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Chicago footwear brand Bucketfeet trying on made-to-order shoes

You're used to having dinner made to order. How about a new pair of sneakers?

Chicago-based footwear brand Bucketfeet says it can now produce its shoes on demand, waiting until a customer has placed an order and then manufacturing the pair and delivering it within 10 days.

The company sells sneakers printed with designs submitted by its network of artists.

Producing shoes on demand will make Bucketfeet more efficient while letting the brand work with more designers and offer more styles, said co-founder and CEO Raaja Nemani, who credits advancing manufacturing technology for the move.

Bucketfeet plans to keep its three stores but is still deciding how best to use them once it's no longer producing inventory. Stores might serve as showrooms where customers can try on pairs for size and browse designs to order, or hold more events where customers can meet artists behind popular designs, Nemani said.

Making shoes in bulk is generally cheaper than making them to order. But that requires placing bets in advance on which shoes will sell.

And it's getting harder to guess right, Nemani said. Social media give consumers more options than ever before, and trends seem to be moving faster, he said.

"It's almost crazy to think that one buyer at one big department store can say, 'This is what will sell in twelve months,'" he said.

Bucketfeet already tries to get a better sense of what customers want by letting them vote on designs, but "there's definitely a difference between what people say they like and what they actually spend money on," he said.

Bucketfeet used to sell most of its shoes through other retailers, including Nordstrom. But those retailers wanted seasonal collections that required advance planning and "really big bets" on a few styles, Nemani said. In a season, Bucketfeet would typically work with only about 50 of its roughly 40,000 artists.

Within the past two years, it switched to selling virtually all of its shoes through its own stores and website. That helped Bucketfeet learn more about its customers and make better decisions about which products to carry. But it didn't change the fact that most manufacturers required Bucketfeet order, at minimum, "thousands of pairs of a single shoe," according to Nemani — until it found a China-based factory willing to produce shoes on demand.

He declined to name the company for competitive reasons, but said it's invested in technology to rapidly print a design on the upper portion of a shoe, and operates like a sample factory that can quickly produce small numbers of frequently changing items.

The made-to-order shoes will cost $85 — in the middle of the $65 to $110 Bucketfeet used to charge. Bucketfeet will also pay artists $10 for each pair sold bearing their work, up from $1. Nemani said Bucketfeet can afford to keep its average price the same because it's selling directly to consumers and will no longer incur costs related to storing inventory.

"As long as we can continue to deliver the same quality of product to our customers, we think the inventory-light model is only advantageous," he said.

Because the people selling designs on Bucketfeet promote their own work, he also hopes a bigger pool of artists will help the brand grow and bring in new customers, including some overseas. The manufacturer will be able to ship to 30 countries.

Nemani declined to comment specifically on the company's growth but said Bucketfeet is "more profitable than ever before" since shifting away from its wholesale business. Bucketfeet has raised more than $28.5 million in funding since it was founded in 2011.

Bucketfeet isn't the first footwear-maker to go on-demand. Australian brand Shoes of Prey lets customers pick a basic design to customize by picking elements like toe shape, materials and colors.

"They were definitely an inspiration, but we were excited to brag to (Shoes of Prey's co-founder and CEO) that we're a little faster, and we're the only ones doing it with sneakers," he said.

Bucketfeet is also planning to make it easier for people without design experience to submit artwork for a "true custom solution" in the next few months, and is working on rolling out a new product by the end of the year, he said.

lzumbach@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @laurenzumbach

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