Nearly two years after pivoting her shoe business to a direct-to-consumer model with the help of actual model and investor, Cindy Crawford, Sarah Flint is on a roll.
In addition to having a direct relationship with customers, fewer markdowns and more control, her company is enjoying triple digit growth for the second year.
She has also opened her first pop-up shop in New York’s SoHo. “I wanted to create an experience for my customers where they didn’t feel the pressure to shop,” she said at the forum, where she detailed her journey from department store to DTC brand. “We have board games, cookies and tea, a shoe-fie moment. People are encouraged to try on as many shoes as they can, we put together a basket for them with what they tried on, and a code to order online so we can track that those customers came from the store.”
Open until Dec. 15, the pop-up has already yielded results, she said. “We have a lot of Canadian customers who have literally flown in to shop the pop-up and fly home. We’ve seen huge success and we will open more pop ups next year.”
To promote the pop-up, she’s done press, used Instagram ads, influencer posts, networked with hotel concierges and employed a chalk artist to hit the sidewalk with the address and the brand slogan, “Walk Like a Woman.”
Known for shoes with extra arch support and padding that don’t sacrifice comfort for fashion, Flint launched her brand in fall 2013 in two small luxury boutiques, selling on consignment. She also drove a U-Haul across the country selling shoes in affluent women’s living rooms. “It looked very glamorous on the outside,” said the designer, who initially ran the business from her one-bedroom New York apartment, sleeping next to an industrial-sized sewing machine. Her big break came when a pr acquaintance was able to get the shoes on Heidi Klum. “After that, everyone from Jessica Alba to Kate Hudson to Amal Clooney followed.”
After four seasons, she got into Barneys New York. “Every designer’s dream, right? Well, it was not exactly the dream I imagined,” Flint said, sharing that she had just four weeks to get the order ready, lured with the promise her designs would be sitting on the floor between Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. “However, [Barneys said] they would be on consignment, they would do no marketing around it and I was not allowed to advertise it either.”
Taking a cue from Spanx founder Sarah Blakely, she sent checks to every family member and friend for half the price of a pair of shoes to incentivize them to shop. It worked — for a while. She went to selling five Barneys doors, then Bloomingdale’s, Shopbop and Moda Operandi, in addition to specialty stores. “There was validation as a luxury brand, it allowed celebrity stylists to find us, and it allowed us to get the volume so I could leave my U-Haul days behind me,” she said of landing those big accounts.
But there were more negatives, it turned out. She didn’t own any of her customer data, and it was a huge design burden. “I was designing about 200 styles of shoes a year so each store could have their exclusives.…And they didn’t buy the shoes I wanted them to.”
The breaking point was when she walked onto the floor of a store and tried to find where her shoes had been moved. “We spent 20 minutes trying to find them and finally found them tucked away in two corners and I realized even if I drove all the customers in the world there, they weren’t going to wait 20 minutes to find the shoes.”
By the end of 2015, she was designing more for the store buyers than her customers. She also started to notice how her friends were shopping differently; they were no longer shopping luxury brands at full price, they were buying them mid-season on-sale or with a discount code; and they were shopping DTC brands for basics because they were offering good products at a better price.
“Isn’t there an opportunity to be one of the first DTC brands, disrupt a broken model and attract a whole new generation of luxury consumers with better prices, original designs and a brand voice empowering women?” she said of her eureka moment.
The transition wasn’t easy. “I knew we had to have news around the launch moment, so I approached Cindy Crawford, a longtime fan of the brand, to come in as an investor and collaborator,” Flint said. She had to move to an e-com optimized warehouse, offer free shipping and returns; she had seven employees and having canceled her wholesale orders, no money to hire more people.
So she brought on a digital marketing agency that worked in part for shoes, and “stalked” retail strategist Kimberly Nemser from Warby Parker to join her board. Another concern was how to address her existing customers; Flint was worried they would be upset because they had spent a huge amount of money on shoes before, and with the new DTC model, they were going to cost less. Her made-in-Italy footwear, which had previously sold for $495 to $1,200 (with some pieces going as high as $1,600) would now retail from $245 to $900.
“I spent weeks on a letter, explaining that I wanted to offer them something better, and I offered credits to the web site for customers who had purchased product that moved into the new model,” the designer explained.
Since pivoting to direct-to-consumer, business has been booming, she said, sharing that key marketing support has come from referral networks and organic pr, including press articles repurposed for digital advertising. From 2017 to 2018, sales grew 300 percent year-over-year, and she sold more shoes than in the entire history of the brand. In 2019, she said she expects to continue to see triple digit year-over-year growth and regular stock-outs.
“We now have a business model that does not require investment dollars in the tens of million,” said Flint, offering her best piece of advice to entrepreneurs: “If you hit a road block, always bring it back to the problem you are trying to solve.…When I hit a road block, I realized the new type of luxury brand I was trying to create was not going to be built on the shelves of department stores.”