GEORGINA SAFE May 31, 2012
A Nine West shoe available on StyleTread.
Two-year-old online store StyleTread is winning footwear fans with its innovative approach to service, writes Georgina Safe.
On a rainy day in Sydney last week, Mark Rowland hosted a lunch at Chiswick restaurant in Woollahra to launch his online shoe company's new three-hour delivery service.
But as guests dined on roast lamb with mint pesto, asparagus and baby beetroot Rowland was more eager to discuss a certain takeaway pizza than the new autumn menu of Chiswick chef Matt Moran.
''We tested the new service with a friend of mine who bought a pair of shoes and ordered a pizza and the shoes turned up first,'' Rowland says proudly. ''The shoes turned up in an hour and 10 minutes and the pizza wasn't long after that, but it was after.''
The ''three free'' service is the latest initiative contributing to StyleTread's strong success since it launched in Australia in November 2010.
Founded as a simple online shoe shop, sweeteners such as 365-day returns and free next-day delivery have helped the business grow to stock more than 170 brands and more than 70,000 pairs of shoes. The website now boasts about 1 million visits a month and has grown 30 per cent month-on-month in the past year, based on combined visits and sales numbers.
About 500 to 600 orders are taken each day and the number can double during peak times such as Christmas and the spring racing season.
Given the pace of the business and its reliance on the racing market, perhaps it is no surprise that StyleTread recently sponsored the StyleTread Handicap at Royal Randwick on Melbourne Cup day in November last year.
But what is surprising is the rationale behind such a move.
''To be honest, we have a culture where anyone can suggest anything,'' Rowland says. ''We kind of figured that it was not necessarily the traditional route for an online company to sponsor [a horse race] but one of the guys in our logistics team is really into racing and because he was so passionate and went out of his way to make connections and do an internal pitch, we thought we should give it a go.''
If you're imagining racegoers in Louboutins and Jimmy Choos purchased on StyleTread, think again. The company is not a high fashion e-tailer; the average shopping cart is priced from $50-$250 and comprises middle market, rather than luxury designer brands (although StyleTread buyer Shane Carroll has recently introduced some pricier labels). But nor is it your average fashion e-tailer, due to unusual underpinning principles inspired by Zappos, America's largest online shoe store, which was sold to Amazon in a deal worth more than $US1 billion that was announced in 2009.
''Zappos is a company that is publicly saying they put the employee first and the customer second, but at the same time it is hugely successful operationally and financially,'' Rowland says.
''I wanted to emulate that so I reached out to [Zappos chief executive] Tony Hsieh and said, 'I want to let you know you and your company are amazing and I'd like to emulate that'.''
Hsieh was perhaps flattered, intrigued or both, because he invited StyleTread co-founders Rowland and Bjorn Behrendt to the US to meet him at the Zappos warehouse in Kentucky, then to tour the company's operations in Los Angeles.
Rowland, the former chief executive of Wagamama, and Behrendt, an e-commerce industry expert, then returned to Sydney to found StyleTread inspired by the unique workplace culture at Zappos.
Celebrating mistakes during weekly meetings, allowing employees to choose their own job titles and a ''house'' system similar to that of schools are among the initiatives that are part of the StyleTread workplace.
''Someone will stand up in front of the whole company and say, 'I stuffed up','' Rowland says of the mistakes meetings.
''The bigger the mistake the better cheer they get because celebrating mistakes is vital for anyone's culture. If you feel you're going to be chastised if you make one you are probably less likely to have an idea.''
Ideas for job titles have included supreme empress of the blogosphere (the woman who writes the StyleTread blog) and chief imperilment officer (a team leader in the warehouse), while Rowland himself goes under the moniker chief happiness officer.
The house system arose from Rowland's own fond memories of the school house system.
''Did you go to school and have houses?'' he asks me.
''I've asked people that so often and they can always remember it so it's something they must have enjoyed. We had this institution inside schools that was deliberately set up to encourage integration and generate camaraderie across the years and the kids, so why do we do this at school then leave and you don't keep doing it?''
At StyleTread, they do.
''Each house has a colour, a dance move, a secret handshake and a name and it's evolved from there,'' Rowland says.
''We have a quarterly house cup with a huge trophy for space invaders, air hockey and the like and what it's led to is any employee can walk into any level of the company and they feel comfortable because they know people in there from their house.''
The egalitarian focus extends beyond the company's bricks and mortar walls to its online customers, by valuing those in remote areas with less money to spend as much as affluent inner city shoppers.
''We feel very strongly about the regional customer who doesn't usually get access to these sorts of things,'' Rowland says.
As well as offering delivery anywhere in Australia within two days, a collaboration earlier this month during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia allowed regional customers to order shoes direct from the runway in Sydney and be wearing them 48 hours later.
Designed by Kolt Fashion's Selina Kolthek in a partnership with labels An Ode to No One and Blessed Are The Meek, the shoes were dispatched after customers watched live streams of their fashion shows and then clicked to buy.
''You could be sitting in Broken Hill at your computer and looking at a fashion show in Sydney you'd never normally have seen, and then you can have those shoes tomorrow,'' Rowland says. ''When you have technology linked to great product and service it all comes together.''