Winning the Online Footwear Race

By James Maguire | Posted December 17, 2004

According to traditional wisdom, shoes should be a tough item to sell online. Who buys shoes without trying them on? One manufacturer's Size 9 is another's Size 8. And can you really fall in love with a pair of shoes by looking at a photo?

Yet Shoebuy has figured out a method of tempering customer doubts — in fact, the site has developed a series of techniques to sell an item that consumers have traditionally needed to see in person.

First, the site offers free shipping — and free return shipping. If you don't like your purchase, it'll cost you nothing to send it back. And there's no hidden clause, like "purchase must be over $35." Free shipping means you can buy even a $15 pair of shoes and return them at no expense.

In other words, Shoebuy is willing to lose money on some transactions to assure customers that buying shoes online is risk-free. Consequently, the site's return rate is about 16 percent, says Shoebuy CEO Scott Savitz. This number has remained pretty consistent since the site launched, he says, with a slight downward trend now that the site has a greater percentage of repeat customers.

"We've always offered free shipping, from Day One," says Savitz. "What happens is that people make their first purchase, and they think 'I'm not going to lose anything.' And they find out it works out extremely well, and they buy an awful lot more."

Replicating Brick and Mortar
To sweeten its offering, Shoebuy offers a 110 percent price guarantee on any shoe purchase. "So if you see a lower price on another site, we will look at what we're offering it for and give you 110 percent of the difference," Savitz says, noting that his site's customers rarely use this offer.

To replicate the brick and mortar shoe buying experience, Shoebuy offers live phone help. This is a "huge" part of the site's success, Savitz says. All of its calls are answered in-house — he feels that outsourcing phone support ultimately proves ineffective — by a team of about 20 trained sales personnel.

To go a step above brick and mortar, Shoebuy offers a selection not found in an average shoe store. The site partners with over 200 footwear brands, allowing it to offer about 300,000 products.

Automated Merchandising
Shoebuy's e-commerce platform is completely proprietary, built by in-house programmers. Likewise, its Web analytics software was also coded in-house, and Savitz says attention to the analytics data is non-stop.


Shoebuy.com
Shoebuy.com's business is on the road to success, thanks to superior understanding of its customers.

"We do a lot of A-B testing, and funneling, and clickstream analysis, so we look at are customers getting to where they want to be?" he says. By his account, the site gets two million unique users per month. During the workday, until about 5 PM, it sees 3,500 to 4,000 queries per minute, from shoppers clicking on product links. The average visit is 18 minutes long.

"There are over seven different ways to get to your product within one minute," Savitz says — including narrowing your search by gender, or browsing featured products and featured brands. To aid the process, the site's advanced search allows browsing by price, size and heel height.

Most innovative, the site has developed an automated merchandising technology. As customer traffic flows to certain items, those items are automatically given more prominent display on the site. So shopper interest drives a shoe's ranking in real time.

"We found out very quickly that the customer knows a lot more than we know, so we're letting the customer drive what's being prioritized," Savitz says.

Adapted from ECommerce-Guide.com, part of Internet.com's Small Business Channel.

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