According to an October 28, 2006, article in the Washington Post, Piperlime’s genesis was Gap Inc.’s research of its online customers. Although the company sells its own shoes branded by Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, its shoppers’ feet were more often clad with shoes from other brands.
Piperlime is a composite brand name (like JetBlue) that was created, apparently, at random. “We thought of words we liked and put them together," said Gap Inc. Direct president Toby Lenk in an August 1, 2006, USA Today article. "We loved piper as a word, and we loved lime, and it’s really as simple as that."
Not as simple is whether Piperlime will become a field marshal or mere foot solider in the crowded battle for dominance in the online shoe-retail market. Gap Inc. is betting that despite the increasing number of players—auction sites like eBay, online homes of brick-and-mortar retailers like J.C. Penney, and e-commerce sites like Zappos, the footwear juggernaut that's expecting revenues of US$ 600 million this year—the $2.9 billion market (expected to grow to $5.5 billion by 2010) is a pool deep enough to dip a toe into.
A company's website is an important place for a brand—especially an online-only brand—to establish an identity. We stepped into piperlime.com to see if the shoe fits.
It's immediately apparent that the site is focusing strictly on the "lime" part of Piperlime: green is the theme, shoe blurbs are called "fresh juice," and the brand logo is a slice of the eponymous citrus fruit. Plus, there are no piper references—from bagpipes to wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper—anywhere.
A site visitor is greeted by a stylish boot (a $395 Kenneth Cole New York boot, to be precise) from which a branch sprouting—yes, limes—has apparently grown. The only other photo on the homepage is that of Rachel Zoe, a celebrity stylist serving as the site's first "guest editor." Click on (or around) her face to read her advice on choosing boots (she favors white, equestrian, round-toed, platform-heeled models).
As is the case on the other Gap Inc. brand sites, the Piperlime homepage has only a few hints of its parentage. A small box in one corner has links to company's major brands, and there’s an offer for 10 percent off your purchase if you pay with your Old Navy, Gap, or Banana Republic credit card.
On the other Gap Inc. sites, Piperlime promotion is inconsistent. The Old Navy and Banana Republic homepages (but not the shoe sections) have a small banner with the Piperline logo, Gap has merely a text link at the bottom of the page, and Forth & Towne doesn't mention Piperlime at all. But if any of the brands had your e-mail address from a previous purchase, you would have been well informed about Piperlime leading up to the launch.
Most early media coverage compared the site with Zappos, but Gap Inc. claims that its newest brand is not trying to directly compete with the Bigfoot of online shoes. Indeed, although the two sites have much in common—free shipping for purchases and returns, multiple views of each product, several search options—there are some notable differences. The Zappos homepage is a cluttered portal of thumbnails and links, the online equivalent of big-box discount shoe shops like Brown Shoe Company's Famous Footwear, where customers sort through shelves of shoeboxes for the right brand and size. Piperline's clean design, in contrast, recalls one of the fancier shoe stores at the mall or a higher-end department store.
This analogy also applies to their inventory. Piperlime's selection represents about 100 brands, whereas Zappos sells just about anything you can slip your foot into, including a pair of six-inch platform sandals featuring motion-activated blue lights in the clear acrylic midsole and heel. (And unlike Piperlime, Zappos also sells other apparel, including eyewear, watches, and bags.)
The number of Piperlime-carried brands may be limited, but for women, at least, it's not limiting: the 111 pairs of flats range in price from $40 to more than ten times that amount. Men might feel they're getting short shrift, though: the selection of fewer than two dozen brands is barely more than what's available for babies—many of whom only recently learned how to walk. In an October 23, 2006, article in the New York Times, a senior vice president at 6pm.com, another online shoe-seller, sniffed, "You're not really in the men's business with 20 brands."
Piperline's look is very clean, but the shopping could use some streamlining. Although the sorting function allows you to filter to a particular price range, the shoes cannot be arranged in price order. Nor can they be listed alphabetically: in the women's sneaker section, a pair of Keds is followed by two pairs of Sketchers and then another three pairs of Keds. If there is a method to how the shoes are organized, it's not intuitive.
The site's "designer boutique" section highlights high-end women's brands: each of five shoe companies gets its own branded page. Few shoes on these pages are under $300, and some go as high as $1,000.
The best part of the Piperlime shopping experience is the "quick look" feature, a popular functionality adapted from the other Gap Inc. sites. When you're on a page with 16 thumbnails, for example, you can summon a small popup window with extensive details on a particular shoe—without having to leave, then return, to the original page. This allows a faster shopping experience that eliminates page-reloading time.
Piperlime plans to offer more shoe brands, and one can expect the site to further evolve as more guest editors are added and Gap Inc. assesses the site's initial results. The brand is well positioned to become a player in the growing online-shoe market. Like Starbucks, Piperlime is an "accessible luxury" brand: you might not be able to afford those $1,000 shoes, but the $40 flats are within reach. (And comparison-shoppers will notice that those homepage-featured boots are currently a few dollars cheaper than the Zappos price.)
Piperlime might not directly affect the other Gap Inc. brands, but its revenues will help shore up Gap Inc.'s bottom line. And while the site likely won't topple Zappos, the other online shoe-sellers might have reason to be shaking in their boots.