Five years into its existence and boasting a broad range of excellent boot and shoe styles in increasingly more interesting patterns and leathers, Grant Stone may seem like a behemoth of a brand.
The reality, though, is that it’s five people: Wyatt Gilmore, the brand’s founder; Josh, who handles Grant Stone’s inventory and buying responsibilities while also flexing over to assist Parker, who helms customer service and order fulfillment; Lulu, the company’s accountant who just also happens to be Wyatt’s wife; and Randy, Wyatt’s father who worked 15 years for Alden and another 25+ as an agent for the Grant Stone factory in Xiamen, China, and simply can’t pull himself away from being around shoes all day long.
The idea of running a Goodyear welted shoe brand is an incredibly fun one. You get to make shoes! And boots! And they look and feel however you damn well please!
And the reality of it is: it is fun (of course). But man is it an incredible amount of work.
After getting to know Wyatt quite well over the last few years, and hearing about all the things he does every single day and/or week, I eventually wore him down to do a story in which he’d tell me every single bit of it.
The result is an as-told-to-story, in Wyatt’s own words—and an extremely illuminating peek behind the curtain of Grant Stone, and a the daily operations of a shoe brand in general.
Listen to Wyatt on the Stitchdown Shoecast
Forecasting, Planning, and Buying: The Daily Work That Makes Everything Possible
I would imagine in no way, shape, or form how we operate at Grant Stone would translate to other brands. There might be a couple of younger brands that are set up similarly, but I think even they would be a little different. Today, we’re five people in Michigan plus a development person at the factory along with a handful of shoemakers. In some ways that allows us to move fast. In others, it complicates things. But it definitely allows us to make a lot of our own decisions, to focus on the things that we want to do in a way that larger brands simply cannot.
Most days when I come into the office, I first work on a number of things related to planning and forecasting. What’s our goal for the month, the quarter, the year? Product, sales, and brand goals. It all starts from there, and then it goes into: where do we stand with shipments and product? Looking at the inventory, scheduling when the next buy from our factory needs to be made. And then every couple weeks, we review a forecast that goes out about two years in terms of purchasing pairs, and dates.
A lot of this planning is pushed into place from minimums by suppliers. A common minimum order quantity from a boutique tannery would be around 1000-2000 square feet. That translates to 300-500 pair. Once we set the quantity, we can’t adjust it too much, because we’re pre-buying material. Not only from tanneries, but also welt and outsole suppliers, packaging, etc. Things are set in stone about six to nine months in advance.
I’ll give you an example. The sales of the saddle tan Diesel boot had a break-out season. We’ve been working since then to get more pairs in stock. We’re not going to have those recently ordered pairs for another nine months. So we end up spending a lot of time telling people, “yep, that’ll be coming in five months from now.” Whatever changes we make, we adjust our forecast accordingly for the next six to nine months.
We don’t really have large spikes in our sales. The upside is we don’t deal with sold-out core products all the time, 2021 being an exception. Fashion brands, or even the typical apparel brand, might only buy once per season and they’re not necessarily restocking in between. If they bring something in, god forbid it sells well. They don’t have anything to back it up with. And it would be too late. Now all they can do is go, “well, we will adjust our number accordingly for the next buy.”
We’re more along the lines of: we need three pair of Crimson Diesel in 9.5E, we need two pair of 7D coffee suede longwing. So you don’t really have these dramatic shifts where it’s a total disaster. The downside is, this takes a long time to build up. And then you have widths, which have much slower turnover rates. For example, if we order three pairs of a 7E in a fringe style, it’s possible to have one of those pairs on the shelf for a year or two. You could always buy one pair instead, but it could sell the first week. The quantities are so small, the threshold is a matter of a couple pairs.
