Service is the Soul of SimplySoles

How do you boost customer loyalty? For shoes merchant SimplySoles, the key is making the shopping experience as intimate as possible, says owner/founder Kassie Rempel.

SimplySoles aims to personalize each customer’s experience, Rempel says. Her staff is available via live chat, phone, Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail. They offer recommendations upon request on product pairings, styling and sizing.

“The online experience is intimate and personal in that I post comments on the products we sell, with a simple explanation of why that product was selected for our collection,” she notes. The new “Kassie’s Closet” section of the site shows how items from SimplySoles can be styled with clothing and accessories from third-party Websites.

Using some of the newer social media access points such as Twitter and Facebook have enhanced her business, Rempel says. For instance, “Facebook has been a great venue for us to vet ideas we’re working on–like new shoe styles and/or the interest of upcoming fashion trends,” she says. “We’re still experimenting with it, but we’re starting to generate the customer conversations that I think add real value to the business.”

SimplyShoes does not push product with Facebook, however: “We have discussions,” Rempel says. While she realizes other companies have had success with pushing sales via social media, “we think that’s more of an indirect result of the relationship vs. anything we explicitly encourage.”

As for Twitter, “I’m going through a transition trying to make our Twitter feeds more interesting–to our customers and/or our industry,” Rempel says. “We’ve offered footwear advice which was extensively retweeted.”

In addition to service, product development is an important part of the business. Rempel visited a small factory in Brazil and marveled at the quality craftsmanship and the factory’s unusual and refreshing attention to detail. This inspired her to create the exclusive Lillybee line, which SimplySoles launched last year.

Catalog roots

Frustrated by the poor selection of shoes offered for sale online and in fashion catalogs, Rempel founded SimplySoles with “some shoes, a tape gun and a 1-800-number in my dining room in September 2004.” The business eventually took over her basement, and later moved into its headquarters in Washington. Company sales hit $2 million last year.

Although it seems more focused on the Web these days, “We started as a catalog business and still mail about eight catalogs per year,” Rempel says. “We have scaled back our catalog prospecting, but our catalog customers are exceptionally loyal.”

Rempel says her annual catalog circulation is currently in flux. “I haven’t actually decided what it’s going to be for 2009, as we are still evaluating results from earlier drops this year.” Last year the company mailed 750,000 books. Rempel estimates it will be a third of that this year–maybe 200,000–due to the economy.

SimplySoles also cut down the size of the catalog due to postage. The catalogs last year were 36 pages and printed on 8″ x 10-1/2″ paper; this year, the books are 24 pages printed on 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ paper. But the company has no plans to do away with catalogs in favor of the Web: “Our catalog customers firmly expect, look forward to and extensively shop from our catalogs,” Rempel says.

About 80% of SimplySoles’ repeat business is because of their experience with the brand, Rempel says. The merchant offers free shipping on orders of $75 or more, free exchanges and free returns. And loyal shoppers receive shoes “on loan” to try on before purchasing.

One of the merchant’s personal touches is including a handwritten thank-you note with each order. This was Rempel’s idea: “Customers shopping for upscale products are accustomed to receiving personal attention. Knowing the value of repeat customers, I wanted to try to build a relationship with these women we’ve never met.”

What’s more, she says, “I love the juxtaposition of them using technology to shop, only to receive a hand-written thank-you note with their order.”

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