Q&A: M.Gemi co-founder and president Cheryl Kaplan

Luxury shoe brand M.Gemi sidesteps the traditional retail model. Launched in March 2015, the Boston-based direct-to-customer brand sources its handmade footwear from family-owned workshops in Italy. New styles are released each Monday via its website and in freestanding fit shops in New York City and Boston. The commitment to quality footwear brought to market at unprecedented speed and price points (about half the price of comparable brands) sets M.Gemi apart in the luxury brand marketplace.

Gemi is led by CEO Ben Fischman, Chief Merchant Maria Gangemi and President Cheryl Kaplan. Kaplan previously served as executive vice president and chief member advocate at Rue La La and vice president of customer experience at SmartBargains.com.

What’s the back story of the M.Gemi brand?

Maria Gangemi, Ben Fischman and I were working together. Maria would come back from trips to her native Italy with the most amazing shoes. They were handcrafted, limited editions often sold only in local boutiques. We realized there was an incredible opportunity to bring the specialness of these styles and the craft of Italian shoemaking to American shoppers in a wholly modern way.

While many startups focus on a single silhouette such as sneakers or ballet flats, we knew from the start that we wanted to provide a full assortment of styles that could take our clients from work to weekend to special occasions and everything in-between.

What’s M.Gemi’s point of differentiation?

By working directly with Italy’s small family-owned workshops, we’re able to deliver beautiful, luxury shoes at prices that had been historically impossible in the luxury space. We are first and foremost differentiated by our cadence of dropping new styles every Monday. We want to provide our customers constant newness and to be able to respond to their feedback in real time, so instead of releasing a large collection a few times a year, we design, produce and release shoes on an ongoing basis. This creates a constant assortment of new limited-edition styles that are “buy now, wear now” and designed to sell out in a matter of weeks, if not days.

That happened with the recent drop of the Alpi boot, which sold out within 24 hours. Our price point is a major differentiator because as a direct-to-consumer brand we can bring handcrafted Italian shoes to customers at less than half the price they expect from traditional luxury brands.

Let’s talk about marketing — what’s the story there?

Our marketing is built around creating an obsession-worthy brand and experiences that our customers can connect with on a deeper, emotional level. We view every aspect of the customer experience as part of our marketing strategy and as our greatest tool to ensure our customers return to us time and time again. That includes the packaging, email marketing, social media, site experience, physical retail and of course, the product itself.

Additionally, creative assets and dynamic storytelling are central to communicating who M.Gemi is. We are always testing and learning and continue to evolve in every channel, to keep our content fresh for existing clients and potential new shoppers alike. Channel diversification is critical and that means finding creative ways to try a wide variety of different channels that reach our customer, from paid digital to physical programming with Andiamo, our vintage gelato truck-turned-mobile pop-up. That desire to connect, coupled with various data science-driven tactics and channels, helps us spread the word about M.Gemi in a really effective way.

What about your concept of “concierge” customer service?

To us, concierge customer service means making the experience of buying from M.Gemi as seamless, enjoyable and memorable as possible. We offer fast, free shipping, easy exchanges or returns, online fit guides, styling advice and more. Most importantly, we want our customers to engage with us, so we make it easy for them to reach us via phone, email or chat — and our client services team has actually tried on every single pair of shoes, so they are able to offer helpful and personalized advice.

We also really listen to client feedback and use that feedback to improve our experience and our product. The team can interact with and educate shoppers, get honest feedback and provide thoughtful recommendations to ensure that clients ultimately get a shoe that they’ll love. This client loyalty is also seen in the brand’s repeat rates: Repeat shoppers buy four times per year from M.Gemi in an industry where the average is only one purchase per year.

M.Gemi has an in-store shop, pop-ups and a mobile store. That’s a lot of touchpoints for a direct-to-customer brand.

Physical touchpoints in key locations are essential to reaching the audience for high-touch, luxury products such as shoes. Where we differ from traditional retailers is in how we create that physical experience. When it comes to M.Gemi’s retail expansion, we think of each opportunity uniquely instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, so whether that’s a permanent fit shop, a short-term pop-up, our Bloomingdale’s shop-in-shop or our traveling pop-up Andiamo, we understand that flexibility in retail is an essential part of our business now and in the future.

Most importantly, we want to be able to meet our customers where they are and provide an experience that goes beyond just transactional. We want to create warm and welcoming environments that not only encourage trying on shoes, but that also bring the brand’s story to life and enable education around the Italian handcraftsmanship that makes M.Gemi so special.

What have you learned about the purchasing behaviors of your online customer versus the physical store customer?

Since opening physical retail, we have found a “super consumer” — the client who shops with us both in-store and online. These customers spend more after their in-store visit. We’ve seen their average order value go up 14 percent from their previous AOV, they buy again faster — 1.5 weeks faster than digital-only shoppers — and they return product less, as much as 50 percent less, because they’ve been fitted and understand more about the quality, craftsmanship and brand.

As far as differences, we have seen that in-store shoppers tend to be more adventurous, purchasing fashion-forward and more expensive styles because they have had the opportunity to test them out in our space. We have also seen our stores become a gathering place for clients. Our customers spend an extended time at the locations, trying on a wide variety of styles, sipping espresso and speaking with our store team to learn more about M.Gemi’s story and how our shoes are handcrafted in workshops across Italy. People are quite eager to learn about the design, materials and craftsmanship that make our shoes so special.

Do you anticipate moving from the fit-only physical store concept?

The fit shop model is key to the flexibility we want in physical retail. More importantly, it improves client experience. We’ve found that our shoppers love the convenience of having purchases shipped directly to their door, instead of having to carry shoeboxes around while they shop. By having one source of centralized inventory, we can more efficiently process orders for all shoppers, no matter if they are visiting us in person or online.

What’s next for M.Gemi?

As we look ahead to 2019, we are focused on continuing to perfect design and fit, while also expanding our physical retail presence.

Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.