LONDON, United Kingdom — The London outpost of Finnish upstart The Left Shoe Company is located in a jewel-sized store in Princes Arcade, a covered shopping arcade that runs between Piccadilly and Jermyn Street in one of the British capital’s smartest shopping districts, known for its men's shoe and shirtmakers.
"The shop is so small there's barely room to swing a cat in it,” Christian Haugaard, the company's UK director, told BoF. But its prime location is a critical part of The Left Shoe Company's branding strategy. “We wanted to be taken seriously as a shoe brand. If we are going to talk to the customer base we want, we need to be in shoe country," said Haugaard.
At the store, customers can order made-to-measure shoes, selecting from six different sole options and 20 different upper variations, available in a wide range of colours and materials, from leather and suede sourced from Italy to exotic skins like stingray and alligator, sourced from Taiwan and Paraguay, respectively. The shoes are designed by Maurizio Mazzucato, who works with some of Italy’s largest fashion houses.
But The Left Shoe Company — which was founded in 1998, but relaunched in 2010 with a franchise model, and also has shops in Helsinki, Los Angeles and Dubai — is no traditional shoemaker. At the centre of the brand's tiny, 11-square-foot London store is a circular, raised platform fitted with a 3D scanner. "It started in Hollywood; it's the same thing that was done with Gollum in Lord of The Rings," noted Haugaard.
Customers are asked to don a pair of bright yellow, gridded socks, step onto the platform and have their feet scanned. Within seconds, shop assistants are looking at a virtual 3D model of their customers' feet, which they use to generate highly personalised style and size matches from the company's product catalogue.
Not only does the technology enable a snug fit, but it's a big part of the reason why The Left Shoe Company's made-to-measure footwear only costs around £400 (about $640, at current exchange rates), significantly less than those of competitors.
“[With the scanner] we get as close to your foot size as possible without building you a last [a mechanical form that has a shape similar to that of a human foot] for an off-the-peg price,” explained Haugaard. “I mean, in theory, it could be done like they do in John Lobb with a tape measure and actually building a last — but that is extremely costly. We simply cut that part out and apply [the scanned image of your foot] to our digital last library.”
The company's last library currently consists of 50 virtual lasts, from size 39 to 48, each with five different width options. By early next year, the company will offer 98 different size variations, adding two more widths and two further sizes at each end of the spectrum.
The scanning process is also “a bit of retail theatre," said Haugaard, who currently spends a considerable amount of time at a pop-up store The Left Shoe Company has set up inside the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge at London's Heathrow Airport. "It is quite good fun and it is something to talk about. What's more, you don’t even have to buy anything — you could just get scanned. We hand you your card [with your digital measurements] and then in 6 months time, when you need a new pair of shoes, you can go online, or into the shop, and order them."
Indeed, by inviting customers to try out a novel piece of technology and scan their feet for free, Haugaard has been able to quickly build up a valuable customer database. “We are talking to a database that don’t really have time to shop — most of our customers are bankers or hedge fund managers. [The scanning process] gives us a huge opportunity to target people very, very specifically. I have their name, address, email, phone and whatever I write following our chat during the scan. The database at the moment is 36,000 members, but not all of them are active. We do email shots every second week; something new, galoshes if the weather is poor, a new model, the shoe of the month, all that sort of thing.”
The company also keeps costs low by manufacturing in Portugal. “In Portugal, we could keep the prices at an off-the-peg price — £400 is a great price and even better when it is made-to-measure. The craftsmen do a combination of hand and machine. The finishing is all done by hand.”
Thus far, The Left Shoe Company's UK business is small but promising. “The store here has turned over £115,000 (about $185,000) with no stock. Pay up front and I will [make and] send the shoes to you,” said Haugaard.
Indeed, the custom-order model means The Left Shoe Company only produces shoes once the customer has already placed an order and paid, significantly minimising risk of unsold inventory and returns. “We don’t have to invest a lot of money," explained Haugaard. "[Other] shops have to sell quite a lot, because they are not going to get a 100 percent sell through, so you have to win a lot during the season, so you can write off the stock that you are not going to sell [at full price]. I don’t have to do that, because I have 100 percent sell through — well 98 percent.”
“Every season, we introduce a few more [designs] because it doesn’t cost us anything," continued Haugaard. "We have to produce maybe five pairs, which we can then distribute all over the world; you don’t have to produce a thousand. If you like it you buy it, if you don’t like it the only thing we have lost is one shoe, because we gave one to Helsinki and one to me and then one to LA and then one to Dubai. Not a pair, a shoe. Financially it makes a lot sense.”
Perhaps having two left feet isn’t such a bad thing after all.