How Vessi’s relief for frontline workers tripled sales

The sneaker brand used feedback from its many healthcare customers to create a program that turned discounts into donations.

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In the past five weeks, Vancouver-based footwear company Vessi has used input from its community to guide its three COVID-19 relief efforts – which has come with the side effect of tripling its sales.

Based on feedback from its customers, the sneaker company donated more than 2,000 pairs of waterproof shoes to frontline healthcare workers and established a ‘pay what you can model’ for its customers to help purchase and donate surgical masks to healthcare organizations in both Canada and the U.S.

Tony Yu, co-founder of Vessi, says frontline workers already made up a large portion of the customer base for its stylish-yet-functional sneakers, and it wanted to give back to its core community. But since it couldn’t give free shoes to everyone, the company came up with the “pay-what-you can” initiative, to help fund the additional purchase of personal protective equipment.

Customers could decide what level of discount to take on their purchase to choose how big of a donation to make. For customers that are working in healthcare or simply facing financial hardships due to job loss, they could take a 40% discount, with no questions asked and no donation being made (“It’s been a tough few weeks and we won’t hold that against you,” the website says). But if someone took only a 30% discount, Vessi could donate 80 masks; if the customer purchased their shoes at full price, the company could donate 110 masks.

Yu says the pay-what-you-can project combined the two biggest pieces of feedback the company received from its community. They said PPE donations were sorely needed, but would also appreciate a discount if free shoes were no longer an option. Vessi initially set out to purchase and donate 30,000 surgical masks on its own. But by the end of the campaign, Vessi ended up raising enough for 400,000 surgical masks.

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The pay-what-you-can initiative has ended, but now the company has launched the “Vessi Community Fund,” which is tapping its customer community to raise money for “supporting and empowering everyday heroes” who are looking to make an impact in their community by donating profits from shoe purchases.

“If we can get through this COVID-19 situation together, we can be that outlet for our customers,” he says. “We’re empowering our own customers to help give back to a greater entity.”

Yu says the community fund is also supporting initiatives customers are already taking part in, such as painting murals for hospitals, or 3D printing face shields. The company will give away $1,000 a day to 10 community projects, and has allocated $100,000 to the community fund, to start.

Yu says the spike in sales since launching the pay-what-you can initiative last month can be attributed to more awareness the company is generating – combined with the goodwill it is developing and the lower price point the shoes are selling at. “It seems like our community wants more community relief efforts – so that’s kind of the direction we’re going,” he says. “The sales increase has just been a show of approval, maybe… of what we’re doing.”

Yu notes that Vessi is typically “pretty heavy” on paid advertising, which has helped it grow its business. But after the pandemic started, it saw an “immediate downturn” in sales and revenue, Yu says. He did not disclose a number, but across the category, sales are down 40% since the start of the pandemic.

“Things just weren’t converting as well. So, we quickly evaluated what we should do there.” Yu says the company had a lot of marketing budget left, and that it was essentially sitting there. “Because we just wanted to give back, we shifted our marketing budget to community relief efforts. Us, as founders, we always try to give back to the community. If we can make it better, we’re making our home a little better.”

Yu says Vessi is a “pretty omni-channel” company, as they are present on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. But the awareness for the company’s latest initiatives came mostly from social media and word-of-mouth.