Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Google Play | Spotify

According to NPD, sales of high heels were down more than 70% in 2020. But Sarah Flint was an exception to the rule. 

“Heels that are pumps were still our top-selling category,” said Sarah Flint, founder and creative director of her namesake brand, on the latest Glossy Podcast. “There is not a real explanation for that, other than maybe women buy with their hearts more than their heads sometimes.”

Even so, the brand rounded out its products in 2020 with more pandemic-friendly categories, including silk scarves, stationary and house shoes. In March, it also grew its executive team, with the appointment of Mary Beech, formerly CMO of Kate Spade. 

“As we scaled, while I was great with the big ideas and being scrappy, there were really a lot of processes that needed to be put into place — not my strong suit,” Flint said, of the hire.

As for Beech, “I was looking for a brand that was responding to all the changes in consumer behavior that I was seeing,” she said. “Honestly, I thought that meant leaving fashion. And then I met Sarah, who looks at where the hockey puck is going. She definitely is always questioning the status quo… I’ve been at some of the best lifestyle brands out there, and I saw that Sarah has what it takes to be the next great American lifestyle brand. So I thought, ‘I have to be there, small or not.'”

Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

The power of first-party data
Flint: “I did just over 100 phone calls in 2020 with customers. I had my CS team [compile] a mix of top customers, people who maybe had one or two purchases that we wanted to get to that next level, and then some lapsed customers to really understand: Why haven’t they been back in a little while? And I just learned a ton that way. Something that surprised me and got me really, really excited was that we were acquiring a lot of first-time luxury customers. I always knew that we had this customer that was buying Manolo and Hermès, and had discovered Sarah Flint and this incredible value and quality and comfort. But I think I hadn’t realized that we were starting to get this customer who was purchasing into a brand or a product like this for the first time — and they’re incredibly impressed and amazed by everything from the packaging to the padding on the insole. And that has become a really interesting opportunity, because that’s a very, very sticky customer.”

Physical retail done right
Flint: “[Our] pop-up [in 2019] was the highlight of my life! But really, it just addressed all of the issues that I had ever had with in-person retail. And Mary and I are constantly talking about: How do we redefine what it means to be a luxury brand? And so many of the things that I had felt were challenging when you went into a luxury boutique were the, sort of, coldness and stiffness — and the fact that there was usually a guy at the front door with a suit, and you felt like, ‘Oh, gosh, if I touch anything, he’s gonna think I’m stealing,’ or something like that. And so, when it came to building out that pop-up, I really wanted to create an environment where people just wanted to come in and stay, and didn’t feel pressure in any way. So it was set up like my living room, and you were offered tea and cookies upon arrival. And we partnered with Maman, who makes the best chocolate chip cookies. And we worked with all female founders, who helped us outfit the pop-up shop, so Oomph for furniture, and we worked with Royal Copenhagen for the China. And we had amazing events. But we also had two fit walls. You could basically just grab something off the wall and try it on; you didn’t have to ask a sales associate… Our whole thing was: Grab something, try it on, we’ll get you as many things as you want, and we can go downstairs and get more stuff for you. Plus, we’ll write down all of your sizes and what you’ve tried on, and we’re going to email that to you with a code, so you can purchase it online and so that we can [attribute] that conversion to the pop-up. And we found that so many more people were buying, just because they were trying the shoes on… As for future retail, we’re being very cautious about it right now. But I think there will be lots of opportunities in the future.”

2020 takeaways
Beech: “When we get on the other side of this, we’re going to look back and say that it was the year we built the foundation to really scale. I’m not thankful for 2020 in any way, but — I always say to Sarah that we were trying to build a skyscraper on a foundation the size of a penny. And we’ve now built the proper-size foundation. We have the processes in place, we have the systems in place, we have the people in place, and we were able to have a momentary pause and be able to to ensure that we had the right foundation. For us, from a financial perspective, we’re incredibly proud of where we ended the year. We did a lot of things incredibly quickly that would have taken other companies much longer. To be able to shore up our business prospects, we really solidified who we are as a brand, so that we could grow in an amazing way in the future. And we were able to do that without having to resort to promotions. We did the same number of promotions in 2020 as we had in 2019. We only go on sale twice a year, and we only went on sale twice a year. And we’re really proud of that. That will help us in the future, very, very much.”