This is why so many shoe stores have literally stopped selling widths! The turnaround time is brutal. So you have to decide, do we want to go down that road? But long term, doing D width only, I don’t think it’s necessarily easier. There are so many good brands out there that make good shoes, and they offer, say, a Chromexcel boot in a D width. It’s more like, what are you going to do that’s different? You’ve got fit, you’ve got aesthetics, you’ve got materials. And plenty of makers can make a quality shoe with good materials.
EEE models are 8-10% of our sales. A lot of brands would cut it immediately and just put it into D widths. And it would boost our sales, short term. But we are trying to cater to this market. Allen Edmonds does this really well, but in our segment, it’s maybe just them, and some independent retailers like a Shoe Mart.
But you see where it’s going. There are fewer and fewer options. We get it all the time: “I really want style X in a EEE width but no one offers that.” When people say, “why don’t you offer that style in EEE?” the answer is: we simply can’t sell enough at this point to afford it. We need to be pretty careful on what we can offer in multiple widths.
New Model Development: It Takes Way Longer Than You Might Think
Development is something I touch on a weekly basis, to make sure things are going in the right direction. But every other week, it comes time to sit down and make adjustments to products we’re developing and keep things moving. We’re working on Spring ‘23 now. That’s where we begin the process of identifying a pattern and last and start sampling.
We put a timeline on the products being developed but rarely hit the date. It’s not really a concern for us at this stage—it’s more about getting the product right. The Chelsea that we recently released took about a year and a half or so. First working on the last, then tweaking the pattern, and so on. Once the sample is in a good place, the factory then has to begin their trials, making sure the grading is done properly and nothing is lost along the way.
One of the more difficult development processes took place with the penny loafer—it also took the longest. And honestly with a boot last, you can get away with so much. We could use ten different bases we already have and just change the toe expression and you’re done. This is a common practice for larger companies when a different fit isn’t needed but it’s more about updating the look.
When it came to the loafer, my dad’s expertise in foot biomechanics helps point us in the right direction. One example would be when customers feel there is heel slip and might say how the heel is loose or too wide. But it’s frequently the opposite—you want to let the foot actually settle, and that’s what allows the heel to sit and lock. Things like this are easily overlooked because the current product might fit well enough and making adjustments would be opening up a can of worms most would consider unnecessary.
My dad, he’s always finding lasts on the likes of eBay. Back in the day, it was common to try and fit foot shapes, instead of fitting the majority. He enjoys that part of it. Truth be told, we don’t offer lasts that fit a minority foot shape, yet—for example, for someone who has a very high arch. That is a goal long term, however.
Once we have a good base, I’ll usually end up making the final adjustments through the likes of Illustrator and passing it to the team.
When we started the loafer, I was still in China, which made it quite a bit easier. I could work directly with the team instead of going back and forth by video calls and email. Making last adjustments was just quicker.
That penny loafer was originally going to be unlined, but the fit was inconsistent at the time. I love the unlined idea, but it’s actually quite hard to master, and your material options also become very limited. When you’re using the likes of CXL, a very elastic cow hide, lasting becomes very individual. Eventually we went back to lining the shoe, which created a more consistent fit, given that the upper had more structure.
If a development style is a priority, it takes about two years at our speed. A lot of teams can do it much quicker, but this where we land at this point. The loafer took three and a half years. I think I posted photos of the unlined loafer in an oxblood Dublin—that was our third rendition, and we didn’t release it for two years after that. We probably sampled it 10-15 times.
What’s Accomplished at the Factory…
When I was working in the factory full time, my responsibility was a little different. I was tracking the progress of the production and the sampling. Now when I go there, I’m not managing the scheduling and production development at the factory level. It’s mainly to see colleagues, to make that connection again. Usually we will have some things prepared from a development standpoint and you can actually review in person. But it’s really about going there and seeing everyone and doing things face-to-face for a week or two.
It’s also incredibly refreshing to be back where the magic happens. You know how it works, but when was the last time you saw it? “Hey remember that problem we told you about last week on WeChat? Here it is.” That’s crucial.
