck’s latest styles. Rather than keep inventory onsite, store staff now invites customers to download a Solestruck app and, when they see a style they like, snap a QR code to order it through their mobile device for free next-day delivery.

Clicks to Bricks

“We’re an online retailer first and foremost,” says Morrow, “but in 2009 we had an opportunity to open a pop-up shop in a great location. We were only planning to be there for 30 days, but customers loved it, so we kept the store open.”
Why would a successful online retailer create a physical store in the first place? “We wanted to get to know our customers better,” Morrow explains of the one-and-only Solestruck store, which moved to its current location in downtown Portland in 2011. “When you’re selling online, you never get to meet your customers. The bulk of your interaction with them comes through social media and e-mail. Portland isn’t necessarily representative of our customer base, but we have some amazing and loyal local customers, and it’s been great to get their feedback face to face.”

To Morrow’s surprise, the Solestruck store has also drawn considerable tourist traffic. “We have a somewhat oversized social media presence, with more than 250,000 Instagram followers and Facebook friends,” he says. “Our followers don’t all shop online with us, but they keep up with what we’re doing and they put visiting the Solestruck store on their bucket list when they come to Portland.”

Recently, however, the sales staff began to sense that a number of these visitors were disappointed to find the selection at the Solestruck store more limited than the one they’d seen on the website, Morrow explains. Clearly, the shop needed a broader range of styles. The catch: The store was only 890 square feet.

“One of the difficulties for footwear as a category is that the inventory takes up so much space. To have a brick-and-mortar store that’s really representative of all the product we carry would mean a giant warehouse out in the suburbs,” he says. “That wouldn’t appeal to our customer base.”

Morrow was quick to spot another emerging trend (shopping via smartphone) and embrace it as a way to meet his company’s changing needs. He borrowed the idea for his new store format from British supermarket chain Tesco, which successfully launched a similar approach to shopping in Korea in 2011. Tesco posted images of its products on subway platform walls in Seoul along with QR codes so that busy commuters could scan and order them for free delivery while they waited for a train.

“It allowed us to go from having something like 100 different SKUs in the store to having 450,” Morrow says. “If we have one shoe in, say, five colors, we’ll have each color in a different size. You probably won’t be able to try the product on in the size and color you want, but if you place an order you’ll get it delivered to you free the next day and you’ll have 60 days to return it, either in the store or using one of our pre-paid return labels. We’re trying to make being in the store the same experience as being on the website.” In other words, it’s an offline showroom.

The switch to QR-code-based shopping was an easy transition, according to Morrow, and customer feedback has been positive. Admittedly, life has changed for the sales staff. The store still emphasizes great service, but with no need to help customers find the right size and no cash registers to man, sales personnel now focus on explaining the new approach to customers and helping them download the app, scan codes and place orders.

“I don’t know if this will necessarily be the right model,” Morrow concedes, “but I think the store will be some iteration of this in the future.” Though he has no immediate plans to open similar showrooms in other cities, Morrow hasn’t ruled it out. “There are really interesting possibilities for this model, where you’re not encumbered by lack of space,” he says.

Fab Four: Solestruck’s Private Labels

I Desire The Things That Will Destroy Me: This recent addition is Solestruck’s most avant-garde and concept-driven, with each new collection entirely different from its predecessors. Made in China, it has the highest price point of the company’s four labels.

Takeout: Solestruck’s newest private label is designed with the college set in mind: all-leather shoes in trendy styles at low price points (less than $90). Takeout lets Solestruck fans who aspire to own the site’s costlier brands mimic the look for less. It’s also the only one of the four brands the company does not wholesale.

To Be Announced: The company’s original proprietary brand is made in Spain at a third-generation family-owned factory. Styles emphasize luxe materials, wearability and timeless styling over trendiness.

Yes: Also manufactured in China, Yes is fast and edgy, inspired by what’s trending in the market, coming down the runway and showing up on the streets of fashion capitals. “With Yes, we focus on everything 60 days out,” Morrow explains.

Bigger and Better

Solestruck has never wavered from its original focus on fashion-forward styles and emerging indie brands. The company has, however, grown considerably. It now carries more than 100 brands and boasts a worldwide fan base. Half of overall sales are international, with product shipping to some 160 countries. Support is strongest in Australia, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Russia and the United Kingdom. Price points range from $50 to upwards of $3,000.

