Jack Erwin Founder Lane Gerson on How Digital Brands Can Win the Brick-and-Mortar Game

Spoiler alert: It’s just good, old-fashioned customer service

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The Jack Erwin store at 488 Madison Avenue in New York City / Courtesy of Lane Gerson

Direct-to-consumer fashion startups might be fairly common these days but in 2013, when Lane Gerson and Ariel Nelson launched men’s shoe brand Jack Erwin, it still felt like a revolution. Beautifully made European dress shoes designed with a minimalist eye, all for under $200? Yes, yes, yes. Lots of guys signed up. In fact, they sold out of their first run of shoes two months into business and pulled in close to $2 million in revenue during their first year alone.

Over the last five years, Jack Erwin has evolved and expanded, breaking its under-$200 positioning ever so slightly with a lineup of slick suede and leather boots, raising funds (and tapping into intel) from heritage shoemaker Caleres, and—as of this summer—opening their first traditional retail store in New York City. While the Madison Avenue boutique spans just 700 square feet, the decision to dive into brick-and-mortar is a big move for the brand. Lane was kind enough to hop on the phone with us to explain the decision.

Lane, before we talk about the new store, which is very exciting, I wanted to talk about the brand in general and the course it’s taken since you launched in 2013...

Lane Gerson: A short backstory is that my business partner Ariel [Nelson] and I have been good friends for a long time—I’ve lost track but it’s coming up on a decade at this point—and the two of us come from different backgrounds but we’ve always both appreciated well-made, good, simple stuff. The two of us, from the time that we met through when we founded the company, we saw prices go through the roof in everything we loved. Shoes got really expensive, jeans got really expensive, shirts got really expensive and we just said, there’s something here. There wasn’t a brand that was offering shoes out there that was both embracing a really well-made, simple, beautiful product, and also doing that at a price point that we liked. So we said to ourselves, let’s figure out a way to make products that we love, that we would buy.

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Lane Gerson / Courtesy of Lane Gerson

How long did you work on conceptualizing the business and finding manufacturers before you were able to officially go to market?

Gerson: Probably about a year and a half. We had the idea in early summer 2012 but it took us some time to figure out how to make shoes. Neither of us come from fashion backgrounds so there was a steep learning curve, but we naively dove right in.

What business decisions or creative choices have helped you grow and thrive?

Gerson: I think we saw this as a pain point in our lives. We were professionals and we were slowly making career advances but we just couldn’t afford nice things, specifically shoes, and we thought it couldn’t just be us. We started with wanting to solve that simple problem and it still guides us. Everything we do, we say, how can we solve our customer’s problems? And that’s why people latch onto us over other brands. We solve problems better.

There are a lot of startups that claim to solve problems that maybe don’t actually exist, but the problem that you guys spotted was pretty practical and basic...

Gerson: Thank you, and we agree. Fake products are not a result of this new direct-to-consumer movement—they’ve always been around. I think that at the end of the day, if the product is authentic and the product authentically solves an authentic problem, then you’re set up for success. Otherwise you have to keep on tinkering with the product until you believe you’ve found some solution that addresses a large number of people’s issues.

Let’s talk a little bit about the store. When did you first think about doing a traditional retail space?

Gerson: This is our first store where we were holding inventory. We still have a small showroom right near our office in Tribeca that fell in our laps really early on. We opened that showroom as a way to expose our brand to our consumer. It’s on a non-traffic area in Tribeca, really off the beaten path. So, people who know about our product can come in, try it on, and we can ship to them. That was our first foray into having our own store, and we learned a lot about what our customer wanted—namely, inventory.

Our Madison Avenue flagship is right in the middle of where our customer is, so it’s a bolder, bigger move for us. This store is really doing three things for us. One is allowing us to meet our existing customers and offer them an additional way to shop and experience our product. Two is exposing ourselves to a new customer who maybe wouldn’t find us online. And three is offering both groups more services, more options.

Are there examples of brick-and-mortar retail traditions that you are leaving behind, or things that you’re embracing?

Gerson: Yeah, I think retail boils down to experience. If you can give somebody an experience that they want that they can’t have online, then there’s a place for retail. If the online experience is superior to the offline experience, then I think that’s where there’s going to be more and more issues.

What we’ve realized about our customer is that they just don’t want their time wasted. When you buy online, for instance, there’s a time lag between when the shoes are shipped and when they’re received. You also don’t really get to see how everything looks on your feet. So if customers can come in and we can, in a very quick and efficient way, get them products without wasting their time, we think that that’s a great way to engage with them.

Once that customer knows what they like, or has an idea of how our products look and feel on their feet, then they can continue to order online if that’s what they prefer, because maybe it becomes more efficient for them to continue that way. Our Madison store doesn’t have all of these high-tech bells and whistles—it’s just about giving them optionality.

Do you have any advice for someone who is maybe curious either about starting a shoe business, or maybe just a direct-to-consumer fashion business?

Gerson: My advice always goes back to passion. A lot of people are starting companies now because they think there are a lot of other people starting companies, so they try to find that little niche that they can back into, and I think at the end of the day, you might get lucky and have a quick plan and have a great exit, but, for the majority of people in these situations, it’s a grind. You’ve got to find something that you’re passionate about and a product you love. You’ve got to figure out a problem you want to solve, that you’re willing to day in and day out dig into. I think this is a long tail game for the most part. There are a million different things that happen every day that dictate the outcome of your business, but being in it for the long run and having that passion are the two biggest drivers of success.

What is your vision for Jack Erwin in the future?

Gerson: Shoes are really what we’re focused on, and we feel like there’s a lot of room to become the go-to brand for someone who wants a pair of casual shoes to wear whether it’s during the day, after work, during the weekend, dressed up to go to a formal event… So, for us, it’s building out a more broad, more deep line of product that guys can choose from. And then to just make sure that we’re still putting the best shoes out there for the best price, and that we’re providing the best customer service on top of it all.

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