Photo courtesy Joanne Chang

Not all shoes are made alike. Joanne Chang is the co-owner of Nice Shoes, a brand new Canadian vegan shoe store, and one of the first in Vancouver, where her store is based.

Chang gives credence to the friendly vegan stereotype. Perhaps this is why her store’s branding is so inviting, much like a footwear version of the cruelty-free body product store, LUSH, with bubbly and hip Nice Shoes imagery on the website and storefront. Vegan Mainstream spoke with Chang to learn more about what prompted her to open a vegan shoe shop, and how she pulled it off.

Vegan Mainstream: What gave you the idea to open the first vegan shoe store in Vancouver?

Joanne Chang: I’ve been vegetarian since 1989 and vegan since 1994, and as all vegans know, it’s a challenge to find non-leather shoes. For Canadians, it’s even more so. Any vegan can relate to the experience of going into a shoe store and dealing with sales people trying to sell you leather shoes. So that’s one issue.

For Americans, you can order from all sorts of online stores like Moo Shoes and Vegan Essentials but in Canada we don’t have anything. We either order from the US or the UK and pay a bunch of import fees, or we end up with Payless. It’s really frustrating! So I wanted to open a store that’s focused on the Canadian audience. We offer free shipping for anything within Canada over $100. It’s making non-leather shoes accessible for Canadians at an affordable price.

VM: How did you get your business off the ground? What did you have to do to get it started?

JC: Not a whole lot. We started seriously planning in June 2010 and we were open by March 2011. My husband and I co-own the business. For the nine months, we brainstormed about the concept of the store, searched online to see what products we wanted to buy and then I took some workshops offered by a local nonprofit. They have workshops that help you start up your own business and I took their Startups for Small Business 1-2-3, and that’s how we got started.

VM: Did you find you had a whole lot of success off the bat being the only vegan store?

JC: It’s still hard to tell. We just had our first year anniversary, but yes, people were very, very excited to see a vegan shoe store opening up in their community. In Vancouver, there’s a huge vegan community and it’s getting stronger every day. My husband and I are activists in the community and we know a lot of people, so we were able to spread the word before we opened.

VM: What did you both do before you opened Nice Shoes?

JC: My husband still works for a company that does fundraising for nonprofits. Professionally, I was working in recruiting in HR [Human Resources]. We are both still very active in the animal rights community, both sitting on boards and acting as volunteers for animal rights organizations locally.

VM: From your one year of going strong, what advice do you have for others wanting to embark on a similar path?

JC: That’s a good question. Really, just follow your heart. You’re never going to be as prepared  for the challenges as you want to be. We were thinking of opening a shoe store for about ten years. It was a lot of fear holding us back. So just go for it.

VM: What are your most popular items?

JC: Women’s shoes for sure. Flats. No heels! We learned that the hard way when we bought a bunch of heels when we first started. Nobody wanted to wear heels. Bags. People do love vegan bags.

VM: So you do men’s and women’s shoes as well as some accessories? Out of curiosity, it sounds fun going to market. How do you go about selecting the designers and brands you sell?

JC: We go to shoe shows all over in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver. We go to a show about once every six months to talk to different shoe companies. The added challenge for vegans – and consumers can relate to this – but the people selling your shoes don’t understand why you don’t want leather. If there are bits and pieces of leather on the shoe, they might overlook that and say it’s all synthetic.

For us, there’s a lot of online research to see what companies carry vegan-friendly products, then going to the shoe shows to talk to the sales reps. The most success we have is with recommendations from our customers.

VM: The shows you go to are not just for vegan items?

JC: It would be nice if there was a vegan shoe show! One day…

We carry some vegan brands as well, and those are easy – you just pick the style you like. But there are other companies now that are also tapping into the vegan market. They have mostly leather shoes, but they’ll have a vegan line of shoes and it is clearly marked vegan.

VM: So, is it getting easier now?

JC: It is getting a little easier now, although we find that we stil have to educate leather shoe selling companies that sell vegan shoes. We found a brand, I won’t say which one, that was labeling a specific shoe vegan. We always do research on all the shoes, and we found out it had ten per cent wool in it. They didn’t understand why wool was not vegan and we had to educate them on why wool is not vegan.

VM: So you have to do a little activism in your shoe purchasing!

JC: It’s a little frustrating, but I think what we do is take that frustration away from our customers having to do that every time they go to the store to shop.

Screen shot from Nice Shoes' Facebook page

VM: Since Vegan Mainstream focuses on vegan marketing, I wanted to talk a little about your branding. Your Facebook page and website are fun and edgy. When you were starting, what was your idea in branding yourself?

JC: We wanted a vegan shoe store, but we didn’t want the “vegan” to be very obvious because people have certain ideas of what vegan shoes might look like. Before we opened, word spread in our neighborhood that we were opening up a vegan, eco shoe store and people started calling us the Hemp Store. We only have a couple of hemp items!

It was very important for us to not fall into certain stereotypes people have about what vegan shoes look like or what a vegan store is. We wanted something that doesn’t say “vegan shoes,” so that’s why we came up with the name Nice Shoes, as opposed to mean shoes.  Vegans see that and immediately get it, “Oh, Nice Shoes!” But other people might say, “Oh yeah, it’s because you have lots of nice shoes.”

We try to avoid vegan stereotypes as much as possible and make it look fun and stylish. Even the products we carry, we get lots of regular foot traffic. People tell us we have nice stuff, without knowing it’s vegan.

VM: I saw on your website that you give ten percent off to students all the time. What would you say your demographic is?

JC: Again, we try not to stereotype the vegan. People I talk to assume we just have a bunch of hippies who shop at our store, or people with tattoos, but vegans cover a wide spectrum of people. Veganism simply means people that are compassionate and don’t want to cause harm. We have professionals. We have 80-year-old grandmothers. We have teenagers. It’s just all over the map.

Students don’t have a lot of money. I think it’s very commendable that students make ethical choices and go out of their way to make those choices just because of how much money they have [or don’t have!] in their bank accounts. We want to reward students and commend them for making those choices.

VM: Where do you see your company going — what are your goals for the next few years?

JC: First, we would like to survive.

We want to continue to grow and incorporate more brands and more styles so everybody can come in and find a shoe that they want.

VM: Do you plan on expanding at all?

JC: Right now we’re just focused on the one shop. It would be nice to expand into either manufacturing our own brand or opening up a second location, but that is way down the road.

We hope Nice Shoes will be around for a long time…Find them on Facebook!