Online Shoes Taking Big Steps
By Tom Ryan
Shoes were supposed to be one of those categories that wouldn’t sell on the web. The primarily hurdle was fit – the product had to be tried on and, in most cases, an experienced sales person was necessary to close the purchase. Plus, the shipping costs for returns for bad fits would be astronomical.
For a while the pundits were right as items like computers, books, music, toys and apparel drove e-commerce sales. But online shoe shopping now appears to be taking off.
In 2002, online footwear sales, at $954 million, were about one-fifth the
size of the $4.4 billion online apparel business, according to Forrester Research.
Last year, footwear surged to $2.9 billion, or about one-third the size of
the $9.6 billion sold in apparel. Looking ahead, online shoe sales are projected
to increase 22 percent in 2007 versus an 18 percent projected gain in apparel
and a 12 percent increase in overall online retail sales.
In a sign of how popular online shopping has become, two of the largest online shoes stores – Zappos.com and Shoebuy.com, both pioneers from the late 1990s – are attracting investor interest.
At the same time, plenty of brick-and-mortar retailers, including Nordstrom, Nine West and Brown Shoe’s Shoes.com, are crowding the field. And online shoes stores have recently been launched by the Gap (Piperlime.com) and Amazon.com (Endless.com).
Some feel footwear had its e-commerce breakout only after cyber shoppers grew accustomed to buying apparel over the web. Apparel was another category many had said would be a tough sell because women like browsing the malls and would have to try on or at least ‘touch and feel’ the product before buying.
“Apparel was the big behemoth,” Catherine Beaudoin, senior vice president and general manager of Piperlime, told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s falling like dominoes. Shoes are probably one of the last bastions because the feeling has been you have to try on shoes to feel comfortable.”
The online shoe shopping experience has been enhanced by improved navigation, multiple product views, and even enabling customer reviews. But just as any old shoe salesman would tell you, customer service is critical to the category – even online. Since fit is so key to shoe sales, online shoe stores have traditionally offered free shipping and free returns – an expensive but necessary cost of doing business.
Some are taking service a step further. The model appears to be Zappos.com, which believes an early decision to invest in customer service rather than advertising has been a key to its success. The largest internet-only footwear company, with sales of $597 million last year, employs an army of 250 customer service representatives to staff its call center in Nevada 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also maintains an inventory of about 3 million pairs of shoes to avoid disappointing customers due to stock outs.
These efforts by Zappos and others are helping consumers overcome any apprehensions over online shoe buying by making it easy to try on different pairs and return the ones they didn’t like.
“Consumers are just more comfortable with it,” Marshal Cohen, an analyst at NPD Group, told Scripps News.
Discussion questions: How far will can online footwear sales go? What challenges does this present for traditional brick & mortar footwear retailers?
- Online shoe sales take bigger stride – Chicago Tribune
- Customer service focus fuels growth at Zappos.com – Scripps News