By Jacqueline Nelson
The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Nov. 15 2013, 5:00 AM EST
Sean Clark says he thinks his online footwear retailer ShoeMe.ca is a step ahead of the appetites Canadian consumers have for e-commerce.
To build the business, he’s teaming up with his former employer and CEO of corrective eyewear retailer Coastal Contacts Inc. – which operates as ClearlyContacts.ca in Canada – for some seed money and an office.
The head of Coastal Contacts, Roger Hardy, invested an undisclosed amount in his former employee’s business. Mr. Hardy knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship, having grown from a small startup in 2000, to a multi-continent retailer with more than $225-million in annual revenue.
Mr. Clark wants to disrupt the shoe market in a similar fashion. “In Canada, there was just no online shoe player, and understanding e-commerce I started wondering, why wasn’t there?” he said in a phone interview from Hong Kong, where he’s looking for new shoe brands to introduce to the site. “Every other advanced economy has one – there’s Zappos.com in the United States, Zalando.co.uk in the UK and Europe.”
With Mr. Hardy’s investment, ShoeMe.ca has now set up shop in Coastal Contacts’ first Vancouver office, and it recently added a distribution centre in Toronto. In October, ShoeMe.ca’s sales of new, in-season shoes and boots from its vendors hit $550,000. There are now 130 brands on ShoeMe.ca, including Nine West, Sketchers and Clarks.
Maintaining a good relationship with his former employer was essential for Montreal-born, Vancouver-raised Mr. Clark. He demonstrated his commitment to Coastal Contacts by moving to Australia in 2010, to open a satellite distribution site for the company, which taught him a lot about getting a new office off the ground.
“I think it awakened his entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Hardy said.
So when Mr. Clark came back and decided to launch ShoeMe.ca, the executives from Coastal Contacts were both appreciative of his efforts, and supportive of his decision to start his own company.
The idea for ShoeMe.ca was planted when Mr. Clark’s wife was browsing the web for shoes and found Canadian options were limited. U.S. online shoe retailer Zappos had halted Canadian shipping because of service quality and border-crossing issues in 2011, but Mr. Clark thought he could remedy that. ShoeMe.ca now ships across Canada, but 40 per cent of its sales come from rural areas with more limited shopping options.
The goal is for ShoeMe.ca to ride the rising tide of e-commerce in Canada. In 2012, Canadians ordered $18.9-billion worth of goods and services online, according to Statistics Canada. That could swell to $34-billion, or 10 per cent of total retail transactions in Canada, according to Forrester Research Inc.
Mr. Clark estimates that figure could climb even higher. “Only 2 per cent of the footwear was purchased online in Canada last year, while in the U.S. it’s upwards of 15 per cent,” he said.
The road hasn’t always been smooth. Mr. Clark has had doors shut in his face and he’s had to borrow money from family to get the company off the ground. But having a background in business rather than shoes is an advantage, Mr. Clark said. It also helped to have an investor such as Mr. Hardy who “gets it.”
ClearlyContacts.ca and ShoeMe.ca may one day gain sister websites in the apparel, accessory and fashion arena, where Mr. Clark sees holes in attractive product offerings available online to Canadians. But he is totally committed to the domestic market, which is less developed and competitive than the United States.
Mr. Hardy’s Coastal Contacts has already seen some return from his investment. The two websites are currently linking to each other, and Coastal Contacts has been the benefactor of that relationship so far, Mr. Hardy said.
Coastal Contacts is thinking more about how its business can co-operate with others – exploring partnerships with big retailers and online retailers. “[ShoeMe.ca] is a smaller one that’s giving us a glimpse into whether our customers are interested in shoes, fashion items,” Mr. Hardy said. “It’s a good learning.”