Keeping up with the Big Dogs

With the Internet poised to become the holiday’s most popular shopping destination, independent retailers are finding creative ways to compete with Zappos and Shoebuy.

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John McClain may own a small footwear shop in a suburb of Kansas City, Habitat Shoe Boutique, but he sells shoes on a daily basis to customers in New York and California. That’s because McClain decided in 2005 to launch an e-commerce site, Habitat Shoes, offering up the shop’s unique mix of fashion brands—like Coclico, Leifsdottir and Chie Mihara— that can’t be found on outsize e-tailer Zappos. “The reason why we have a lot of out-of-state business is because people will go to their local boutique, and it’s sold out of the style they want,” McClain says.

It’s that must-have-now mentality, retailers say, that’s driving many consumers online for their footwear purchases, especially in an era of fashion blogs and social media sites that bring new brands to shoppers’ attention on a daily basis. “Nowadays, savvy customers are coming to our site specifically for a certain brand,” confirms Lori Andre, owner of Chicago chain Lori’s Shoes. “Depending on what the
fashion is at the moment, that’s what people are searching for,” she says, noting that Frye and Jeffrey Campbell have been big searches on her site in recent months.

“There’s a lot more democracy in fashion now,” affirms Joah Spearman, owner of Sneak Attack, an e-commerce site and occasional pop-up shop offering sneakers, apparel and accessories. “It speaks to a desire to help the little guys and shop local,” he adds, noting that means now is the time for niche retailers to make sure their e-commerce site is shipshape—especially as consumers continue to go online for purchases. According to a survey of more than 5,000 consumers conducted by Deloitte, almost half of shoppers say they plan to pick up holiday gifts online this year—a double-digit increase from last year and a tie, with discount stores, for the most popular shopping destination.

But for many small- to mid-tier retailers, competing with the vast array of online footwear companies—including Zappos, Shoebuy, Piperlime and Endless, just to name a few—can be a daunting prospect. The key, experienced e-tailers say, is ensuring that the main strength of traditional brick-and-mortars—good, old-fashioned customer service—translates on the web. “Listen to your consumers,” advises John Kalinich, vice president of consumer direct for Deckers Outdoor, which picked up awards from e-commerce monitoring firm Bizrate for the online shopping experience on the company’s Ugg and Teva websites. That means making it easy for visitors to report problems on the site and promptly fixing glitches, as well as soliciting and responding to feedback on the site’s returns and shipping process, Kalinich adds. “Make sure you have direct feedback from your consumer to your leadership team,” he suggests.

Of course, companies like Zappos have a crucial advantage when it comes to keeping customers happy: free shipping and free returns. “That’s probably the biggest challenges we face—we can’t afford to be so promotional,” Andre says of Lori’s Shoes. “We only offer free shipping if it’s above a certain dollar amount, and we don’t offer free returns. We’re not doing what everyone else is doing, simply because we can’t afford to,” she adds. McClain at Habitat Shoes also forgoes free shipping, but he’s found a way to keep his customers happy by offering free returns and exchanges. His secret to keeping costs down? An accurate fit description for every pair the store sells. “Our return rate is really low for the industry, at 10 percent, because we actually fit test every shoe,” he explains.

And thanks to innovations in virtual try-on technology using web cams, Spearman says, ensuring the proper fit is becoming easier every day. “That technology is going to significantly transform e-commerce. Right now, the biggest impediment to e-commerce is the high return rate, so that’s where optimization is going to happen.” Spearman points to new eyewear brand Tortoise and Blonde’s virtual try-on technology, which allows shoppers to use a webcam to drag and drop the company’s frames onto their faces on screen. The company’s COO, Evan Weisfeld, acknowl-edges the technology is still improving, but says “it gives you the basic idea of what it looks like with your hair color and skin tone.”

In fact, the trend is moving into the footwear arena, by way of tech start-up Shoefitr, which offers software for e-commerce retailers looking to provide their customers with the perfect fit. Using scans of hundreds of running shoes, Shoefitr asks shoppers to provide the size of a well-fitting style they already own, and suggests the right size to order for the shoe they are contemplating purchasing. Running Warehouse already uses the service.

For retailers that can afford it, though, free shipping and free returns certainly encourages customers to click ‘buy.’ Dave Fulmer, supervisor of e-commerce for Florida comfort chain Happy Feet Plus, says offering free shipping provided a big boost to the company’s e-commerce sales. Even though Happy Feet Plus had previously offered free shipping for orders over $100, which included most of the shoes on the site, switching to “free” changed the perception of the site in shoppers’ eyes, Fulmer says. “They don’t see a disclaimer. They just see ‘free shipping.’ It’s a subconscious, subliminal kind of thing,” he explains.

