Zappos, Keds and SimplySoles search for the right fit

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It is not always a shoe-in to sell footwear over the Internet, since one size definitely does not fit all. Online retailers such as Keds, Zappos.com and SimplySoles have found that building personal relationships through e-mail is a good way to present products that can be tricky to buy in the virtual world.

Online retail giant Zappos.com has a marketing philosophy that says no to marketing, but yes to customer loyalty programs. The shoe retailer, who spends its would-be marketing budget on the customer experience and offers perks like free overnight shipping and free returns, understands that e-mail can be a powerful tool when building relationships with its customers. But it has to be used as a privilege, according to Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos.com.

"In the short term, if you send e-mail every day it would increase sales, but in the long term, it will make customers get annoyed with your brand and ignore you," he says. "So that's why we only send out twice a month and let customers opt in."

Zappos, who sends to about 3 million customers overall, lets its customers sign up for various types of e-mail newsletters. The general e-mail goes out to all 3 million customers in the database. It contains information about new styles and new brands, and goes out twice a month. The other mailing lists are for the more proactive consumer, and include updates on specific brands or specific sizes. Also, a customer looking for a specific item that is out of stock can sign up to receive an e-mail once the stock is replenished.

The retailer also has touched on social networking with a community e-mail newsletter called "Shoe Digest," that lets customers participate in discussions about shoes with other Zappos customers. The newsletter, which is moderated by the retailer, includes such topics as what to wear with dresses, discussions on flip flops and what shoes work best for weddings when your date is the same height as you.

"One woman who started a discussion e-mail was going to a wedding with her boyfriend who is the same height. She wanted to wear two-inch heels but she didn't know of any good brands that made heels less than three inches," Hsieh comments. "Nine people responded to her with their recommendations of good designers who make two-inch heels."

E-mailing the brand experience

Stride Rite-owned shoe brand Keds is in something of a peculiar situation, as it sells its shoes directly from its site and competes directly with a host of online retailers who also sell Keds products, including Zappos.

Gregg Poulin director of e-commerce for Stride Rite/Keds, says, "We have an interesting dilemma, because we compete against retailers who sell our products, but we can't compete on price or free shipping. But our approach is to create a brand experience on the site and in our e-mails."

Keds has found that sending targeted e-mail has increased its open rates by as much as 40 percent. Keds sends e-mails a couple of times a month, depending on what new product information or marketing campaigns it has going, using iPost's e-mail marketing platform. The firm has found that by segmenting e-mails based on age, location and previous purchase behavior, it can increase open rates and conversions.

"Testing is important to our e-mail program because it helps us understand our customers," says Poulin. "We test for things like the differences between such things as imagery versus text and how different content appeals to different age groups."

Keds has found that older and younger groups respond differently to offers. While teens tend to be more responsive to offers for a specific dollar amount off of a purchase, such as $10 off, Keds customers in their 30s and 40s tend to find more value in an offer for a percentage-off offering, such as a 10-percent-off coupon.

In addition, younger audiences tend to respond to fashion imagery in e-mails. Keds's latest campaign, a back-to-school initiative that features Mischa Barton going to Oxford University in England, includes lots of images of the actress in e-mails sent to this younger group. These e-mails also feature video clips from Barton's photo shoot and aim to drive customers back to the site to look at an array of clips and a series of photos.

Older recipients tend to like product shots and more information about the product. The calls to action in these e-mails encourage them to click through to the informational pages on the Keds site.

Keds sends both promotional e-mails and e-mail newsletters. Some new e-mail promotions that are going on this month include the chance to win CDs, products signed by the designers and a trip to London.

While e-mail promotions are used to both acquire new customers and reengage existing ones, newsletters tend to focus on new product and brand information in a bid to promote customer retention.

Depending on the e-mail, Keds has seen open rates range from 25 percent to 40 percent, with more opens coming from Keds' existing customer list versus its prospect list. Among the people who have opened e-mail, 32.5 percent have clicked on something in the e-mail, and 5 percent to 6 percent have clicked through to the site at www.keds.com.

Simply selective

Niche online and catalog retailer SimplySoles, sells high-end shoes for women. The e-commerce site lets consumers sign up for e-mail newsletters or e-mail promotions at a page on its site. The retailer sends out promotional and newsletter e-mails to about 8,000 customers each with 80 percent crossover. SimplySoles also notes the idea that the inbox is a privilege, and only sends when there is important news about the company or new products, or for sales or promotions.

"We try to be very selective with how many e-mails we send to our customers," says Kassie Rempel, owner/founder of SimplySoles. "I've registered for a lot of retailers' e-mails and you'd be surprised how many e-mails they send out. My philosophy is to only send e-mails when we are proud of something, and that are personalized around our business so that it's not just a forced effort."

The e-mail newsletters are designed to have a personality that will attract the 30- to 70-year-old professional women who sign up for SimplySoles newsletters.

"It's not just about æthe heel height is three inches, the sole is made of leather and the color is blue,'" Rempel adds. "There is more to it. We imagine the shoe going out on a date and living in the world."

This kind of attention to the brand also appears in the sale and promotion e-mails sent by Simply Soles. The retailer recently sent out a survey asking what customers wanted from e-mails, and gained positive input. Respondents said they like to feel an individual relationship with the brand, and that they like special offers.

"We will offer a sneak preview of a sale that is up on our Web site to e-mail subscribers first," Rempel says. "We try to create this exclusivity surrounding the announcement so that subscribers are happy to get it. We especially offer these exclusive [sales] to newsletter subscribers, as they are the most loyal customers."

Rempel notes that the firm sees open rates ranging from 25 percent to 48 percent, depending on content. The retailer does not offer free shipping, in fairness to its catalog customers. However, it often offers free-shipping promotions to its e-mail customers.

SimplySoles uses the e-mail signup process to determine catalog shipping efforts. The signup page asks for an annual shoe budget, which helps measure which of the four catalogs a year a customer will receive, since the cost of shipping catalogs can be pricey and the high-priced shoes, averaging about $275, do not always account for an order every season.

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