Aside from pre-iOS 14.5, there’s never been a more exciting time for eCommerce. And if you’re joining the fun and wondering how to build a DTC shoe brand, you’re in luck.
We sat down with Gio White, current Strategic Advisor and former Head of Marketing & eCommerce for Taos Footwear, one of the most successful women’s footwear brands, to break down their growth strategy. From identifying a niche early on to developing a high-quality product, we covered retention, customer service, and funnel building. Ready to learn how to grow your shoe brand? Let’s dive in.
Starting a Shoe Brand: The Early Stages
The early stages of your footwear business are arguably the most important. Before you can pour money into Meta ads or start working with top creators, you need to build a brand, not just sell a product.
We founded Taos Footwear two decades ago when many shoe companies took quality components out of their products in the interest of profit margins. These lower quality, overly flexible, and “squishy” footwear styles gave the wearer an element of ‘instant gratification.’
However, the lack of support and lower-quality materials left most consumers with sore feet, aching joints, and overall disappointment. The foam keeps getting thicker, but “squishy” does not provide a healthy foundation for the human body. We wanted to set ourselves apart from our competition, so we did. Since the beginning, our commitment has always been to design high-quality shoes that support every type of foot. The goal was never instant gratification but rather long-term satisfaction.
From early on, we focused on distribution through independent and specialty chain brick-and-mortar retailers. This growth strategy ran counter to conventional industry wisdom at the time, which focused on full-price, full-service branding. At a time when most brands were heavily discounting their products for placement in big box chains and department stores, fighting for a few inches of shelf space, we were planting roots in specialty stores, putting our brand in front of actual customers.
This commitment to partner with independent retailers was noticed and embraced and led to us being able to reach consumers at retail before ever investing in direct-to-consumer marketing or owned channels. This unique approach laid the foundation for long-term success by building trust and loyalty with retailers and consumers.
Identify Your Target Customer
We built the best comfort shoes and placed them in the best specialty footwear stores. We listened to feedback from the stores and consumers and used it to improve our products further. We found that our shoes most resonated with women and chose to focus our product development efforts there. Today, over 90% of our shoes are made for women.
Women are mainly invested in finding quality shoes that aren’t just comfortable and stylish. For a long time, our society and culture have prioritized fashion over function in footwear. And unfortunately, women’s foot health and overall wellness have suffered. So we’ve found loyal customers by being in great footwear stores and on social media, particularly by reaching and engaging with them on Facebook, especially Facebook groups.
Choose an eCommerce Platform.
We began our eCommerce journey on Magento, starting with the free community version before upgrading to their enterprise cloud solution. We could scale to a certain point but found that high development and maintenance costs limited us. We saw a much more agile and flexible platform in Shopify, natively integrated with many of the best-in-class 3rd party tools and apps we wanted to leverage to grow our business but were cost-prohibitive on Magento. We saw many new DTC footwear and apparel brands launch and scale on Shopify and knew we needed to catch up. It was an easy decision. Once we migrated, we have yet to look back.
How to Scale Your Shoe Brand
You’ve successfully acquired your first 100 customers and maybe even landed some big wins on social media or influencer partnerships. Now, it’s time to scale – here’s how to do it.
Long-Term Quality Over Short-Term Profit
DTC brands make one of the most common mistakes: sacrificing quality for short-term wins. Sure, you may be able to find cheap shoes on Alibaba or another sourcing platform, but you can’t build a recognizable brand with these low-quality products.
Our most extensive advice to eCommerce founders thinking about doing this: don’t do it! You’ll pay more in the long run, in some way or another. Investing in foot health is an investment in your overall wellness, and people are willing to pay for that kind of investment.
One of our favorite analogies is that of the wheels on your car. If your tire alignment is off, your wheels will wear down faster than if not. The shoes you wear have the same effect on your body. Cheap shoes wear down faster and need to be replaced sooner, so even though you may have to invest less upfront, you’ll need to replace them far more often. Investing in quality footwear is not just a matter of style and comfort; it's a long-term investment in overall health and well-being.
Deliver Exceptional Customer Service
Exceptional customer service has been the cornerstone of our growth, fostering trust and loyalty that translates into repeat business.
Our integrity and commitment to our wholesale customers allowed us to grow grassroots awareness through retail placement so that we could reinvest in broader awareness and marketing campaigns. Without great retailer relationships, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Once we could reach broader audiences and attract new customers both online and at retail, we needed to make sure they kept coming back to be profitable. We pride ourselves on our exceptional repeat customer rate and use it as a testament to our customer service and product satisfaction.
Speaking of retention…We leverage as many triggered automation as possible across email and SMS. Our most successful flow is browse abandonment on both channels, and we lean into abandonment retargeting across all stages of the funnel. In addition, we try to send 2-3 email campaigns per week to our most engaged and targeted audiences. For SMS, we send campaigns less often. Other strategies include direct mail and paid social for audiences we can no longer reach through owned channels.
Often, we see that brands make two common email mistakes. First, they don’t segment their lists – they blast emails to everyone in their audience. The problem is that each person on your list is at a different customer journey stage. Some may be repeat customers, while others may have just signed up – they don’t need the same kind of nurturing.
The second is only sending promotional or sales emails. Especially in the case of shoes, education is so important. When someone signs up for our email list, we send 4-5 educational emails before trying to sell anything.
We’ve talked quite a bit about awareness & education. On top of speaking to actual customers and educating them within the funnel, our attention begins with our SEO strategy. Starting at the top of the funnel, we’ve written tons of blog content around the common foot problems our shoes help treat & manage.
From there, we focused on moving those customers from the “problem-aware” stage to the “solution-aware” phase of the funnel. The blog content is paired with in-content CTAs (thanks to Bloggle) and email pop-ups, which work to convert just another website visitor into a potential customer.
Final Thoughts on Building a Shoe Brand
Building a successful eCommerce shoe brand requires a careful balance of investment, customer acquisition, and a relentless focus on quality and customer satisfaction. Maintain a disciplined approach to the relationship between how much you spend overall and how many new customers you acquire. Know your fixed costs to control your variable expenses and aim to be profitable (or at least break even) on first-time purchases. If your product and service are excellent, customers will keep returning, and eventually, you’ll have a recognizable eCommerce brand.