Fulmer acknowledges, however, that free shipping isn’t for everyone. “Sometimes you can skip the free shipping if you offer extra value somewhere else,” he points out. Rich Lyons, founder and CEO of Lyons Consulting Group, an e-commerce design, development and support firm, suggests smaller retailers “pick a niche or have a look and feel to your site that’s different” to stand out from the Amazons of the Internet. “Because you are smaller, you can be much more nimble and much more aggressive with your design, and you can create an experience that’s actually different from the big box retailers.”

For Spearman at Sneak Attack, that meant creating a “cool, unique experience people would talk about.” Visitors to the site are greeted with a cartoon cityscape of Austin, TX, where Spearman is based, which shifts to an animated boutique, with apparel and accessories on one side and footwear on the other (and a turntable in the middle, of course). For Fulmer at Happy Feet Plus, it means using high-quality images that the retailer’s core demographic—women ages 35 to 60—find enticing, like a recent photo featuring a woman sipping from a mug by a fireplace. “For our home page, I always try to have something that is appealing to that age group and is consistent with the audience,” he explains. Jim Wehmann, vice president of marketing at e-commerce firm Digital River, agrees that a visitor’s first glimpse is crucial. “The home page really sets the overall tone for what the shopping experience is going to be like and what your brand stands for, so it’s really important to get that right.”

Of course, conveying the store’s theme throughout the site is also key, and Wehmann suggests using templated pages for consistency. McClain at Habitat Shoes says his goal was to maintain the site’s clean, simple design throughout the entire site, while making it as easy as possible for customers to go from the home page to the shopping cart. “If you click on ‘women’s,’ it just goes straight to the product,” he notes. “My No. 1 rule now is just get rid of pages. Nobody cares about your ‘about’ page—they just want to see the product.”

And they want to see the product in very fine detail, he adds. “We take a lot of pride and we spend a lot of money on product images,” he says, noting that all of the site’s photography is shot in a studio in Kansas City. Wehmann at Digital River agrees that quality photography is crucial. “Here’s the bottom line and the rule of thumb: Customers can’t touch the product and they can’t try it on. The more images, the better the copy and the more detail, the better you are going to do.” Thankfully, Fulman at Happy Feet Plus notes that vendor-supplied product shots are getting increasingly better—and that the zoom-in capabilities offered on many e-commerce platforms nowadays usually satisfy a consumer who wants to see a shoe in greater detail.

But getting those crucial capabilities means choosing the right platform and deciding whether to take a DIY approach or pay for expert help—which doesn’t come cheap. “It’s expensive, it’s labor intensive and it’s definitely challenging,” says Andre of the Lori’s Shoes site. Andre employs a creative director, marketing manager, customer service support, processors to process orders, a merchandise manager and a photographer—all for the website alone. McClain agrees that e-commerce is pricey, but says it’s worth every penny. “Don’t hire a friend of a friend to try and freelance your site. Actually go with a development firm, and spend the money to do it right the first time,” he says, adding, “It’s going to be a hard check to write, but at the end of the day, you’re going to make your money back so much faster than if you had some rickety website.”

McClain points out that he paid a lot of money to ensure that the site is optimized for search engines—consequently, a majority of the site’s traffic is driven by Google searches for specific brands the shop carries. That optimization is built into many e-commerce platforms nowadays, like the Magento platform Lyons Consulting Group uses, Lyons notes.

But the work isn’t finished after all the nuts and bolts are in place, Lyons notes. “If you build it, they won’t necessarily come,” he points out, adding that his firm also provides e-mail marketing capabilities, to help increase traffic. Spearman advises sending a follow-up email post-sale to solicit feedback and information that can be used to drive future purchases. “If you have 13 girls that say they like purple shoes in the last month, when you get a pair of purple shoes in, you email those girls,” he suggests.

In addition, give customers something to talk about, Spearman says. Andre at Lori’s Shoes added a Style and Shoe of the Week blog, as well as posts from celebrity guest bloggers loaded with “sophisticated, playful content,” which has helped create buzz for the site and ratcheted the store’s profile across the globe. For McClain, staying social on Facebook has provided a boost. “Make it social,” Spearman agrees. “If you’re small, and you’re trying to look like Zappos, you’re going to fail, because they can do it better,” he notes. “There has to be word of mouth value in something you’re creating.” —Audrey Goodson

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