The need for shoes arose when primitive man rose from all fours to walk upright on two legs. This new way of ambulation came with consequences. He found himself stepping on jagged rocks and other rough turf that hurt his feet. Realizing he needed to protect his feet, he created soles from animal hides and then attached grasses, hides or bark to protect the upper foot and hold the crude shoe to the foot itself. So if the early shoe evolved out of protection for the feet, it would make sense that comfort came next. Sensible men ignored high-fashion couture when it came to their feet. But chic, crazy-fashion-fad women embraced the high heel with its pointed toe and six-inch heel. High-heeled frenzy continues, everstrong to this day. So many women today suffer from serious foot-pain problems and deformities. These three shoe sites are right on target to address this issue.
Gravity Defyer Shoes comes on somewhat strong and intimidating with technical, newly-created, trademarked words which can be both distracting and annoying to a casual shopper browsing for comfortable shoes. FootSmart uses a more subtle approach to make its way into one's heart and home, but the antiquated catalog-advertising technique belongs in catalogs and not in cyberspace. FootSmart offers a well-thought-out marketing concept to a buyer, but it needs some savvy technology in displaying the item on the webpage to make it more interesting. Coward Shoes needs to study James Coward's original philosophy and his entrepreneurial rags-to-riches story. It should overhaul its inventory by getting rid of the crayon-colored, vinyl shoes. This will gain respect and devote more attention to its current, high-quality lines. Although FootSmart's home page captivates the casual shoe shopper, better display technology is needed on its other pages to make a shopper thoroughly enjoy the experience of buying a new pair of comfortable shoes via cyberspace.
The brainchild behind Gravity Defyer Shoes is Alex Elnekaveh, an Israeli gadget wizard. Originally an army medic, Elnekaveh studied mechanical and robotic engineering. Gravity Defyer markets to shoe-shoppers via catalog, internet, retail shoe stores. Built into these wonder-shoes are four of Elnekaveh's own patented technologies: 1) the trampoline heel (harnesses gravity by capturing energy momentarily and then releasing it when the heel comes down to meet the pavement), 2) smart memory-master spring, 3) twin stabilizers, 4) ethylene-vinyl-acetate (EVA) mid-sole (creates a natural rocking bed when a foot meets the surface).
Elnekaveh's flagship company, GadgetUniverse.com, uses direct marketing to sell his high-tech, comfy shoes. Podiatrist and Orthopedic Professor Anthony Cresci (Medical College of Georgia) noted that 75 percent of Americans have foot problems and they spend $200 million/year searching for remedies. Realizing the foot's desperate need for cushioning and overall support as it impacts with a hard surface, Elnekaveh put to work an old adage, "Build it and they will come." And, yes, they did come--they came hobbling with achilles tendonitis, bunions, foot-and-ankle pain, hammertoes, heel pain and spurs, flat feet, plantar fascitis. And when they arrived at Gravity Defyer's Promised Land of No More Foot Pain, for some, Elnekaveh's wonder-shoe was like manna from heaven.
Elnekaveh's premise for inventing the spring-loaded shoe was simple: [Man] evolved to walk on sand, soft earth, grass. This reasoning led him to invent a painless, comfortable shoe that would absorb shock and minimize joint and muscle pain. He constructed the shoe to propel forward by building a spring-loaded sole (gizmo that absorbs shock) to alleviate pain in the feet, legs and back. When he was satisfied with his pedi-invention and all patents were secured, he launched his pedi-creation through SkyMall, an airline magazine. SkyMall proved to be a genius way to market the shoe.
Impressed by Elnekvah's wizardry, I decided to test the shoes myself. Spring-loaded shoes are not a new marketing concept. During the 70s, Harvard Biology & Applied Mechanics Professor Tom McMahon helped invent a new indoor running track which sandwiched calibrated layers of plywood and polyurethane to create a cushioned, springy running track surface. Nike hired him to see if this technology could be put into an athletic shoe. I figured that the secret in Gravity Defyer Shoes must lie within the materials and construction of the special springs encased within the sole. A quick cyberspace search only told me that the springs were "specially formulated," and the hidden shock absorber under the heel was a 1/8-inch "secret formulation" rubber heel extender. Whatever. I didn't really expect Elnekvah to reveal his painstaking secret discoveries on the internet. I then questioned if these super-shoes could really justify Elnekvah's claim that they can actually defy the natural force of gravity. (Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "defy" as "to challenge to do something considered impossible.) The answer is no; rather, the springiness in the shoe's sole makes one feel like one is defying gravity. During the Letterman show, Comedian Howie Mandel did his rendition of testing the gravity-defying claim in this shoe. He put on both shoes and suddenly started falling backward as his legs began to raise into the air. Of course, this was hilarious and all in good fun, not to mention great advertising for the shoe itself. Besides the internet, catalog, and retail stores, Gravity Defyers enter the public forum via the infomercial and assorted consumer-science magazines (Kiplinger's, Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, Road & Track).
