On the Hot Seat: Jack Erwin's Lane Gerson on building a brand

Lane Gerson

Jack Erwin co-founders Lane Gerson and Ariel Nelson were just two guys who shared a passion for dressing well. Out shopping one Saturday, they were looking for a solution to the common male conundrum: Where do I buy dress shoes for a special occasion that are simple, clean, attractive and inexpensive?

This led to the creation of New York startup Jack Erwin, a retailer that prides itself on selling attractive and affordable men's shoes. The company launched online in October 2013.

"We had an amazing response and the market, as we saw it, was encouraging," co-founder Lane Gerson told FierceRetail. "We wanted to answer the question: How do we build a brand that sells amazing shoes in an accessible and fun way?"

Just over a year later, the retailer also runs one physical store, the Fitting Room, in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, which opened its doors in 2014. Last year the company received a $9 million Series B investment round led by Brown Shoe. While Jack Erwin is growing in all channels, Gerson is primarily focused on building a trusted brand.

FierceRetail: You started as an e-commerce company. Why online rather than physical retail?

Lane Gerson: The goal was always to sell direct to consumers and building a brand was really important to us. Men's dress shoes were the solution, but the problem was 'How do I find shoes?' It seemed no one had a [men's] brand that resonated with them. When it came to dress shoes, we wanted to create something exciting, for a younger demographic, and wanted to speak to that demographic and the only way to do that was direct to consumer. Online was the easiest way to catch traction, but it was always in our window to open up a physical space.

FierceRetail: What made you decide to open a physical store last year?  

Lane Gerson: We look at selling as a relationship and every relationship is unique. Some customers would love to research online and go to a store. Some would prefer to go in-store and then continue the purchase process online. If they are loyal, they will support the brand forever. So we wanted to make sure we offered support wherever that shopper might be. Some do like to have an in-person experience in order to touch and feel the product.

FierceRetail: Early on, did anyone walking in off the street know the brand?

Lane Gerson: Originally people who came in had heard about the brand so the physical store was a destination. Now we get referrals and customers from word of mouth.

FierceRetail: Any hurdles thus far in launching a physical store?

Lane Gerson: Not really. We have a full size run in any style and we don't keep any inventory in the store—we have the shoes shipped to the customers—so there are not a lot of logistics. Our staff is there to explain and showcase the products.

Listen, I think many people want to touch and feel the leather and product. So if you get them comfortable and if that person is happy, then walking out of the store with product is a secondary thing. We want to improve the experience and not have you worry about holding the bag and instead get your purchase delivered the next day.

FierceRetail: Have you benefitted from the surge in the men's category over the past few years? What do you think is contributing to this growth?

Lane Gerson: I'm 32 and when I graduated college, it wasn't cool to care about what you were wearing. I've seen that change over the years. Now they are starting to care. It started with caring about what food you ate and then about products, where they came from and the story behind them. And now it's come to how men dress. I definitely think it's the right time to be entering the market.

As men started to care more, things started happening in fashion. We now appreciate well-made stuff, more clean, plain and simple designs. Shoes for men in the past have been scary and so they tend to gravitate to the more casual. We think simple, clean dress shoes are the last frontier. Once they see that a great pair of shoes does not have to be intimidating, then they will buy more than one pair of shoes.

FierceRetail: How important is the experience for Jack Erwin?

Lane Gerson: We want to build an authentic relationship. When our customers email questions, we want to respond in a timely manner. We're a company that really cares. I know that can sound cliché, but we're really passionate. We want to develop this relationship and make sure they are excited and comfortable. A customer experience with us is focusing on every interaction as a relationship.

FierceRetail: What can we expect to see from Jack Erwin in 2015?

Lane Gerson: This year is really about further telling our story and introducing our product and brand. We want to grow as a brand and in order to mature we need to work on developing relationships and continuing to tell our story. We're just over a year old. We haven't really articulated who we are yet. We're just starting to take off the training wheels. It's a step in the right direction, but we have a lot more to do.