Something as simple as a welt stain can be a pain to tackle remotely. When you’re there, you can make a few trials and come to a conclusion the same day. More importantly, you can be more creative and try things. To do that in person with the team, it’s priceless.
…and How To Make it Feel Like You’re In the Factory, When You’re Not
In terms of quality control, usually every shipment we get in, we’ll make comments—either send an email or do a video conference. The person who does the QC at the factory, Eric, does a great job and knows what we are looking for. We worked together for quite a few years before I left, which means we both know how each other work, and what we expect. Stuff will always get past, but we’re very aligned on the standard.
While I’m here in Michigan, the factory lets me help with certain things like sourcing. Every brand has a different setup. Depending on what the leather is—with C.F. Stead or Horween or Annonay, I go back and forth and work directly with the tannery on new articles.
These tanneries have been gracious enough to work with us on smaller orders and even accommodate particular colors and small adjustments. If you’re going to create an article or adjust a tannage just for your program, you need to hit the tanneries’ minimums. They themselves have restrictions as they need to make full drums not only for efficiency but to make a consistent product. Luckily these tanneries offer an array of articles, and we barely scratch the surface.
When choosing a leather, we consider the pattern and what the shoe or boot will be used for. Then you can be somewhat creative and have fun with it a bit. While we do have some sales history and an idea of what sells well in particular categories, we are frequently surprised by some of the styles’ sales. And this is a good thing! Because we have seen unique products do well, so we can use leathers outside of the black and brown color family.
A good example of this might be the Cognac ostrich leather. It’s a really fun leather that performs well and it’s very different. Also, our team has experience with this leather and that is usually the main concern when working with exotics, so it was a no-brainer.
If anything, it’s more of a risk for the factory, working with expensive leather like this and holding inventory. The same thing applies to the likes of shell cordovan. It’s a very long process from ordering the material to shipping the shoes. Quite frankly, it’s a big risk.
Not being physically at the factory definitely has its downside when it comes to development, among other things. Luckily I have a fantastic team who we can go back and forth with on a daily basis. Wendy, who I work with on all our development, is a pretty critical part of GS considering she is now the boots on the ground, so to speak. In my experience, it’s really important to stay in the loop along the way and understand the issues they face.
There are a lot of things they don’t want to tell you or simply don’t have the time to if you’re not there troubleshooting together—pattern problems, material issues. It’s always something. Most of the time, their job is: this is the problem, I need you to choose A or B. You don’t want to leave too much to the customer, because they’ll tell you something else you can’t do, only complicating the issue.
Luckily, we have this relationship and I can say, “what’s the deal? What’s going on today?” That’s hugely helpful. It also speeds up the process, being able to Facetime someone at 6:30am if you forgot to add a detail in your email, instead of waiting for the following day to pick up the conversation.
Customer Service: A Never-Ending Loop of Good Feelings
There are emails all day. “What’s my size?” is 90% of the questions we get. “When is this coming in stock?” “I want to create an exchange.” “Where’s my pair?” We probably get 40-100 emails per day. “I lost my shoes, but I have a wedding in a day.” “I wore this shoe for five minutes, can I return it?” We have email tickets that have been open for six weeks for, say, someone who’s four pairs in but still trying to find the right size.
CS is one of our main priorities. I honestly have no clue how these large companies do it. It’s overwhelming just thinking about it. Continuing this level of customer service is always a concern as well. Whether it’s Josh, Parker or myself, we understand our footwear, how it’s made, the leather. But for larger companies, it’s simply not feasible.
We also have a sizing-line that customers can call and speak to Randy. It has always been difficult to connect the dots with the customers, selling DTC online. The personal interaction with the customer on the phone has been a great way to overcome that, and Randy has a knack for this. He asks them about their current footwear and possibly a photo, as many customers have never been fit before. It’s been quite helpful.
