Shoe Shopping Comes Out of the Box

As if surfing the Web wasn’t already addictive, along comes a Web site that’s got as much spunk as it has sole. Try this one on for size -- a cyber spot that actually allows its visitors to custom design their own shoes.

Thanks to the folks over at cmax.com, anybody with a creative itch can now give it a good scratch by putting some serious moxie in the shoes they want to wear. Got a pang to slip into your own custom-designed red sneakers with yellow soles, black laces and which boasts your own personal message? It’s totally possible. Or how about a green suede hiking boot with a splash of beige here and there?

“For the first time, a company could communicate one on one, first hand with the customer, bypassing all the middle people involved,” says Dave Solk, CEO of cmax.com. “We saw that [customers] could basically design and order the shoes they wanted in real time, and us being the facilitator, we just put it in simple terms: ‘You design it, we make it.’”

It makes the days of simply loading up an online shopping cart for your Internet purchases seem, well, so 2001.

This point-click-and-you-design-it concept was birthed by an innovative quartet. Irmgard Kreuzer, Dave Ward, Mikal Peveto and David Solk spent years learning the shoe business working for behemoths like Nike and Adidas, overseeing shoe manufacturing for the companies in Asia. When corporate life began to feel like a yawn, the foursome decided to take advantage of their business mojo and found themselves collaborating on a hip concept that would revolutionize consumer shopping on the Web.

They wanted the customer to play an integral role in their shoe purchases. They lured in a few investors, and then they each tossed in their entire life savings to launch an intricate Web site whose initial price tag hovered around $1 million. It took nearly a year to work out the kinks in the software that would allow custom shoe designs to take place online. Then they had to decide what types of shoes to offer. Since they had the 411 on the athletic shoe industry, most of the options they initially offered were sport shoes and boots geared toward the twentysomething generation.

But would people bite?

Apparently the thrill is in the concept. After two years in business, these entrepreneurs oversee tens of thousands of shoes manufactured each year. But design-and-buy isn’t the only thing on their agenda. They wanted to create a stellar online forum, but they also wanted to give back to local communities and build a bridge far away from Corporate America. Cmax.com matches every 50-cent donation its customers make to charity; its world-wide headquarters sits in an unpretentious central California locale; the workers in the actual shoe factory in China are paid much more than the average factory worker and the factory itself is specifically designed for comfort -- there’s ample air-conditioning and the floor plan allows plenty of room to move around to get the materials and make the shoes … get this … one pair at a time.

Kick Your Shoes Off and Stay Awhile

Intrigued with the idea of creating the DNA of my own shoes -- strictly for research purposes mind you -- it was time to shake hands with my inner shoe designer.

After logging on to cmax.com, three different types of shoes burst into view. To the right of the computer screen there are basic tidbits. Since the company’s inception, it has branched out into designing shoes for Major League Baseball teams: 14 in the American League, 16 on the National League end. These, I later learn, can also be ordered by anybody. There’s some buzzworthy news about cmax.com’s collegiate footwear and the phrase, “Just because you left college doesn’t mean your feet have to,” forces a chuckle. Shoes for 30 schools -- three different styles and 90 conferences -- are featured. There’s also promotional footwear. Let’s say you’re Mr. Master Card and you want your employees to strut around in comfy shoes bearing your company’s logo, it’s clearly an option.

The real fun, it seems, happens on the left of the screen: “Click here to start designing a shoe.” When I do, six different types of shoes appear. There’s a runner, a sneaker, a slip-on, sk8r, a casual or a boot. Each shoe boasts monikers that reek of cool. For sneakers, there’s the Deviant 1, Cruzer and Smoothie. Some slip-on shoe are knighted Sokomoto or the ’N Forcer. N’Dorf’N and Hey Day ’78 occupy the running shoes category. For boots, it’s Think Tank and Dr. Evil, no doubt drawing inspiration from pop culture with shades of Austin Powers thrown in for good measure. With plenty of styles, a palette of colors and several materials (leather, suede) to choose from, this is indeed an online shoe smorgasbord.

But what do I want?

Boots. I click on the appropriate icon and soon I’m in another online viewing parlor. There are two options here for boots: the Think Tank (at $90-$100, including shipping) or the Dr. Evil ($85-$95). The Think Tank, with its thick sole, is lumberjack chic and definitely a possibility for the hiker wannabe, or if I just want to feel taller than 6 feet.

But do I want such a thick sole? The Dr. Evil tempts me so I click on that. The next screen presents a larger picture of the shoe. I notice that I can save my shoe design -- this one and countless others apparently -- without purchasing a thing. When I must have a pair of funkadelic bowling shoes delivered to my door within two weeks but my fear of commitment is running rampant, this might be the way to go.

Time to design. For my Dr. Evil creation, do I want leather or suede? Definitely suede. Once I make that indication, the next step allows me to click on a specific area of the shoe -- side, front, back, heel or shoelaces -- that I want to design. I choose the front of the shoe first and about 30 seconds later (other times it seems longer), an applet loads my specifications and then the area is outlined for me. I have 16 color choices: navy blue, bright red, off-white, black, lime, beige, brown, orange, forest green, denim, dark purple and … wait a second! Dark purple? Do I have the guts?

During the next 30 minutes, I design the entire outer layer of my shoes. Slowly, a purple creation is born. The next dilemma: do I want the sole of my shoes to be beige, black, dark yellow, lime or rust? Dark yellow with dark purple? Beige seems more purple friendly. Minutes later, I seem to have given birth to a deep purple suede shoe with beige soles and black shoelace holes.

I’m suddenly besieged with shoe ideas: A yellow leather shoe with forest green soles? A suede orange concoction with black soles? Rocket red on the side, a black tongue? Oh, and yellow laces? A simple dark brown boot isn’t such a bad idea either.

After indicating proper shoe sizes, the final step, before exerting some serious purchasing power, is to personalize my creation. I can choose one word that would appear on the side of each shoe. What would Imelda do?

Size Matters

After cavorting with my creative side for much longer than I would have imagined, I started to wonder if this design-by-you idea was happening anywhere else.

Over at Nike.com, I discover that shoe customization exists. For about $85-$165, online designers are offered four styles and about as many color options. Personal IDs are featured as well but the cmax.com site is more elaborate and offers more. At IC3D.com, the customization of jeans and slacks exists -- and with hip, funky music to boot. At Dell.com, tech savvy people can even design their own computers.

Two weeks later, the UPS man arrives at my door. (Mental note: that man in drab could use a shoe boasting the union of lime, black and navy blue.) After practically slamming the door on Mr. UPS, I hurriedly open the shoebox from cmax.com. What will my custom-design shoes look like up close and personal?

They’re, well, pretty stellar. The purple tone is much more rich in real life, and quite a looker. And my personalized message? I decided to go by way of cmax.com and “Be Soleful.”

Greg Archer is the editor of Good Times in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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