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Online shoe clubs are in step with fashion-forward women

Much like services that offer fruit or wines of the month, shoe clubs regularly mail a new pair of shoes to members. Some have millions of subscribers.

December 29, 2011|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Joyce Moore of Palmdale, with daughter Madison, 4, and son Chase, 2, estimates she has bought 80 pairs of shoes through online shoe clubs in the last three years.
Joyce Moore of Palmdale, with daughter Madison, 4, and son Chase, 2, estimates… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Once a month, you can automatically receive in the mail a bottle of wine, a box of organic fruit and now, a pair of sequined stilettos.

In a cyber twist to the traditional monthly sales clubs, shoe membership websites have become a hit among fashion-forward women, who say they bring together the convenience and affordability of shopping online with the personalized experience offered in a boutique.

"This is fashion of the future," said celebrity fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons, who recently signed on as president, creative director and an investor of JustFabulous Inc., an El Segundo membership club. "It speaks to the modern-day woman's budget and lifestyle."

Members register on sites such as Inc. or JustFabulous for free and take a fashion personality quiz — What outfit are you most likely to wear on a first date? Which celebrity's closet would you most like to raid? — to determine their unique style preferences.

On the first of each month, members log in to their accounts to view a limited, customized showroom of shoes: five-inch gold platform heels for the Hollywood clubgoer, conservative flats for the girl next door, studded leather boots for the rocker chick. The shoes are designed in-house, often by a team of high-profile celebrities and stylists, and customers receive the pair of their choice starting at $39.95, including shipping. Members can skip a month if they don't feel like receiving a new pair of shoes, provided they opt out (usually by the fifth of the month).

The member-only programs have quickly attracted hordes of loyal shoppers. The sites, subscribers say, are easy to use, are customer-friendly when it comes to returns and exchanges, and usually do a good job identifying what styles they like.

"It's very addicting. I have a heel collection now; before, I probably had maybe like one or two pairs that lasted me years," said Yucaipa resident Amber Venturina, 26, who joined ShoeDazzle in June and also became a member of JustFabulous. Now "I have to have shoes in every color."

Shoe club officials say the websites make the process of buying shoes less overwhelming while bringing the elite service of a personal shopper to the masses.

"Not everyone has access to a stylist, but we can be a stylist through that technology and hopefully recommend the right products," said Josh Berman, chief executive of BeachMint Inc., which operates newly launched shoe club ShoeMint. "Rather than going to an Amazon or Google and typing 'shoes' and having thousands of things to choose from, what we're learning is consumers like to be curated and shown what is hot."

But as fashion memberships surge in popularity, they're adding to the increasing pressures on bricks-and-mortar merchants. Because shoe clubs sell directly to customers and don't operate physical stores, they're able to save on overhead costs such as staffing and rent, enabling the brands to price the shoes for about half of what they would cost at the mall, company officials estimated.

"We are in the midst of a reinvention of retail," said Kasey Lobaugh, a principal at Deloitte Consulting who follows online shopping trends. "Retailers are being forced to innovate the business model. If they don't, there is now a long list of nontraditional competitors who will."

Another problem for old-school retailers: Many members are flocking to the shoe clubs' Facebook pages and other social media sites to ask other shoppers for help choosing a style or pairing their latest purchase with the right outfit. That high level of interaction is creating tight-knit Web communities of shoe aficionados and replicating the in-store experience of shopping with a group of girlfriends, historically something that couldn't be found online.

"I've made a lot of good friends from the shoe clubs. We keep in touch in real life: We email, we text, we call," said Joyce Moore, 33, a Palmdale stay-at-home mom who has bought dozens of shoes through the membership programs. "We understand our love of shoes, that it's not weird to have so many shoes, and you can never get enough."

The clubs have more in common than monthly delivery of cute shoes: Four of the companies — ShoeDazzle, JustFabulous, Sole Society Inc. and ShoeMint — are headquartered in Los Angeles County, part of a growing crop of e-commerce fashion brands that is helping to raise the profile of the region's fledgling start-up scene. Many are garnering big sales and investment dollars and have their sights set on adding more product categories and expanding internationally.

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