Custom Footwear Emerges in Women’s Category

Athletic customers have been doing it for years. And these days, women’s customers have more options to design their own footwear.

Better-known brands such as Nina, as well as smaller startups, offer such services through platforms that vary in complexity. Possibilities range from personalizing color combinations to being able to modify constructions and even opting for right and left shoes in different sizes.

William Susman, managing director of retail consulting firm Threadstone Partners, said the custom concept is a small but growing part of e-commerce.

“With the advent of everybody having their own Facebook pages and blogs, there’s so much screaming for individuality out there,” he said. “This is a mechanism to [satisfy that demand], particularly in a market where luxury is doing well. [Design-your-own] can position a brand as luxury without forcing the brand to go up 20 percent in price.”

Footwear News chatted with a few key brands about the growth potential — and challenges — of the business.

Milk & Honey
The mix: Los Angeles-based Milk & Honey, launched by sisters Dorian and Illisa Howard in 2010, offers design-your-own options in five constructions: pumps, flats, sandals, wedges and booties. Custom makes up the bulk of the site’s sales, said Dorian Howard, with price points starting at $200.

Success rate: While Milk & Honey doesn’t release numbers, Dorian Howard said, “We are exceeding our expectations. Year on year, we have pretty much doubled every quarter.” The company also has taken advantage of its Los Angeles home base, tapping Hollywood actresses such as AnnaSophia Robb, Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Mara to contribute their own designs for charity.

Challenges: “[Keeping up with] technology has been a killer,” Howard said. “We redesigned our website three months after we launched, but by the time our site relaunched, everybody had iPads. We then immediately started working on our third shoe builder, which is iPad-compatible. Now we’re already working on our next one. That’s exhausting.”

The mix: Nina’s customizable shoes, all in satin and only available online, carry a retail price of $150 per pair, which the company said it has been able to maintain based on factory relationships through its evening shoe business. Nina’s custom platform gives customers, the bulk of whom are brides-to-be, the option of 21 silhouettes and 21 colors in hundreds of combinations.

Success rate: Custom sales have increased more than 150 percent since the division launched in 2009, said Nancy Nanka-Bruce, Nina’s director of marketing and communications. “This segment has really popped for us,” she said, adding that the company also recently added customizable jewelry.

Challenges: “Design Your Own is a test lab for us [to find out] what is of interest to our customers,” said Nanka-Bruce. “We’ve had some colors that were so successful in DYO that we brought them into our core [wholesale] line. That’s fantastic for our business, but it’s also a challenge to keep coming up with the next color that [the consumer is] going to love.”

Shoes of Prey
The mix:
The Sydney-based e-commerce brand launched in 2009 for customers to personalize sandals, booties, pumps, wedges and flats with a choice of six heel heights and an array of materials, from plain cotton to exotics such as snakeskin and fish skin. Price points range from $140 to $330.

Success rate: While Shoes of Prey does not publicize numbers, co-founder Jodie Fox said the business has grown from a small startup to a multimillion-dollar player. The company also has built a web platform that includes a real-time map that allows visitors to see footwear that others are designing around the world, as well as a live-chat function for friends to comment on each other’s designs in progress.

Challenges: “We are expanding quite a lot, and managing that in a careful way is challenging,” Fox said. “It’s about making sure we can still deliver the experience to the customer that we would like them to have, maintaining a high level of service while we are growing so rapidly.”

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