May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

Riding the custom trend with cowboy boots

Coopers Inc.’s WesternWarehouse.com has been attracting new customers since it started offering custom-made boots online last October.

By Kurt Peters

Until the Internet, the elusive market of one was almost impossible to serve. But the web solves a couple of problems in selling custom products. First, marketers can make customers do the work of filling in automated templates and providing measurements and preferences. Second, the web aggregates demand, so a service with limited appeal suddenly has a bigger base of customers.

Like custom cowboy boots. Coopers Inc.’s Western Warehouse, which operates 29 stores in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California and WesternWarehouse.com, has been attracting new customers since it started offering custom-made boots online last October. “We’re getting a lot of customers from the East, people who had never heard of us before,” says Mike Padilla, web developer. “A lot of them heard about us through Build a Boot.”

Build a Boot is a prime example of a business not possible without the web, says Mary Brett Whitfield, director of the E-Retail Intelligence Program at consultants Retail Forward Inc. “In very few markets could you make a business selling high-end custom-made cowboy boots,” Whitfield says. “The web allows you to take a few customers from a market here and a few from a market there and create a real business.”

The pointy-toe problem

And even though Western Warehouse is preparing to do its second catalog mailing to 100,000 customers, offering custom boots through a catalog is not as easy as through a web site. “The web is an easy way to talk to people who would be hard to find,” Whitfield says. “Using a catalog is a much more scattershot approach.”

The impetus for a custom boot came from a Western Warehouse boot buyer who asked Rick Shankles, Internet applications manager, if WesternWarehouse.com could offer custom boots. Shankles said yes, then was unable to find such software. Other sites that offer custom boots rely on e-mail or faxed forms. A crash course in how boots are manufactured and 45 days of development time resulted in in-house software to allow customers to create tailored boots from Lucchese Boot Co. While he won’t be specific, Shankles says more than 1,000 customers have created boots since October and around 20% of creations have resulted in sales.

The key to creating the custom boot software was to know the combinations of materials that work with certain designs, Shankles says. For instance, customers have fewer toe choices with alligator skin because of the close proximity of scales on alligator hide. “You can’t use the pointed toe with the alligator boot because the skin won’t fold down correctly over the toe,” Shankles says. Software developers also needed to know that the toe style determines available boot sizes.

While many boots that customers design are unique, many are the same as they could buy off the rack, even at over $4,000 a pair. Shankles says some customers just like the idea of being in control. “Custom boot customers are more particular than others,” he says.

What customers want

Custom boots offer a benefit to Western Warehouse besides attracting new customers, Shankles says: The company is using the data to understand what to stock. “We can use the database to see what people like,” Shankles says. “We will turn that over to the boot buyers for future designs.”

The web site is the fastest growing portion of Western Warehouse, growing at better than 40% both last year and this year, Shankles says. Until February, the web site fulfilled orders from a store in Albuquerque, N.M., where Western Warehouse is headquartered. The company converted the store to a warehouse and now fulfills orders from a separate web inventory.

The custom boot software is not the first software that Shankles and Padilla created, nor will it be the last, Shankles says. Such work is the foundation of WesternWarehouse.com, he says: The entire site was made operational on a budget of about $200,000. Next up: A layaway payment program that Shankles designed.

Shankles says the company hopes to increase sales by 10% with layaway. “Our core market doesn’t have credit cards,” he says. “It will be very helpful to allow them to do layaway online.”

kurt@verticalwebmedia.com

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