Cheryl Kaplan

At first blush, the business model for footwear e-retailer M Gemi seems simple: offer consumers “the best of luxury while presenting a modern approach to pricing and access.” But cofounder and president Cheryl Kaplan told attendees at the WWD Digital Forum that today’s market is a bit more complex and so is the business of selling shoes to discerning consumers.

“What I’ve learned is that you cannot just do things the way they have been done,” she said. “Our consumers are too smart. They’re looking for something new and different and innovative.”

It was such insights into the needs of consumers that led the company to open two “Fit Shops” — one in Boston and the other in SoHo. It also meant doubling down on the original intent of launching the company, which she did in 2015 with Ben Fischman and brand namesake Maria Gangemi, a native of Sicily who is also a devotee of Italian, handmade shoes.

“The company was founded on the love of the artisanal craftsmanship of Italy,” Kaplan said adding that she and Gangemi wanted to share that with U.S. consumers. “We decided that there’s this traditional way in which Italian shoes are made, but we wanted to bring it to the U.S. in a new way,” Kaplan said. That new way involved working with family-owned workshops who use “time-honored techniques, and in limited editions,” but working with them during “quiet periods.”

“One of the things we learned was that there are thousands of workshops in Italy, and a lot of them would have down time,” she explained. “So some of the brands would come in and work with them on their seasonal launches, and then they’d go quiet. What we found was this was a great opportunity for us, and for the factories, to work together to have a much more consistent supply chain. Right now, for example, we’re working on November of 2017 while a lot of other brands are building their lines out for next year.”

M Gemi is also using limited editions off the seasonal calendar to offer shoppers “weekly drops.” Kaplan said instead of “dropping shoes a season at at time” the company does it every Monday. “We always like to say we like to own Mondays,” she added. The business model also means selling a price point below what competitors are charging. Retail price points start at around $250, which Kaplan said is about a third of what handmade Italian shoes go for elsewhere.

“We also learned that selling shoes online is very difficult, and we needed to remove every hurdle,” she said. “So we offered free shipping, fast shipping, free returns, label in the box, everything we could do to sort of remove any of the hurdles that our clients would have to try us. We knew that we just needed to get the shoes into their hands, and that they would love us once they saw it. It was almost too good to believe until they saw it, and then they were believers. We knew that we wanted to not be wholesale, that we wanted to keep that line of communication between us and our clients direct.”

Aside from quality made products and the right price point as well as frictionless online experiences for consumers, Kaplan said the two physical locations are key where shoppers are greeted by knowledgeable and attentive staff. Inventories in the Fit Shops are limited, and most products are shipped to consumer’s homes. The goal is to build a relationship with the client. “We’re learning about them as we help figure out what is right for them, for their fit,” Kaplan said.

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