A Flat Out Great Idea
Five years ago Dawn Dickson was at a business event in Miami’s South Beach, dressed to the nines and enjoying the evening. Hour after hour went by, and eventually the pain of being in heels all night started to catch up to her—and her feet.
“I was in heels for hours and I wished that there was somewhere I could go right then to get a pair of flats so I could put them on and keep my night going,” Dickson recalls. “There was nowhere to go and nothing I could do.”
That night, a light bulb went off in her head: What if there was a vending machine where she could have purchased the flats she desired? An easy solution for women who were tired of standing in heels all night and needed that emergency set of flats? Her idea seemed simple enough: A fashionable, must-have flat that is durable enough for everyday use yet dispensable out of a vending machine to make purchasing convenient.
“I searched the market and didn’t see any product that fit my need and was what I wanted in a compact shoe,” she says. “So I decided to do it myself.”
Even though Dickson had no experience in the design or fashion industry—her background is in journalism, marketing and IT—she was confident enough about the idea to make the leap.
Her first step—one she cites as an important one to her success today—was doing proper research. Her research found that 1 in 10 women wear heels more than three times a week and 78 percent of women have walked barefoot due to the pain of high heels. Plus, the average pair of flat shoes don’t fit in a purse.
“I knew from my experience in marketing that when launching a business, knowing the target market and competition is important,” she says. “I looked at what others were doing and checked out their successes, sales and failures. I looked at a lot of product reviews because I wanted to know what customers liked and didn’t. That would help me create the best possible product and improve on my idea.”
From there, Dickson wrote a business plan and passed it on to family and trusted friends for review, and Flat Out In Heels was born. Her strategy included steps for marketing, evaluating her customer, cost of manufacturing and getting a prototype developed.
“When I started, it wasn’t as easy to source manufacturers as it is now,” she says, which is why she turned to the website Alibaba to create her product. “It came down to who could understand me the best without me having to go there. I found a manufacturer in China and they sent me over some prototypes that looked good and I was happy.”
Initially, her thought was that she would sell the shoes strictly in vending machines, and although that is part of today’s growth strategy, her success really started when she chose to take the product online instead.
“In the beginning, I wanted a strategy to find the best route to bring the product to market at the highest margins and lowest cost. I was thinking big-box retail stores but that was a challenge because I didn’t have experience connecting with buyers at shows, or dealing with barcodes and compliance and things like that,” Dickson explains. “I decided that e-commerce was the perfect way to build the brand and get the product to the customer at the lowest cost. Over time, I realized more about the business and the demand for the product. It’s now 85 percent sold online.”
A Better Product
Today, tens of thousands of women with aching feet are walking around in Flat Out In Heels shoes: the business commuter, the busy mom, the late night party goer, the traveler, the student.
And while there are other shoes on the market that are somewhat similar, Dickson notes that what makes her brand unique is that the shoes are durable and fashionable.
The resilient red soles are made of hardened rubber and the company uses a variety of fabrics for its collections including PU/manmade leather, satin, microfiber, and cotton.
“I had found three products that were similar and generating sales, but everyone was saying the same things about them—you could feel rocks when walking,” she says. “I really wanted to make an actual, real shoe a woman could walk around in without having to worry about stepping on glass or rocks, and one that was fashionable.”
While the competition had just black flat shoe options, mostly made from fabric that was low-cost and glued instead of stitched, Flat Out In Heels offers five signature styles (black, leopard, zebra, silver and gold) and has limited editions available twice a year.
“The sole is hard and durable and can be worn as an everyday shoe. It’s not a disposable or emergency shoe— it’s a shoe you can carry in your purse for when you need it,” Dickson says. “Also, our fabrics are machine washable. And we have extended sizes—we go to size 14, where our competitors only go to 10. We want to cover all bases and sizes.”
With online sales going so well and more people knowing about the brand, Dickson is once again turning her focus to her original strategy: she’s planning a large vendor rollout over the course of the next year.
“It has taken time to develop a machine that I wanted, so we partnered with a custom vending machine company (Solutions Vending International) to make sure we had the perfect machine,” she says. “In 2016–17 we will see a big increase in vending machines on the market placed in locations where we identify women need them the most— airports, nightclubs, etc.”
The next year will also see the concept rolled out in 37 malls across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, thanks to a partnership with Simon Properties.
“Simon Properties contacted us to say they were looking for new concepts to roll out in carts and kiosks that they consider to be the next big thing, so they are placing us in their malls to create opportunities for their operators,” Dickson says. “So, instead of rolling out a new cart on our own, they will launch a Flat Out In Heels cart since they have experience in malls and the staff and relationships to sell the product best.”
The carts have a capacity for 350 pairs of shoes—150 on display and another 200 in storage drawers.
With celebrity endorsements for the product coming from people like Eva Longoria, Vivica Fox and Meagan Good, Flat Out In Heels is quickly becoming one of the hottest new retail concepts on the market.
Still, the bread and butter of the brand will remain the online ordering, which is why Dickson is devoting more time to the functionality of the website, an advertising campaign, Facebook ads, Google analytics and more. All of this should help create awareness of the brand, which will in turn drive customers to vending machines and the mall carts, and eventually help them get into retail stores.
“We really want to be aggressive moving forward. Over the next 2–3 years we expect to expand distribution through vending [machines] and the mall carts,” Dickson says. “We want to increase distribution all over the world so customers can get the products in their hands.”
With eight people on her team and growth expected, Dickson is glad she made the unorthodox decision to leave the world of IT after a decade and pursue her dream.
“My favorite thing about doing this is meeting the customers and getting their feedback,” she says. “When I go to events and meet people at the booth and hear how much they love the product, it makes it all worth it and I take their feedback to heart.”
In fact, a lot of changes to the original design have come from her talks with customers, including adding the elastic to the top of the shoe to make it a perfect fit for everyone and offering larger sizes.
Dickson also talks a lot about the shoes and issues that women care about in a video series she has on her website— About the Brand.
With vending machines in high traffic venues, kiosk locations across the country and super-fast shipping online, purchasing a pair of Flat Out In Heels is now more convenient than ever. Dickson certainly has been on the road to success since starting the company—a journey which thanks to her heels are sans the pain.
For more information about the company, visit flatoutheels.com