How TOMS Shoes digitally transformed its material development
Known for their iconic espadrille shape, TOMS shoes are synonymous with comfort, sustainability, and charity.
Since the company launched in 2006 with the goal of giving one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold, TOMS has now donated more than 100 million pairs of shoes. Recently TOMS evolved its giving model to donate one third of all profits for grassroots good, helping to fund access to mental health resources for the millions of people who need them. Needless to say, a lot more than fabric goes into this mission-driven product, and no one knows that better than Misty Curtis, Director of Material Development.
Her team is responsible for sourcing and developing all of the raw materials for TOMS footwear, so whether it’s printed leather or speckled twill, each piece was carefully curated by her team. It’s extremely nuanced work.
To find the right fit Misty’s team analyzes between 700 and 1,000 new materials each spring and fall season across the United States and Asia. They not only source all of the raw materials for TOMS footwear but they work closely with the design team to establish commercial requirements for those materials and relay that information to suppliers. The pandemic made what was already a daunting task even more so by isolating each individual team member to their homes.
“Our work has changed dramatically. Before the pandemic we had to look at everything in a physical state; now we do everything digitally. Airtable enables us to do our work remotely.”
When everyone was first sent to work from home, swatches for each material were stored on an internal server, and Misty’s team had to spend a couple of minutes downloading each individual image to review it. Once they identified materials that met TOMS’ standards and that they hoped to develop for the upcoming season, the team would track them in a spreadsheet, create presentations with each image, the cost of the material, yardage, sustainability standards, regulated color standards, and more. All of this would then be sent to their product design, merchandising, and leadership partners. If someone from one of those functions disagreed, the process would start over. Once a season was finalized, Misty's team would update the presentation and upload it to the server. The whole process could take up to two weeks, and with three rounds of samples for both spring and fall they’d repeat this routine six times each year. “It was overwhelming. My team was just working nonstop and it was just not an efficient process at all,” Misty said.
"With Airtable we get those six weeks back, and we've also gone from six tools to one," Misty said. They’re no longer creating those tedious presentations or spending time uploading and downloading images. Instead Airtable serves as their materials library. With gallery view each swatch has its own individual card that shows the color name, type of fabric, season it’s tied to, shoe model, pattern, cost per square foot, team notes, and approval status.
“Airtable gives us at least 20-30% of our time back.”
Everyone can review, comment, and approve materials all within Airtable. An email digest containing approved materials is automatically sent to colleagues each day. “The way we have it set up is great. Our team in LA will finish work around six o’clock so the first thing our partners in Asia will see in the morning is all of the work that we've done that day,” Misty said.
Now, TOMS also has easy cloud-based access to the entire history of materials the team has developed. Previously if someone wanted to find a swatch that was developed two or three seasons ago they’d have to sift through multiple folders for each individual season every year, with no search function. “It could take you 30 minutes to find one image, but in Airtable that takes 30 seconds,” Misty said. Now, searching for the word “plaid” in Airtable shows you every plaid swatch TOMS has ever produced or considered.
As a manager Misty says Airtable has been a bright spot for her team during remote work since it’s taken away something tedious and freed them up to do the work they enjoy. This system also improves visibility for leadership without micromanaging: “Airtable creates a lot of transparency. It helps to build trust within your team while also making sure the work is actually happening,” she said.
Now Misty is creating a system in Airtable to help TOMS predict which materials they’ll want to order and how much time they’ll take to arrive. It’s something she anticipates will save TOMS more time and money down the line. Misty says, “we could customize it ourselves which makes Airtable such a great solution. It’s given me space to look at things that I wasn't able to look at before and do other things that are important to the company.”