Cyberspace reviews were mixed: A big offender is Gravity Defyer's customer service: Buyers who canceled orders still received two and three pairs of shoes and were charged for them. The problem often took months to fix, and some customers even gave up and preferred to eat the costs. The company was also accused of padding customer reviews with positive comments. Sour-grape customers questioned the honesty of the company's ad claims. At crunchgear.com, disgruntled wearers detailed their own personal negative experience with the shoe:
Although Gravity Defyer is headquartered in Los Angeles, manufacturing and customer service are outsourced. Shoes are made in Chinese factories, and customer service is based in Pakistan or India. Gravity Defyer has received some bad press. An image of a large shoe getting a needle fix was criticized because some saw this image as promoting drug use. Elnekaveh admits to having masterminded the creation of the sperm shoe logo. He calls it the "seed of life" logo which represents birth and vitality. QVC and Seventh Avenue refused to endorse the shoe because both felt the sperm logo was a controversial sexual image. Besides Gravity Defyer Shoes and Gadget Universe, Elnekaveh owns Aroa Marketing, Strong Ideas, God Hope Realty & Investment Group. I admit the shoes are somewhat fashionable and appealing with the fascinating spring gizmo built into the heel; the shoes are priced just about right for those with problem footsies. Women's shoes run $100-$160, men's sell for $100-$260, and shipping costs $15/pair. Retail stores carrying these shoes are located in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, New York, Virginia.
FootSmart's creator, Alan Beychok, is both a mechanical engineer and a brand-marketing/product-development guru. He marketed new products for Dr. Scholl's and over-the-counter drugs for Schering-Plough. When Alan was 11, his father gave him some little-grasshopper pearls of wisdom: "Own your own business and chart your own destiny," he advised young Alan. Years later, Beychok launched FootSmart to a sagging, sour economy; he pioneered the category of lower-body health. His founding philosophy is simple: "A great feeling body starts with comfortable and healthy feet." Beychok worked hard to pinpoint and define a strong customer base: His target demographics were >45-year-old, affluent ($60,000 to >$100,000/yearly income) adults. He transformed those three words (lower body health) into an integrated merchandising concept.
Beychok owns Benchmark Brands, the parent company to FootSmart. In 1989, he opened Benchmark Brands as a direct-to-consumer retailer and as a median for product development. Using both catalog and internet to reach baby boomers and seniors alike, he pitched a healthier lifestyle and orthotics because he realized that comfort was the key to attracting customers. FootSmart calls itself the "foot comfort expert"--it offers over 100 brands of footwear besides selling its own FootSmart brand. The business carries over 2,500 products. Like GravityDefyer, shoes are selected for market if they are comfortable, but unlike GravityDefyer, FootSmart carries a variety of brands (Merrell, Propet, Hush Puppies, Orthaheel, Crocs, New Balance, Softaspots, Fitflop, Easy Spirit, Clarks, Trotters, Teva). Besides shoes, the company offers foot care products to help foot pain, heel pain and arch pain; its inventory includes comfort shoes, walking shoes, sandals, foot orthotics, and bunion and heel-pain remedies. Unlike Elnekaveh's quirky marketing, Beychok prefers subtle, subliminal marketing tactics.
FootSmart shoes come in many styles: Scuffs, slip-ons, clogs, loafers, open-toe wedges, flats, sneakers, oxfords, thongs, mules, ballerinas, espadrilles, slingbacks, mary janes, sandals, slippers, slides, mocs, pumps, crocs, booties, chukka boots, flip-flops, boots. Men's shoes come in dress, sporty or casual styles and include wide width, walking, multi-sport, training, oxfords, slip-ons, slides, clogs, boots, sandals, loafers, fisherman, running, hiking. FootSmart sells hard-to-find shoe devices like a long shoehorn, NonyX (nail gel), toe caps, toe separators, orthotics. Keeping in-line with the company's philosophy of lower-body health, FootSmart also sells socks, foot-health aids, lower-body health aids, intimates and apparel. Navigating the site is super-easy and customer-friendly; categories include: New Arrivals, Shop by Brand, Shop by Condition, Best Sellers, Top-Rated Shoes, Sales, Clearance.
Beychok reasons, If you "serve them [customers] an ad [via e-mail], that may entice them back to our site." His marketing wisdom seems to be working because annual sales have reached $80 million. He markets each shoe with a picture of the shoe and lists the brand, description and price. Customer testimonials as well as a customer rating scale are given for each shoe. Rating categories include arch support, comfort, width, true-to-size. An extra treat awaits budget shoppers--spending $59 or more entitles a customer to free shipping.
Beychok continues to update the site. In 2010, he added new site search technology which provided customers with faster ways to shop. Also, he is working on more personalization for the shopper; i.e., individual shopping suggestions based on the customer's past history with FootSmart purchases. This site could profit from some animation or a slideshow on this site and ridding itself of the antiquated ad presentation of showing the image-the brand name-the description-the price. Sears milked this technique in its early catalogs and this type of ad appeal is somewhat boring for the sophistication of cyberspace marketing and selling.
