If the shoe fits, wear it. If it doesn’t, a pair of Alberta entrepreneurs have a solution for you.
Poppy Barley Inc., an Edmonton startup founded by sisters Justine and Kendall Barber in 2012, offers made-to-measure women’s footwear for order online. The company eschews traditional single-measurement “shoe size,” letting customers input up to five different measurements on its website to design perfectly fitted, comfortable footwear to be sent to their door.
After just over a year in operation, Poppy Barley now gets hundreds of orders a month from customers across Canada. The Internet gives the company the luxury of scale: By selling the custom footwear online, it’s been able to reach a much wider audience than a traditional made-to-measure shoemaker locked down in a single city.
By letting customers measure themselves at home, pick a design and order online, Poppy Barley offers a contemporary take on the historical approach to shoe making. Even the company name is steeped in history: Poppy seeds and barleycorn used to be the basis of footwear measurement. Four poppy seeds make one barleycorn, which signified one-third of an inch.
While other companies – including Nike and Adidas in the sneaker realm – have begun to offer custom shoe designs online, made-to-measure fit is a relatively untapped market. (There is demand in niche markets – horseback riders, for example.) The closest business model to Poppy Barley is Vancouver’s Indochino Inc., which sells made-to-measure menswear online – leaving the women’s shoe market for the taking.
“It’s very on-trend,” says Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at Toronto’s J.C. Williams Group, a retail and marketing consultancy. Consumers are increasingly looking for personalized fashion, she says, “to get something that fits and looks good.”
On a trip to Bali in January of 2012, Justine Barber fell in love with a pair of boots she found while shopping, only to find out they weren’t available in her size. The shop’s shoemaker pulled out a measuring tape in response, offering to make her a custom pair to ship back to Canada.
“A few days later, I had the idea of, through an e-commerce model, connecting women from everywhere to the craftsmanship of custom boots,” Justine, 30, says. “I was really encouraged when I got back to Canada and started telling women about it. I realized there’s a lot of enthusiasm behind this idea.”
Kendall, 31, helped Justine workshop the idea for a few months when she returned, and the two eventually decided to start the venture as partners. Since neither were expert shoemakers, they began to study global shoe-making hubs. Justine stumbled upon Leon, a city roughly the size of Montreal in Mexico’s Guanajuato province.
Phone calls and e-mails to manufacturers proved futile, so Justine and Kendall called Mexico’s Canadian Embassy, which connected them with a translator, and the pair flew to Leon.
They didn’t get much of a reaction from the factories they visited. “The standard answer was, ‘You don’t make boots that way any more. Everything’s done on assembly line’,” Kendall says.
With no customers, no products and no designs, their pitch continued to be ignored. But then on one of the Barbers’ last days in Mexico, their translator received a text from her 14-year-old daughter saying that the mother of a classmate could make boots for Poppy Barley.
They went to meet the mother, Lupeta Lyons, who had been making custom men’s dress shoes for more than a decade. She agreed to make samples in her small factory for Poppy Barley. “I think Lupeta saw us as two young women who were much like where she had been 10 years ago, when she started,” Kendall says.
The co-founders set up a headquarters at Startup Edmonton, a loft space in the city’s historic Mercer Warehouse. The company quietly launched in November of 2012, and saw about 100 clients in the first three months, mostly from Alberta.
Sales slowly grew as they modified boot designs for better fit and tested the capacity of Ms. Lyons’s factory, and jumped this past August as demand shot up for boots for the coming winter. Today, the sisters say, the company handles about 200 orders a month, 80 per cent of which are from Canada. The public has also helped fund the company’s growth, raising nearly $29,000 last summer through local crowdfunding platform Alberta BoostR to help it launch a heeled boots collection.
Eight people now work in Poppy Barley’s Edmonton office. Fifteen people are employed making shoes at Ms. Lyons’s studio, though it does work for other companies as well.
Poppy Barley tries to be as transparent as possible with its manufacturing, describing the working conditions and average salary of its studio employees on its website ($1,440 (U.S.) per month, higher than Mexico’s median income and about 10 times minimum wage).
Made-to-measure digital retail is still uncharted territory, says Ms. Atkinson, the consultant; even Indochino hasn’t proven the model will work in the long term. But there is evidence of a market, she says, as customers increasingly seek “to have a measure of control” when it comes to their apparel.
“The potential in this market is huge,” says Kyle Murray, marketing professor and director of the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing. He predicts the market will see slow but steady growth over the next decade. “It’s going to be difficult for any one company to get a big head start ... so the focus has to be on developing a loyal customer base.” That will largely come from word-of-mouth testimony, he says.
“I think our advantage is that it’s really hard to execute,” Kendall says. “It’s a simple idea, but to find a manufacturer who can do it, plus to make it work as a business model, and then to develop the brand – it’s a pretty new concept amongst North Americans.”
(Correction: An earlier version of the caption accompanying the photo above mis-identified the two sisters and founders of the company. Kendall Barber is at left, and Justine Barber is on the right.)