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Image: Shoes of Prey

In 2009, Shoes of Prey set out to create exactly what its customers wanted. In furtherance of its mission to create hand-made women’s shoes customized by the customer and delivered anywhere in the world, the Santa Monica-headquartered startup raised upwards of $25 million from Nordstrom and venture capital funds like Khosla Ventures and Sherpa Capital, before officially calling it quits this spring.

The 10-year old company got its start in Sydney, Australia under the watch of husband-and-wife team Michael and Jodie Fox, and co-founder Mike Knapp. After 5 years, Shoes of Prey moved stateside, set up shop in Southern California in 2015, and grew into a multimillion dollar grossing brand (Shoes of Prey brought in revenue of about $7 million in 2017) with close ties to Nordstrom’s national retail outposts and a robust e-commerce business.

Shoes of Prey attracted “millions of women around the world, who designed shoes with [the brand],” but difficulty scaling its early profitability due to the high fixed costs associated with offering up customizable offerings, and what co-founder Jodie Fox called an inability “to truly crack mass-market adoption” led the company to shutter and enter into liquidation in March.

The downfall of the brand, one whose model was based on personalization, which has been repeatedly touted as a “top priority” for modern consumers and retail entities, is an example of what Swinburne University of Technology professors Jessica Pallant and Sean Sands call “the paradox of choice.”

Shoes of Prey’s demise is a striking development, Pallant and Sands claim, because of the sweeping benefits associated with customizable fashion. There are the environmental elements: Unlike “traditional retailers, which manufacture fixed volumes with each collection, and then “use flash sales to move stock that has gone out of fashion.” While others have relied on destruction (Burberry revealed last year that it had destroyed nearly $40 million in unsold products the year prior, a practice it has since discontinues) and/or quietly leaking products into the grey market, Shoes of Prey “wouldn’t make shoes no one needed,” and thus, rarely – if ever – faced the unpleasant reality of having to get rid of excess stock.

Beyond the workings of such a sustainable model in light of increased consumer concern about social and environmental causes, including in fashion manufacturing, Shoes of Prey’s customizable-centric business brought direct benefits for consumers. “Customization can increase the perceived value of a product through the ‘I designed it myself’ effect, giving customers a sense of ownership as ‘creators,’” per Pallant and Sands. “It can also improve the customer’s perception of the quality of the product.”

At the same time, however, there is a downside to the made-to-order model. As the list of options – from shoe style and heel height to color and pattern – grows, “other judgements enter the equation, Pallant and Sands assert. The consumer must consider, “Should there be more than one color? What about a pattern? Will that combination look good?, etc.” With such increased availability of choice, consumer satisfaction tends to fall. “Having more options when there are just a few makes us feel good, but having even more when there are already a lot” – as there tends to be when it comes to shopping for garments and accessories – “makes us feel worse,” the researchers state.

Add to this the difference in time that comes with selecting an already-fully-designed pair of shoes, on one hand, and heavily customizing one, on the other, and you have yet another factor that did not favor Shoes of Prey. Not only it is more time consuming, challenging, and oftentimes, expensive for the average consumer to customize a pair of shoes, as opposed to simply buying a ready-made pair, the level of customization that Shoes of Prey offered to consumers was outside of the normal mode of shoe shopping, which is something that co-founder Michael Fox stated in an article about the company’s closing in March.

In short: Fox found – and the brand’s ultimate downfall, it seems, was – that most consumers simply did not want to take on the expense, uncertainty, and time-consuming nature of customizing their own shoes in a market that is saturated with affordable, already-designed ones.

“If I ever find myself in a position where I’m attempting to change consumer behavior,” Fox wrote this spring, “I will ensure I’ve peeled back the layers to truly understand the psychology of my target customer.” He continued on to note, “If we’d been able to understand that the mass market customer didn’t want to customize, we shouldn’t have gone down the path of raising venture capital and instead focused on building a strong but smaller business serving our niche of women who wanted to customize, as we did for the first 2.5 years of the business.”