The staff has increased from two to 22, and the company now designs and manufactures four of its own private-label brands, each with a distinct identity targeted to a different customer. Solestruck sells all four directly to consumers via its website and wholesales three to 35 select retail partners in the U.S. and abroad. Now comprising about 30 percent of Solestruck’s overall business, the private-label quartet includes To Be Announced, I Desire The Things That Will Destroy Me, Yes and Takeout. (See sidebar.)

“We started making our own shoes to fill a gap for our customers,” Morrow explains. “We spend a lot of time and energy traveling all over the world and attending all kinds of trade shows, from Berlin to Copenhagen to Milan to Tokyo, to find emerging designers and unknown, interesting product. We noticed that we could continually find amazing footwear that cost $500 or more. But it was very hard to find equally amazing high-quality product at a lower price point, so we decided to make it ourselves.”

Exclusive collaborations have become another cornerstone of Solestruck’s business. Case in point: A long-term collaboration with Australian clothing company Black Milk. “Our analytics showed us that we were getting a lot of traffic from Black Milk’s site. We couldn’t figure it out. Why were we getting all these transactions originating in Australia? Who the heck were these people? We did a little research and found out they do amazing prints and have this crazy, cult-like fan base of about a million followers on Facebook and Instagram. So we got in contact with them and discovered that they were using our shoes for styling. We sent them some free shoes and then it just dawned on us one day: Why not put Black Milk’s prints on shoes? We’ve done that for the past three years and it’s been terrific,” Morrow says.

Another quirky success came through a collaboration with Buffalo, the label responsible for the memorable platform shoes sported by 1990s Brit pop band the Spice Girls. “We remembered those shoes and thought they were great, so we sought Buffalo out. We ended up finding them at a small trade show in Madrid. I think we were the only Americans there,” Morrow recalls. “They weren’t making the platforms anymore, but we started talking with them and eventually toured their factory. And there were these incredible platforms that had been sitting in their showroom for 15 years. We recut all the originals and have been doing them for the past two years, with the manufacturing in Spain.

“We’re a buyer, a retailer and a brand making our own shoes, so we’re always looking for cool stuff,” Morrow explains. “It’s a team effort. We ask ourselves how might we make something that was once really relevant and incredible new again? Collaborations offer a great way to get fresh ideas around our product.”

Looking Ahead

Despite the changes in Solestruck over the years, the company’s core customer remains the same. She’s typically young (18 to 30 years old), lives in a large city (most likely on the East or West Coast) and views fashion as a key part of her identity, according to Morrow. International customers, too, tend to be youthful city dwellers.

“Because we’re showing online, there’s probably more of a mindset than a strict demographic in our core customer,” Morrow concedes. “We don’t get too many rural customers, but the age range is probably pretty broad. It’s more about having a youthful mindset than necessarily being young. People come to us because they’re looking for something truly new and distinctive. We end up competing at some level with department stores and large e-commerce sites, but I don’t think there’s anybody else out there who does exactly what we do. And I think our customers feel the same.

“They appreciate the fact that we’re extremely curated in our selection. We sell items, not brands. And we’re always on the lookout for something that’s going to stand out, something the customer will feel excited about. We don’t sell any products for utility. We want items that will make you feel fearless when you put them on your feet.”

At the moment, Solestruck’s hottest sellers are Birkenstocks and Birkenstock-esque styles. “They look minimalist and sleek but they include comfort elements,” says Morrow. “We’ve been selling a lot of those across the board from all kinds of brands at every price point.

“It’s also been amazing to see the evolution of the sneaker,” he continues. “It went from being purely athletic to the sneaker wedge, then evolved to where it’s socially acceptable to wear sneakers with a suit and designers show them on the runway. I don’t think that trend is going to die for the foreseeable future.”

Fortunately, the unseasonably cold winter did little to freeze up sales at Solestruck this year. Business has been booming, thanks to the wholesale component and strong international sales. “We have some great retail partners,” says Morrow. “Most are independents and they’re telling the story of our product and what makes it special.”

He has not only praise for but unshakable confidence in the viability of such independent retailers for the future. “Footwear is a giant market,” Morrow says. “Independent stores and brands will always arise. That’s what makes it exciting. The rules are just continually bent and broken and what’s old becomes new again. I love the creativity of it. I love being able to work with talented employees, brands and emerging independent designers who challenge the status quo and bring a fresh viewpoint to footwear. It’s been an exciting ride so far, and it’ll be interesting to see where it takes us in the future.”

The April/May 2024 Issue

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