Four years ago, 25-year-old Sarah Flint launched her namesake luxury shoe brand out of her NYC apartment, with a round of funding from friends and family.
She immediately went the wholesale route, filling orders for her Italian-made styles for popular retailers including Barneys, Bloomingdale’s and Shopbop. From the time of launch, brand sales remained on the upswing, fueled in part by regular sightings on celebrity fans including Amal Clooney and Meghan Markle.
But Flint found herself wanting to reach a broader audience. “My friends couldn’t afford to wear my shoes,” she said.
In March, she hired Veronica Collins, a former Shopbop/Amazon exec, as president and COO. The two decided to transition the company to the direct-to-consumer model, aided by an investment by supermodel Cindy Crawford. The brand’s new business model went into effect on November 7. Flint’s styles are now sold for $200-$650, or 50 percent less than their former price.
Flint and Collins recapped what went into transitioning the brand from reliance on department stores to complete independence.
What catapulted the move to the direct-to consumer model?
Collins: When I first started at the company, I wanted to see how we could grow our e-commerce business. We knew it would be more effectively optimized at a lower price point and decided we could get there in one of two ways: by changing our product and our quality or by changing our business model. Considering Sarah’s passion for the quality of the product, and my experience in digital marketing and optimization, this really seemed like the natural path for us moving forward.
What were the pros and cons of working with wholesale partners?
Flint: You get visibility, plus there’s a certain amount of validation when you sell at prestigious stores like Barneys and Bloomingdale’s. The biggest con, besides the higher price of your product, is the lack of customer data you see. The department store shopper is definitely a different shopper, and not being able to speak to them directly or understand their reasoning behind things like returns and repeat purchases is difficult.
Collins: [Department stores] could tell us what people were buying, but not who the customer was. The whole benefit of being a retailer is that you own that relationship. Coming from Amazon, we would never share customer information. As a retailer, that’s your bread-and butter; that’s what drives the engine of your business. Our stores have decades of experience cultivating a really impressive customer base, but that’s not something you absorb as a brand.
What’s been hardest about the transition to direct-to-consumer?
Collins: When we decided to refocus the business, we had just gone to market week for resort 2018. Orders were up year over year; we had a growing wholesale business. That, in itself, made it challenging.
Flint: And then figuring out when to drop prices was confusing. We made sure to do it in a way that’s wasn’t working against our retailers. In a perfect world, it would have taken maybe three to six months to transition. We took a bit longer.
What was the first step?
Collins: We took control of all of our marketing channels. With the wholesale model, department stores manage a large portion of your marketing, and you pay for that in margins. You become a part of their vision. We now get to own 100 percent of our brand message, which is exciting and freeing, and intimidating. We’re using the opportunity to talk about what is materially better about our product and tell amazing stories about our product — and we’re doing all of the digital marketing on Google, trying to get the word out as quickly as we can.
How has your day-to-day changed?
Flint: Because we own everything, it really feels like we’re in control of our own destiny. We still have seasonal collections, but we have more regular drops of product, too: new styles and new color ways. We’re able to do more see-now-buy-now. When you’re producing for wholesale, you show the shoes to buyers six months before they hit stores, so you’re designing six months before that. And you’re making different styles for each store, which is very challenging for the factories.
Collins: And now that we’re digitally native, we’re able to capture so much information about people’s purchasing habits: We’re able to understand what path they took to get to the website, how many products they looked at, how many visits they had before they first converted. We can also understand what’s attracting people to the site and where they’re coming from. We look at the types of products people buy first and their the second purchase, and we’re understanding how people are experiencing the brand as they get to know the product better. The really invaluable part is really digging into customer feedback, and understanding what’s behind fit and returns. We’re compiling as much data as possible.
How have your customers responded?
Flint: The response has been positive across the board. Our longtime customers are totally ecstatic; they can afford to buy more shoes.
At this point, what are Sarah Flint’s biggest differentiators?
Collins: We’re a true luxury company — our shoes were sold alongside Manolo [Blahnik] and Jimmy Choo on the floor — and that’s one of the last categories in fashion to embrace a pure DTC model. We’re really excited to help pave the road for that movement. Also, we’re offering product that’s not available on Amazon.
Flint: We are a designer-led brand, with one designer and an inspiration behind every collection, which is rare in this space. I really believe that the luxury brands of the future are going to be built online and DTC, and we are really focused on being the next great American luxury brand.
Is the next step brick-and-mortar?
Flint: Brick-and-mortar is definitely something we want and see in our future, starting with pop-up shops. We’ve done lots of mini pop-ups, but none with a longer-term lease, and we eventually want our own retail stores.
From the time I started my business, I had what I called the Sarah Flint Salon Series, a chain of VIP shopping events in top customers’ homes. I got direct feedback and an actual conversation with the customer, and I was able make lifelong customers that way. At a department store, you can try to meet the customers and tell them the story, but that only goes so far. You can do more when you set the stage.
Looking back, do you wish you had launched as a DTC brand?
Flint: The market was in a very different place when I launched the company. I just saw one of my best customers — she is in her 60s and always dressed to the nines. She was wearing Cucinelli pants, a Chanel handbag and an Everlane button-down. Five years ago, she wouldn’t have been ready to shop at Everlane.