How Shoes of Prey delivers made-to-order shoes in two weeks
When Shoes of Prey announced last October that it was shuttering concessions in six Nordstrom stores in the US and the David Jones flagship in Sydney, some wondered whether the move marked the beginning of the end for the customisable shoe startup.
But eight months later, Shoes of Prey co-founder and chief creative officer Jodie Fox stands by the decision and says the return to selling online-only has freed up funds that were previously sunk into the company’s bricks-and-mortar operations.
“I guess the positive thing is that we’ve been able to invest in the online space. We’ve stated publicly that having the six stores took up 25 per cent of our cost, which is a large chunk to invest in something that’s very confined in terms of reach. That number instantly flipped around [when we closed the stores], which is a relief and a good thing,” Fox tells Internet Retailing.
As a result of this reshuffling, Shoes of Prey most notably has been able to cut its shipping time in half to just two weeks, an impressive feat when you consider the trillions of possible combinations of shoe style, colour, material, heel height, toe shape, width and embellishments that customers around the world may order at any given time.
This is something Shoes of Prey has been working towards for years, since the online retailer first started to bring manufacturing in-house in 2014. It entailed not only building its own factory in China and hiring hundreds of specialised employees, but also working with shoe-making equipment and material suppliers to adjust existing machinery and processes.
“We built something that, to my knowledge, has never existed before, which is a factory that produces shoes on-demand at scale,” Fox says.
This is a significant turning point for customisation in retail more broadly. Because even as a growing number of startups like Mon Purse, InStitchu and Disrupt Sports make it possible for online shoppers to personalise handbags, suits and sporting goods, the trend is unlikely to gain traction with a mass audience if customers have to wait one month or more for their products to arrive.
“I think it’s really special to have something made just for you, but the only way that’s going to become someone’s first choice is if it meets all the other criteria that off-the-shelf products offer. [Two-week delivery] is a step in that direction,” Fox says.
A different way of doing things
Shoes of Prey manufactures all its shoes in a three-storey, 43,000-square-foot facility in Dongguan, China, a city known for its shoe-making expertise. But unlike most factories in Dongguan, Shoes of Prey can’t tap into the city’s existing supply chain and processes that have developed over the years.
“Finding the right mix and split of shoe-making processes between a single cobbler making an entire shoe at one end of the scale, and traditional mass manufacturing at the other [was a challenge],” Christopher McCallum, chief operating officer for Shoes of Prey, tells Internet Retailing.
McCallum is based in China and runs the factory on a day-to-day basis. He explains that the company uses internally-developed software to ensure each customised shoe is made correctly and a fully ‘lean’ manufacturing mindset to speed up production. Shoes of Prey also works with suppliers to get stock replenished quickly.
“We’ve refined our manufacturing processes and now produce and deliver custom designed shoes in two weeks guaranteed, worldwide. But we don’t stop there. Customers can expedite delivery and receive their shoes in as little as one week,” he says.
“The time it takes us to produce a pair of shoes from scratch is faster than the average time it takes for our courier partners to ship those shoes.”
In speeding up the manufacturing process, however, the retailer has had to rethink some steps entirely.
For instance, McCallum says standard shoes sit for weeks or months before customers receive them, giving glue odours time to dissipate. Since Shoes of Prey can’t wait that long, it needed to work with suppliers to develop adhesives that don’t linger. It also worked with logistics suppliers to develop faster export processes.
At a time when many online retailers are reliant on third parties to not only make, warehouse and ship products, but also maintain websites and communicate with customers, this investment in in-house manufacturing is unusual.
It also represents a significant bricks-and-mortar footprint for a business that sells shoes online-only.
“Ultimately they’re heavily invested in physical world via supply chain and manufacturing. To call them a digital-only business I think would be a mistake,” Paul Greenberg, founder of the National Online Retailer Association, tells Internet Retailing.
“They have a digital umbilical thread to the customer, but a significant investment in production.”
Given the resources involved in developing this manufacturing model, Fox says she is open to the possibility of systematising it for other retailers to use in future.
“At the moment, it’s for our purposes, but given that I believe on-demand manufacturing is more environmentally and financially sustainable for companies, and that we’re the only ones that have built something like this, to my knowledge, I do think that’s a possibility for the future,” she says.
Shoes of Prey has ushered in a variety of changes in recent months beyond two-week delivery.
“Manufacturing is really exciting because we’ve seen an amazing result that we’re proud of, but you’ll start to see a lot more changes coming though other parts of the business like creative and marketing work and a lot more product launches,” Fox says.
The retailer has also gained Lizzie Francis, ex-CMO of US-based online fashion company Gilt Groupe, as an executive chairman. This reflects a broader shift underway at Shoes of Prey, where the focus is less on the novelty factor and more on the fashion itself.
“It’s so interesting because for so long we were a ‘what and how’ company. What is it? You can design your own shoes. How can you do it? We have a great online design tool,” Fox says.
“But the thing is, we have a real passion for making sure our shoes feel and look beautiful and spend a lot of time sourcing the right leathers out of Italy. All of that is really about us shifting the weight a little bit. We will always be powered by technology, but we are a fashion company and that’s the part of ourselves that we’re growing into now.”
One of the things Fox doesn’t see changing, however, is the sales channel.
“I do strongly believe that online retail is the best way for us to reach the Shoes of Prey woman. That’s in no doubt in my mind. In terms of the experience itself, it will never end to make it more simple, easy for her to use.”
A version of this story first appeared in Inside Retail Weekly issue 2147. To subscribe, click here.