To understand Coward Shoes' philosophy, one must step back in time to the late 1800s. James Smith Coward was only 19 when he opened his first cobbler shop in Downtown Brooklyn. The young entrepreneur's limited capital caused Coward to live above the store. The store would open at 6 a.m. each morning and close at 10 p.m. each night. Coward made custom shoes by hand. His product evolved into the "Coward shoe," which conformed to the foot's natural shape and surrounded the foot with enough room so the foot would not be crowded into unnatural, deformed shapes: Thus, the Coward philosophy was born. The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1898) reported that Coward's trademark (The Coward Good-Sense Shoe) sprang from his hard work at making a quality foot product; he often burned the midnight oils until 2 a.m. taking inventory and re-stocking the shop. Coward had a unique way of advertising to bring in business. Coward said, "I would go out late at night and early in the morning with a pail of paste and cover the entire lower districts with posters which read: 'Get your footwear at Coward's.'"
Fast-forward to today's Coward Shoes. Coward Shoes is owned by Arizona Mail Order in Phoenix. Arizona Mail Order is a direct-mail woman's clothing and footwear retailer. Its sister website is oldpueblotraders.com. Steve Lightman, President and CEO, is the mastermind behind the business which began in 1982. Lightman became president when Fingerhut bought the business in 1998. In late 2002, Federated Department Stores sold Arizona Mail Order catalogs to JP Morgan Partners; it was renamed Crosstown Traders. Crosstown Traders, a downmarket apparel merchant, began selling low-end clothes to older women. Forrester Research advised Lightman that multi-channel customers are two-to-four times more productive than single-channel customers so Lightman continued to use the multi-channel, direct-to-consumer approach. Lightman saw that this approach attracted both plus-size and extended-size customers along with product loyalty.
Coward Shoes has undergone lots of revolving-door management within the last 30 years. If this continues, it could possibly weaken the company's foundation--a base which James Coward nurtured and worked so hard to build. An analysis of Coward Shoe styles shows top-brand, good-quality shoes mixed with outdated, cheaper styles. The first page offers an attractive slide presentation to spark interest for easily-distracted shoppers. Navigating is easy for the shopper; categories are New Arrivals, Shop by Brand, Casuals, Athletic, Sandals, Dress, Boots, Slippers, Accessories, Clearance. Shoes range from narrow (N) to quad-wide (WWWW). Shoe brands include Naturalizer, Easy Street, Clarks, Hush Puppies, Propet, Andiamo, Grasshoppers, Easy Spirit, Green Ease, Heavenly Comfort, Trotters, Skechers, Earth, New Balance. The price range of a pair of Coward Shoes is from $20 to $100.
The site needs a facelift: A shopper would like to see sharper headlines and more creative images to create a unique ambience for the webpage. Website ad-hype promises "updated styles and tried-and-true classics." Lightman, a savvy marketer and businessman, should revamp a major part of the shoe line because there are too many outdated, vinyl shoes which not only cheapens the site but also the overall product. The better shoe brands become lost in the rainbow world of plastic pastels. True to its philosophy, Coward Shoes offers decent prices and good-quality, brand-name shoes, but a good, solid product should never be mixed in with a lesser product.
Gravity Defyer Shoes has a wonderful product; there's no need to pitch the product like a snake-oil salesman. Let the doctor-and-patient testimonials, scientific diagrams, and descriptions handle the marketing and selling of the shoe. Gravity Defyer should concentrate on its solid base of loyal customers who are overjoyed with the spring-loaded shoes and shout out over the airwaves about the wonders of these shoes: Keep this segment strong and keep them happy with hassle-free, friendlier customer service. However, the quirky sperm logo (check out the "g" and "d" in "gravity defyer at the top of the hyperlinked page) and image of a needle shooting up a shoe will drive away conservative shoppers in a flash. Clean up the misspellings, downplay the invention-trademarked words and start firing the customer service people who don't deliver the promises made to customers.
FootSmart should realize that it cannot continue to copy its webpage from the limited boundaries of catalog advertising design. CEO Beychok has spent lots of $ defining his customer demographics; he should focus on improving the visuals in the site by incorporating animation, slideshows, and interesting displays.
Coward Shoes should not take the coward's way out when it comes to dumping old, outdated inventory. Sell it off to a lower-tier retailer, donate to charities, do whatever one must to ditch old styles. Even if customers still buy these styles, fresh, new merchandise will always outshine older styles. Webpage space is precious. These out-dated styles will hurt the business in the long run for failing to keep up with fresh, new inventory from other competitive online comfort-shoe shops.
My favorite comfort-shoe site was FootSmart. I gave Gravity Defyer Shoes a last-place rating because I do not like the strong sales approach and all the gimmicks. Rather, I prefer to discover a wonderful product on my own. If Coward Shoes could clean up its product line, it could be up front with FootSmart. I really liked the origin of Coward Shoes--an entire page should be dedicated to telling the James Coward story--particularly how he used old-fashioned American values to build his cobbler business from the bottom up. This story speaks for itself and holds lots of subtle, wonderful messages for the shopper to discover on his own as he browses the cyberstore.