Moranbah shoe empire taps in to transgender market in a big way
WHEN Melissa Westcott was growing up, wearing men's shoes was often her only option.
By the time she was 12, Melissa had size 12 feet and buying a nice pair of ladies sandals was out of the question.
With big feet in her genes, it was an issue all of the ladies in her family endured and there was an ongoing joke that one day they would open their own shoe store with larger footwear.
So in 2009, Melissa took the plunge and launched 'Big on Shoes', an online store supplying ladies shoes from size 5 up to 15.
"When I was on my first lot of maternity leave I started researching the idea. A few people laughed at me when I told them what I wanted to do and said 'that's never going to happen' but that just made me more determined,'' Melissa said of her business journey.
"I found factories in Spain and when we first started Big on Shoes it was with our own manufactured shoes. We did that for about two years and then started brining other brands in, lost that factory and now we have about 35 brands in shoes."
As word of the Big on Shoes brand spread, Melissa said an unexpected market emerged: transgender clients.
"My dad actually suggested we go down to the Mardi Gras and we didn't really think much of it. Then we got one customer, then two, then three and it kept going," she said.
"At the beginning we didn't know where they were on their journey, but then they started to tell us and became more open as they realised we were happy with what was going on. It's really exciting to be a part of it.
"The first phone call could be from John and within two years you are talking with Josephine. You actually go on the journey with them and it's really nice. The difference from where they were to where they end... once they feel right in themselves and you have been a part of making them get that right is a really good feeling.
"We have a solid transgender customer base, they are just part of our customers base now. Everyone is the same. Everyone just wants nice shoes."
With an ever-growing online sales base of transgender clients and big-footed ladies, Melissa said the business sky rocketed and her home-based operation became too much to handle.
"I was home based for five years and we actually outgrew our house. I had three kids during that time and I was working full time at the Moranbah High School as a projects manager. We couldn't physically fit in our house any more," she said.
"My kids were in one room and we had shoes everywhere, all down the hallway and at friend's places stored. I bought out two business during that time and took all their inventory. We bought a sandal range out and there was about 1600 pairs.
"It just wasn't feasible anymore. I was working full time and trying to run the business at night. So we started looking originally for a warehousing space but thought if were going to pay rent we may as well open a shop front."
In 2013 Melissa opened her first shop front in Moranbah and by 2015, had expanded to Mackay with sister Katie running the second store. Big on Shoes also stock local accessories brand Empire of Bees which launched around the same time as their Moranbah store opening.
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Melissa said customers were constantly surprised to find size 15 shoes in store.
"A lot of ladies come in and they say they just want to cover their feet, they hate their feet and they don't feel confident because they've got these big, ugly feet but once they get a pretty pair of sandals on that go up to their size their confidence comes back," she said.
"A lot of the customers that we've got have been big footed since they were early teenagers and we have customers that are 40-50 years old. In our Moranbah store we have a thank-you note framed from a lady who spent 35 years looking for a pair of sandals to fit her.
"Once you get the shoes, you can buy the pretty dress to go with it and everything changes."
While business is great in-store, Melissa said online was where the tremendous growth was happening.
"We have doubled our online sales in the past six months. New Zealand is our biggest international customer base, PNG and then around Europe," she said.
Big on Shoes is currently being showcased for their dynamic lead on the shoe industry in QPAC's latest tunnel exhibition in Brisbane which will remain on display until January.
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