“Happy Feet,” the reliably funny Alexandra Jacobs’s feature on Zappos in the latest New Yorker was not at all what I was expecting. I can’t tell if the story is what she was expecting either. I thought it would be about online shopping: how shoes, as a category, have triumphed over our fear of not being able to try things on. I knew there would be a Sex and the City reference (James Urbaniak plays the creepiest shoe salesman). I thought there might be some trend-spotting (the ascendant oxford, for example, makes an appearance in the profile of Kelly Wearstler in the same issue). Instead, it is a business story, one which reveals the company’s truly weird corporate culture originating with 35-year-old CEO Tony Hsieh. Real-live-person customer service is a plus, but perhaps not when cheerfulness is a ten-point mandate, soon to be repackaged as the path to Happiness.
It also failed to address my burning question: Why is Zappos so ugly? I was recently criticized for using that word in an architecture review (see second-to-last comment), but I know no other to describe the site. Take a look at the current home page, festooned with boxes, lists, buttons and unattractive photos, everything hot-linked. So many words. So much scrolling. It is hard to see the shoes for the text. I have never ordered anything from Zappos and the eye-assault of the website has a lot to do with it. (Also the fact that they rarely have the best price.) When I shop I like a clean zone around the object of my potential affection and Zappos made the shoes look less rather than more attractive to me, squeezing them over to the side until a recent revamp (page above is from 2008). My husband thinks I may be insulting the Greeks if I add that the word Zappos itself has a flimsy feel better suited to a hot dog stand on a boardwalk. The New Yorker says it is a made-up word derived from the Spanish for shoes, zapato, but I always thought it was from zap, for fast.
Zappos’s rivals all feature much cleaner web design (and indeed, new-model Zappos seems to be imitating them) but each suffers from other interface problems. Only Zappos groups all the different colors of the same shoe in one place. On shoes.com and piperlime.com you might never know, if you don’t keep clicking through the grids of shoes, that that wedge comes in patent as well as snakeskin. I wish they all had more refined pricing widgets, breaking it down in smaller increments and would not trumpet the percentage off louder than the actual price. At shoes.com the whole top of your screen gets filled with a line-up of the most popular shoes, something I am never interested in.
Jacobs rightly points out how inexplicable the name Piper Lime is, but it works for me. Piper is a currently trendy little-girl name, symbol of the reproductive aspirations of thirtysomething women who might be shopping for shoes. Lime is perky, zesty and gives the company a rationale for a nice slice logo and citrus shoe packaging. Piperlime.com was my favorite of the sites because it mimicked the clean design of the Gap site and stores before everything had to be Flash and fashionable. Their photography is still the best. But it too has become cluttered with other products, other suggestions. Is this one of WNYC’s uncommon economic indicators? Just as stores try to pack in more merchandise and place more sale signs out front, the shoe websites are trying to add accessories and offers, manifestations of desperation. Don’t they know by now that more looks cheap and we buy shoes to look better off?