Zappos vs. Piperlime: A head-to-head

Molly Wood compares Zappos.com with Piperlime.com

I am a big and vocal fan of Zappos.com for all things shoe. Huge selection, decent (if not bargain) prices, and free shipping. Returns are dead simple, and my love for Zappos has, at times, bordered on actual zealotry.

So, when the Gap Empire introduced Piperlime, I wasn't buying. It seemed like a Zappos rip-off with a more yuppie-friendly design scheme, and even though I'm a Banana Republic card holder and Gap Empire devotee, something about Piperlime just didn't work for me. Plus, they gave me the Web site hard sell--a constant barrage of coupons and insinuations that my BR outfit just wouldn't be complete without some Piperlime pumps. Feh.

But this weekend, I had a little bit of a Piperlime revelation, thanks to, well, my child. See, he won't wear shoes. In fact, if you put anything but Robeez on his delicate little tootsies, he shrieks and growls and moonwalks until you remove them and set his soles free. So, a friend told me about See Kai Run shoes, which have a more flexible sole than the standard Old Navy fare, and might be more palatable to Mr. Picky Toes. When I googled them, Piperlime had them for less than Zappos, with the same free shipping. Plus, checkout was super easy, since I could use my Gap Empire log-in and get all my saved info, just like I do at Zappos. I got to wondering...could Piperlime be better!? I decided a super-scientific evaluation was the only way to go. Let's begin.

Price
I found the See Kai Run shoes at Piperlime on sale for $25, down from $38. Zappos had a much bigger collection of See Kai Run shoes, but they were all $42, with nothing on sale at all. These Naturalizer Memento wedges are $59 at Zappos and $55 at Piperlime. A quick scan seems to suggest higher prices at Zappos across the board, and Piperlime has a much more price-conscious presentation--"great finds under $75," or "Fantastic finds under $100" under handbags.

Plus, according to recent reports, Zappos no longer matches prices from other retailers and has stopped offering free overnight shipping. Now, both Piperlime and Zappos offer the same free four- to five-day shipping, although Zappos will often "upgrade" you to two-day shipping. However, the price discussion leads directly to...

Selection
Zappos may be more expensive, but it's also the source for all kinds of designer brands that Piperlime simply can't match. Piperlime doesn't carry Badgley Mischka, Cole Haan, Marc by Marc Jacobs, or Marc Jacobs, for that matter. There's no Baby Phat, no Michael Kors, no Stuart Weitzman, and absolutely no D&G Junior. Then again, that keeps Piperlime's ratio of $500 shoes versus $50 shoes on a much more realistic plane than Zappos.

Even where there is brand crossover, though, Zappos has many more options. There were 27 choices in the aforementioned See Kai Run brand at Zappos and just 8 at Piperlime. And while Piperlime also offers handbags, Zappos has taken its shoes-and-bags formula and branched out into accessories, electronics, sunglasses, kids' clothing, and even watches. Mission creep? Maybe, but Amazon hasn't gone wrong with its one-stop shopping approach.

Ease of use
Zappos has been on a bit of a marketing spree lately, announcing its rollout of the new categories mentioned above, along with plans for a redesign that will make the site substantially easier to use. They haven't given a date for that redesign, though, so for now: my GOD is Zappos a pain to navigate. They know it, so I don't want to go on too much, but it's just a weird, kludgy, crowded little site that feels a bit like a tiny little boutique crammed with an entire Macy's worth of goods. You strongly sense that you might stumble upon something fabulous, but you've got to be willing to spend a whole Saturday there.

Piperlime, on the other hand, has the clean design of all Gap Empire sites, and once you get past its standard useless splash screen, makes excellent use of the left-hand nav to promote within appealing categories. Choose from "The weekend shoe," "Fabulous flats," "Designer favorites," "Fantastic finds under $75," or by category or brand. Here, the lack of selection feels more like something you can wrap your head around, and you have the sense that you'll find what you're looking for.

But design alone isn't enough, and Zappos has a killer feature that Piperlime can't touch: the user reviews. At Piperlime, I can sort by Featured, Price (low to high or high to low), or What's New. At Zappos, I can start out by determining shoe type, heel height, size, width, and color, or just hit "Sandals," where I can then drill down by all the previous categories, plus "new," "name," "low price," "high price," and the Holy Grail: "popularity." That one click gives me the most highly rated shoes in the category, and they're rated by the people who actually bought and wore the shoes. BOOM.

I can't tell you how valuable this one thing has proven to be, over and over, when it comes to ordering shoes online. I've ordered shoes half a size too big, thanks to Zappos, and had them fit perfectly. I've rejected adorable flats when five people in a row said they were miserably uncomfortable. Anyone who orders shoes or clothes online knows that fit is the ultimate crapshoot, and Zappos' user reviews take so much guesswork out of the ordering that I'd bet it contributes to a much lower instance of returns overall.

Customer service
Piperlime has matched Zappos on free shipping and free returns, but Zappos has bought the love of women everywhere with the free overnight shipping...that it no longer offers. It's definitely a blow to the brand to discover that some of its most customer-friendly features, like free overnight shipping and price matching, are gone. Still, I ordered running shoes from Zappos last week, and they were here within two days. I can't say much about Piperlime in that respect, as I just placed my first order today. I did, however, get an e-mail that said the shoes should arrive within seven business days. I'll tell you one thing: if it really takes seven days for those shoes to get here, Piperlime won't be beating out Zappos anytime soon.

But as I said, Zappos' best feature is not just its customer service. It's its actual customers--the ones who take the time to review shoes and offer tips as to sizing, fit, and comfort so you can actually buy with confidence. It'd take a lot of mistakes and mishandling of orders to undue the value of that community.

The verdict
So, winner? Well, I only have four categories in my little head-to-head, and I seem to have ended in a tie. From a purely emotional standpoint, I'm still a Zappos fan, because I think the idea of customer reviews for shoes is sheer, unparalleled genius. But check back with me in a week or so to see how it goes with the kid-shoe adventure. Piperlime is coming up fast from behind.

 

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