As is true of so many retail disruptors, Feetz was born out of frustration – explains founder Lucy Beard, who spoke exclusively to Retail Connections.
Lucy hit on the concept behind her Tennessee-based shoe manufacturing operation while struggling to find a comfortable pair of size 7.5 to 8 shoes. Why, she asked, were people still buying shoes that fit them only approximately?
A foot in the door
“I looked at my feet and saw geometric shapes,” says Lucy, who describes her brand as a ’digital cobbler’. “Shoes should be made for you on demand, to suit your wear, fit and style.”
To achieve this, all she needed was a smartphone and a 3D printer.
While she wouldn’t describe herself as a footwear fanatic – “usually, the best disruptors are industry outsiders,” she says – Lucy knew there was a better way to design shoes, and began to tackle the project by attending a weekend hackathon to get her idea off the ground.
“These sessions give you the chance to work through your issues with random strangers who are experts in various fields,” she explains. “At that early stage, you need assistance from someone who understands what it takes to be an entrepreneur. They make you appreciate that you will get knocked down, at least once!”
Extensive research followed. Lucy spent many months wrapped up in spreadsheets and visiting footwear stores to evaluate how her would-be competitors operated.
Rather than greeting her with suspicion, the in-store sales assistants proved open and helpful. “I just told people what I was doing, and they told me their story,” says Lucy. “Although, to be honest, with feet, everybody has a story! Almost everyone I spoke to was genuinely shocked that no-one had taken my approach before.”
Lucy found that the sector’s supply chain was very resistant to change, and, lacking verticality, was slow to respond to customer demand.
“Retail will die very quickly if it doesn’t change,” she advises. “Think how fast music streaming took over in physical stores – fashion and footwear will quickly follow. Selling must be experience-based, and consumer-based.
“Retailers still can’t grasp the momentous shift in the consumer mindset that’s taking place right now. From data mining to purchase recommendations, it’s more possible than ever to understand the customer as an individual.”
Know your audience
Feetz launched online last year, and its customer insight has evolved rapidly. With a mapping app that captures 5,000 data points and 22 dimensions, whilst taking the user’s height, weight and gait into account, the company can create an incredibly detailed picture of each customer’s feet.
“Using all this data, our app lets us manufacture shoes to within 2mm of accuracy” Lucy continues. “But it can’t deal with how you would like your shoe to fit.
“Shoes need to be worn in, so I need to know more about you; for instance, your age might dictate where your toes sit within the shoe. It’s also an emotional purchase – you want to feet beautiful, strong and confident.
“We’re developing a language for communicating these qualities which didn’t exist before. I believe we’re becoming kings of addressing individual demand.”
The ability to produce seven billion sizes of shoe makes Feetz able to cater for demands that other brands cannot; for instance, in March, the company printed the world’s largest pair of 3D shoes, for Broc Brown, once the world’s tallest teenager.
“Distress purchases are more common than you might think,” Lucy notes, “but we’re infinitely flexible. This makes us different to other companies, where shoe sizes are what the supply chain dictates, not necessarily what the consumer wants.”
As well as bespoke sizes, Feetz can deliver decorative personalisation, from colour schemes to the wearer’s initials or corporate logos. “One in three customers buys personalised shoes,” says Lucy. “They want to proclaim their tribe, and to be recognised.”
Feetz buyers are also drawn to the brand’s ethical commitments. Lucy’s research into the supply chain revealed how wasteful the system was, and she was determined to make a difference.
She succeeded; a simple, three-material construction method means Feetz shoes can be recycled up to 20 times. “I want to leave the world a better place than when I joined it,” she explains. “75% of Millennials want transparency of sustainability in what they are buying, and the big brands are not addressing that.”
Closing the gap
But despite the brand’s initial success, one major barrier to its growth remains: customer education. Conveying the immense potential of its 3D printing technology via its online channel alone can prove difficult, and Feetz is looking to bricks-and-mortar to bridge that divide.
Last year, Feetz launched pop-up shops within DSW Inc’s shoe stores in New York and San Francisco. “When people saw the technology in action, first-hand, their jaws dropped,” recalls Lucy. “We outsold all of DSW’s top brands by seven to one, and because we were able to meet all demands, no-one was turned away.”
While the pop-up was a big hit, and the company remains open to working alongside retail partners, ecommerce remains Lucy’s primary focus. Having just launched the app in 47 countries, Feetz is now expanding across the world, its 3D printing technology making the business infinitely relocatable, delivering footwear made locally to the customer.
Within five years, Lucy hopes to see Feetz designs manufactured on any 3D printer near to the buyer, eradicating shipping costs and further breaking down the established model.