Maryland-based Barefoot Tess offers women’s shoes sizes 10-15.
Women’s feet are getting bigger, big enough that it’s rocking the American shoe industry.
But that’s not why Karen Williamson, back in 2005, started her online shoe company. She started the company because her teenage daughter, Tess, was wearing flip-flops in six inches of snow outside her Boston boarding school.
“There’s never been a person who wanted to wear flip flops in the snow. That’s when I realized that for her, shoe shopping was like bathing suit shopping for girls who don’t fit into anything. They avoid it because it’s embarrassing,” Williamson said.
Her daughter’s shoe size, an 11, wasn’t unusual for an athletic woman over six feet tall, yet most buyers and retailers had few incentives to stock anything over a size 10.
Williamson, a former attorney and legal recruiter, felt an immediate need to help others who felt powerless to find stylish shoes in their size. She soon launched Barefoot Tess, which exclusively sells shoes between sizes 10 and 15. Eight years into the business, she’s now ahead of the curve of the changing shoe industry.
Time magazine, last year, sought to answer why women’s feet seemed to be growing. Experts aren’t sure about the cause, whether it’s the result of evolution, eating habits or hormones, although average foot sizes increase in tandem with a growing average height. At the turn of the century, American women wore a size 3.5 or size 4 shoe. Today, the average size is between an 8.5 and a 9.
Williamson, who is a size 9, said her perception of the customer has changed since starting the company. She first assumed that women with larger feet would primarily want styles that minimized their appearance. This largely remains true for younger teens, but tends to change as women begin to “own their bodies,” she said.
“I thought that if you were over six feet tall, maybe you wouldn’t want the high heels or the pointy shoes, but I was wrong. The bottom line is, our girls like exactly what everyone else does, which makes perfect sense,” she said. “When they’re younger, they might want flats more, but boy, when they get into their 20s and 30s, they can’t rock those heels enough. People say, ‘I want to wear what I want to wear.’ They’re tall and proud.”
Barefoot Tess began as a buyer and seller of major shoe brands, including Steve Madden and Nine West, but about five years ago, began carrying the exclusive Barefoot Tess line.
“Currently, we sell about 50/50, our brand and others brands, but our goal is to reach 60/40 in the near future. It gives us so much more flexibility in our shoes and we get to tailor them to the customer,” she said.
The business has gone through several transitions, occasionally managing storefronts to complement the online store. Shoppers making special orders have always been welcome to make appointments to visit company headquarters and try on shoes at the source. The company is currently exclusively online, but Williamson envisions that they will soon maintain a small store attached to their warehouse, where women can choose their shoes from a kiosk connected to the warehouse and try them on before purchasing.
The evolving business model has been a learning experience for Williamson. Her former legal recruiting business was entirely service based. Selling shoes, on the other hand, demands a massive inventory and ongoing capital investment.
“You have to know what you’re willing to invest upfront, or else it’s like quicksand, you have to tell yourself where to stop and stick to it,” she said. “You have to start with a really solid business plan and stay within your budget. That’s really important.”
Maryland-based Barefoot Tess now offers its own brand of larger-sized shoes.
Selling shoes also requires constant interaction with customers to assess their changing tastes, she said. Much of this is conducted on Facebook, where fans of the company offer direct feedback on new styles and color selections.
“Our customers are very tight knit because they share something. The shared experience of struggling to find shoes that fit that they actual like brings them together. They’re very loyal,” she said.
Despite a recent sales slump as result of the recession, business is improving and Williamson is planning future investment. Added publicity and celebrity endorsements are playing a role in the company’s success.
Talk show host Steve Harvey recently named Barefoot Tess the best place to get women’s shoes between sizes 11 and 15. The company has also been featured in O Magazine, InStyle magazine, Lucky magazine and dozens of others. The company has become a go-to for top female athletes, sometimes meeting with entire WMBA teams at a time. One of Cal Ripken’s daughters and the mother and sister of Shaquille O’Neal—who all happen to be above average in height—are among the company’s customers.
“I just love these girls. They’re all very impressive,” she said.
In a somewhat unexpected opportunity, Barefoot Tess recently donated shoes for a Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, where men raise money to combat rape, sexual assault and gender violence by walking a full mile in high heels. Williamson said she was thrilled to see even men wearing the product.
The biggest reward of running her own business is the lives it’s changed, she said.
“Many of our customers were bullied over their larger feet when they were younger. A lot of the runway models out there are six-foot-one, but when they were younger, they towered over the boys. It sometimes takes years for them to feel comfortable with themselves. That added sense of self esteem from wearing a shoe that actually fits is probably the best thing we have to offer our customers,” she said.
Williamson said she watched her own daughter go through that transition. She’s proud to say that, Tess, now a successful marketing manager, will never have to walk through the snow in flip-flops again.