Giving the World a Chance to Learn More about Grant Stone
To date, I’m handling the Instagram account, sharing to Facebook, and the likes of our newsletters. I try to post on Instagram every other day, usually pulling from some photos that our photographer Lydia will take. I’m usually sharing a photo of hers, and then the stuff I’m wearing in the Stories, and every once in a while I’ll take photos myself to fill the gaps and keep things recent.
While the Instagram correspondence is my responsibility, Josh takes the FB messages and comments. Poor Josh: there is nothing like reading Facebook comments every morning at 7am. On the high end, in a day, we get maybe 40-50 DMs. And a lot of customers when they talk about sizing, it gets pretty in depth and it can take weeks.
For a newsletter, it’s pretty straightforward at this point. I really only send them when there are releases or events. Newsletters are not an easy one to hand off though, because there are a lot of details with the products. I’ve tried to use a digital marketing service, but they really aren’t set up to write content if they aren’t part of the team full time.
Lastly, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, I spend some time in the Stitchdown Discord and check Styleforum. In general, the platforms that provide more in-depth information for the customer have always worked better for us, than say your typical ad on the edge of your browser. It started with Styleforum back in 2016, seeing how that worked for us. The SDP Discord is now another great example of this, creating more of a community and place where people can discuss the products endlessly.
For the people who realize it’s Josh, Parker, or me replying, they sometimes find it pretty cool that it’s the same person they just spoke to on email and then shipping their pair. It’s also a good experience for the customer when they can ask the thickness of the CXL, what tannery is your lining from, or can you double check the outsole stitching because I really have a thing for it. And it’s like, sure. And we’ll check, and later that afternoon we ship.
Josh and I, we split up the website part. I do the photo side of things, setting the prices, and product page copy, and Josh will get more into the inventory, when it’s coming in, creating the purchase orders in the system.
Contending With the Realities of Being a Small Brand
The smaller you are, the more difficult just about everything is. Of course we’re not the smallest of brands—there are people who make a couple of pairs a month. For them, there’s no way a hide is going to cost the same as someone who’s making 20,000 pairs a year in one leather. What’s the bespoke maker paying for a pair of laces? Or a shoe box? A cobbler reached out to us and was asking where to buy 100 custom shoebags. That’s a difficult answer because most suppliers regardless of country will have a minimum in the thousands.
In this situation, you end up having to buy something custom, from someone who doesn’t have minimums. The bag might be $12. But if you’re buying 50,000 at a time, the price is a fraction. In this context, it’s pretty easy to understand why some shoes cost $1000 a pair and others cost $35.
I do think we are in a good position as the volume is not driving the business. We don’t need to make these time-critical calls that will make or break the program. That flexibility is incredibly helpful in terms of focusing more on the product. That being said, there are some companies who have grown over time and still manage to offer a valuable product. There are a lot of ways to do this.
While Allen Edmonds may not be making special make-ups for the niche crowd, or making as many high-end GYW shoes as they once were, it’s truly amazing what they offer as far as style count and widths. If a customer needs a size 15B dress shoe, AE is one of the only brands with this offering. And yet they’re making Goodyear welt shoes using leather components from the same tanneries that a guy making one pair at a time uses, to some extent.
A lot of teams have both shoe people and numbers people. The two tend not to mix, but that is the idea. Everyone just tries to find the balance they are comfortable with. There are brands that, if they can save a dollar by dropping a leather heel stack: done. The difference is so subtle aesthetically. However, you won’t see a $900 boot without it. And it makes a big difference for the people who are buying that boot and understand it. Luckily customers can see what components are being used and make that choice for themself.
Always Thinking About the Future—and How to Maintain Quality and Creativity
Today we are in a position to make a certain type of product, and our customers’ responses have been very encouraging. It gives me hope that we can continue down this path. We’re trying to make a better product, get further into the width game, use interesting leathers, just create something more unique.
I think the biggest question is, do we want to be doing this 15 years from now? And the answer is yes.
I think everyone involved is saying, “Oh, this is working. I hope we can do this forever.”