Standing in Upper Street's boutique studio, a stone's throw away from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street, I am surrounded by an array of beautiful shoes. From a classic black boot to weird and wonderful, brightly coloured heels, the footwear selection at the Shoe Lounge demonstrates the variety of designs which can be created by customers using Upper Street's website.

"We have five million possibilities of shoe designs," Upper Street's co-founder and CEO, Julia Elliot Brown, tells Essential eCommerce, as she shows off a number of quirky designs made in collaboration with an art school.

Impeccably dressed from the feet up and clutching a cup of coffee, Brown sits down and begins to explains how Upper Street was formed seven years ago by herself and her sister, Katy Chandler. Chandler was getting married, but based in Hong Kong she struggled to find shoes to fit her size nine feet and decided to have them made to order.

"I thought this was brilliant, I wanted to make my own shoes, but I couldn't go to Hong Kong to do it," she says. "I thought there must be a way to build an online business around this."

Brown leapt on the idea, putting her background in running an online publishing business to good use. "But my sister and I didn't know anything about the fashion industry, or footwear, or PR really. And neither of us could draw." she laughs. "But we recognised the things we couldn't do and plugged all the gaps where we didn't really know what we were doing."

Upper Street was officially founded as an eCommerce business in 2010, after forking out £2,000 for the URL, "I had to swallow a little bit at the start, but the brand is everything," adds Brown.

The website invites women to design their own shoes using its 3D customisation tool. Prices start at £240 rising to £500 and orders take between two and four weeks to be made in Upper Street's design house in China, before being shipped out to the customer.  

While Upper Street ships worldwide, the majority of clients are based in the UK. Brown describes her typical customer as a busy, career-minded, metropolitan businesswoman, in her late 30s, who knows her own sense of style and is comfortable with technology. Meanwhile, Upper Street's second customer type is a more likely to be a "Home Counties lady", who Brown says "enjoys a nice day out in town with her friends" and makes an appointment in the physical Shoe Lounge for help in designing her perfect pair of shoes.  

Bridezilla

Brown also notes that 15-20% of Upper Street's customers are brides looking for a special pair of shoes to go with their wedding dress. The website's five million shoe design possibilities provides women with a wealth of choice to create an individual shoe, from embellishments and bows to personalised inscriptions into the sole. But Brown has not always been able to meet her bride's requests – one with a dinosaur-themed wedding wanted a prehistoric animal as the heel of her shoe, but instead Brown suggested screen printing the shoe's material with dinosaur motifs. Another farmer-bride wanted her shoes made from the hide of her cow. "We didn't actually do that," she giggles.

The '360-degree brand experience'

Upper Street's consultation service is what makes the start-up's multichannel efforts so personal. The retailer's Shoe Lounge in central London provides customers with the opportunity to sit down with experts to discuss designs and play with up to 150 different swatches. "When we get them out, you're like a kid in a sweetshop," says Brown.

"I look at the Shoe Lounge as being the 360-degree brand experience," she adds. "But how do we take elements of this onto the website?"

Brown says many photographs of the shoes are shot against the Shoe Lounge's quirky wallpaper and uploaded to the website, while customers can also request swatches online to be posted out to them for £1.

In addition to Upper Street online and the Shoe Lounge, the retailer has also begun creating a network of stylists who visit customers at home for 1:1 appointments or to host a shoe party.

Brown can also imagine concessions within bigger retailers, visualising a kiosk where customers can design their shoes, while collaborations with other companies, such as Net-a-Porter, would be a perfect fit, she believes.

Despite the made-for-order business model, on and offline customers are still offered returns and exchanges, with excess stock sold at bi-annual sample sales.

"If it doesn't fit, we will exchange for another size and expedite the order so you don't have to wait as long and if you really hate the shoes you can have a refund – but most people say 'the design didn't quite work out', so we say 'it's fine just have another go' and they nearly always do."

Data and CRM

Brown keeps tabs on all of her customers in an effort to personalise the service. "All of the data is done in house – I have behemoths of spreadsheets," she says.

Upper Street is in the process of rolling out Infusionsoft for its CRM capabilities. "We're putting a big focus on that for next year and we're really trying to do a better job of segmenting our customers and supporting them differently through their purchase journey," she says, explaining how more personal and relevant content helps to improve conversion rates and its repeat business – currently 20% of customers return to Upper Street.

But it's not easy to segment a woman's love of shoes. "Maybe this one likes crazy shoes, but this other likes classic shoes," she says. "But if you look at my shoe wardrobe – you have classic and corporate, some are crazy, some are beautiful and sparkly. We're all different women at different points in the day or months in the year."

Technology troubles

And if segmenting customer data has been tricky, that is nothing compared to the website's core technology which runs the 3D customisation tool. "It's a bespoke build where everything else is standard web, and it's so complicated and difficult to manage because there are so many elements to it."

Brown outsources all technology and has just hired a new development company in Vietnam, recommended by Magento.

"It is something I debate every so often – whether we should have more technical resources in house – because it's been one of the biggest issues in the business to get right," she explains. "It would be better to have someone close by which could tweak things really really quickly, but we need lots of different types of technology resources and it's not like you can find all those skills in one person."

Brown worries about the technology the most. "It's very frustrating when customers are calling up and saying 'I really want to design a shoe and I can't get the site to work for me'. It also worries me, when you work in eCommerce, about the customers you lose who don't phone you up to tell you, and who just leave."

One of the biggest challenges was relaunching the website. "The first website was in Flash, which was fine when we built it, but very quickly iPads increased and we had to build an app to deal with the fact our Flash website didn't work on iOS."

Despite being aware the majority of Upper Street's affluent customers were Apple users, it took the start-up until this year to relaunch as a responsive website. "While we were rebuilding it, it was so frustrating because you could only design shoes on iOS using the app," she says. Now Upper Street sees 50% of traffic coming from desktop, 33% from mobile and 16% from tablet.   

Fast or slow?

But customers love the customisation tool – even if it can be slightly temperamental. Brown says she is even approached by loyal customers who want to help with testing new functionalities, which she is considering doing in exchange for discounts.

"Our customers love playing and they really engage," she says. "People can happily spend half an hour on it. It's a very personal thing and it's a question of usability – is it better to make the process shorter or longer? But the more customers engage, the more shoes they save to their portfolio, the more excited they become. It's the whole concept of retail as entertainment."

But in today's fast world of one-click purchasing and next day delivery, does Brown worry about the future of her slower-paced business?

“I don’t worry about it – it’s a bit like if you are going to a really nice restaurant and ordering some food. If that food arrives in five minutes, you’re going to think, ‘hang on, you just put that in the microwave!’"

She describes a delayed gratification when it comes to luxury goods, similar to when you buy a wedding dress.

"The delayed gratification is part of what you actually enjoy – you get the hit when you design the shoes, you get it again when you get the email saying your shoes are being made, and again when they’re nearly ready. And when they arrive, you open the box and when you wear the shoes you get all those different gratification hits."

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