selling soles

A couple months back I ran into the owner of a successful shoe company. She was talking about her website optimistically. She was convinced that there can be a better way to sell shoes online. This belief was grounded in the fact that very few people actually merchandise footwear online. Wouldn’t it be better to see how the footwear looked on a real person wearing real clothes? How does that color or style work with the latest fashion? Or how can I see a line of products together to get a better feeling for the depth and breadth of products offered?
There is an old saying in the retail business “stack it high and let it fly.” It is essentially the main strategy for most successful big box retailers, mass merchandise and discount stores. Pile up your inventory and see what happens at point of sale. This creates a Darwinian environment where only the top brands and products get sold in stores like Costco and WalMart. This lack of creative merchandising is reflected on nearly every online shopping site for shoes as well. This is not to say that merchandising is not important. There is simply no room for it. “Stack it high let it fly” has been replaced by “three-clicks to buy.”

In the footwear business, nobody does it better online than Zappos. Every brand you could possibly think of is available for you to buy within a few clicks. Zappos offers laser-like search capabilities and product search filter tools to make this job even easier. But how does Zappos go about merchandising its products? Well…they don’t.

Why would they need to merchandise the product? Customers have the ability to pick and choose whatever shoes they want. They get to see alternate views of the shoes, sandals, boots and sneakers. They can zoom in and zoom out. They can even read consumer reviews of those very same products. What more could they ask for? Why bother merchandising footwear online when these individual product shots neatly silhouetted on white backgrounds seems to be working just fine?

I thought about that for more than a second. Thinking back to the countless catalogs that I have received in the mail over the years, what actually motivated me to dutifully flip through these wonderfully merchandised product pages each time? I recently received a catalog from Dick’s Sporting Goods in the mail with the newest collection of lacrosse gear. The photos in the catalog showed actual products being worn by actual players in a variety of colors and styles. Each brand was merchandised nicely into action-packed photos that were beautifully framed in a glossy 8 x 10 booklet. My 8 year-old daughter spent 30 minutes flipping through the catalog talking about which cleats would go best with the pink and green socks that she likes to wear on gameday. On the last page of the catalog there it was, a picture of a young woman running down the field in the coolest neon green-soled Nikes. YES!!! We agreed that these would match perfectly with her favorite socks and made a plan to visit the store later in the day to try them on.

Now, you wouldn’t have that kind of success on the website, would you?

Maybe there is an opportunity to merchandise product better online?