It might be easy to overlook the women’s designer shoe market potential in, for instance, Grasswood, Saskatchewan, or Brussels, Ontario. But on any given day, TheSeptember.com’s sales heat-map lights up with orders from these and other remote Canadian towns — for Alexandre Birman’s Clarita sandals or Jimmy Choo’s floral-appliqué combat boots.
Since founding her Toronto-based e-commerce business three years ago, CEO Christine Carlton has identified wide-open underserved markets beyond well-known Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
During that time, The September has grown from a small online startup in an anonymous office to a success story based in a spacious townhouse. Since its inception, the company has enjoyed 50 percent year-over-year sales increases and developed a loyal, if unconventional, following. (The site’s top customers have purchased 37 or more shoes in the last three years.)
“The business came to be out of a need,” said Carlton, from the company’s headquarters, about the lack of luxury shoes for the Canadian consumer. “It wasn’t only the option to shop online that I wanted to offer, but a different level of service that I didn’t believe existed. You go to the States and it’s so much better.”
Indeed, after 17 years as a divisional vice president at Holt Renfrew — where e-commerce has yet to be introduced — Carlton knew the market inside and out. “When [Canadian retailer] Browns exited from handling the Holts shoe section, I took over that business,” she said, noting that it soon became the fastest growing and most profitable category at the department store. “My reason for starting with shoes was because I had seen this growth.”
A year into the launch of The September, which was self-funded except for a small outside investment, Carlton brought on her former buyer, Natasha Geddes, as fashion and marketing director. She’s helped her attract a diverse clientele, which includes the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau — who bought golden Stuart Weitzman sandals — and their top customer, a surprisingly glamorous Holstein dairy farmer with a penchant for Aquazzura stilettos.
“She has the most incredible closet of shoes,” said Geddes of the latter. “At this point, we know her well and buy especially for her. We often deliver shoes to customers for them to choose their favorites, or send photos directly from the showrooms. We’ve had a lot of people say this was the first time they purchased a Valentino or Ferragamo.”
Indeed, Geddes has a knack for shepherding sales via Instagram and Facebook, particularly when she posts herself or Carlton wearing them. “Even though we’re online, we’ve built personal relationships so people don’t feel like they are talking to strangers,” Geddes said about the brand’s tone, which is characteristically Canadian in its friendly disposition. “We also try to be present enough in our social media so people see we are real and can relate to us, even if they are in Halifax and we’ve never met. One of our assets is accessibility.”
The September, which offers free shipping and returns, stocks its own inventory, resulting in a 40 to 50 percent savings for customers used to paying high fees for long delivery times and surprise duties. But still, the Canadian dollar’s decline against a rebounded U.S. currency (in which Carlton makes most of her purchases) has been a major hurdle. “When I launched the business, the dollar was on par. To have it devalued by 30 percent in three years has been tough.”
As Carlton navigates currency challenges, she is working to spread awareness by taking cues from the Canadian-founded Four Seasons group’s sterling reputation in the hospitality industry. The September hosts frequent shopping parties in Toronto’s toniest homes and seasonally turns the Four Seasons Presidential Suite into an invite-only shoe salon. Then there is the townhouse, which functions as a by-appointment boutique where the duo welcomes frequent pop-ins (often with a dress in tow or a specific request in mind).
“And sometimes it’s our banker or lawyer, coming by for a meeting but swept up trying on shoes,” Geddes noted. “People feel comfortable here, and hosting in-person events differentiates us.” It’s also been a great way to introduce shoppers to more emerging brands, such as Sarah Flint, who visited Toronto last year. “They have been a great partner introducing me to the Canadian market,” said Flint, who noted her Emma pump and Grear sandal classics are site favorites. “Canada remains one of our strongest regions after our domestic business, and we look forward to growing.”
Next up, Carlton will unveil a site refresh, switching platforms to Ottawa-founded digital behemoth Shopify and implementing AI plus video innovations to improve customer experience.
She’s also getting into the lucrative back-end business, by offering hosting services for other brands’ regional e-commerce sites — similar to the Yoox model.
“When I spoke to companies about this, their eyes just lit up,” Carlton said of the opportunity for foreign brands to enter the Canadian market. “Whatever we do, it will be powered by The September.”