Innovative Retailer: Atoms

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Name: Atoms

The Place: Headquartered in Brooklyn, US. No shops yet – it’s more of an online outfit. And it’s teeny weeny – less than 20 employees.

The Story: Shoes. We all have to have them, it’s one of the very few universal products. The world must be shod!

Can’t argue with it so far: And yet it is claimed that a vast number of us spend our adult lives in the wrong size shoes because the full and half size model is just too restrictive.

Honestly, how is that even possible? Well of course, the old shoe slide of childhood days works just fine for some. No one is denying that.

Good, because I like those things: But the room between a 6½ and a 7 is pretty sizeable. And did you realise that the majority of people also have different sized feet. And that despite all the colour/design customisation and personalisation you could shake a stick at not many shoe manufacturers are addressing that problem?

Can’t say that I did: They continue to insist on sending people shoes in pairs of the same size. The fiends…

It’s an outrage. I am outraged: This is just one of the things that Atoms is seeking to rectify. So if you order a pair of shoes from them you can expect to get no less than six shoes in the post.

Crikey: Yes, three for each foot in the sizes around your stated size. The ‘buy, try, keep what works’ scenario.

I’ll tell you what, that sounds complicated: It’s not complicated for the consumer but it must be an absolute mare for the warehouse staff.

Anyway, we are running ahead of ourselves. Take me back through the annals of shoe time all the way back to? Umm. 2012. The founders are married couple Sidra Qasim and Wakas Ali, originally of Pakistan, where they started their first venture Markhor using the craftsmen in their hometown.

Atoms founders: Sidra Qasim (l) and Wakas Ali

Did they send everyone six shoes then? Err no. But they did specialise in hand-making dress shoes for men and this is the basis of the whole concept really. Make one kind of shoe and make it the best it can be so that it can be worn for any occasion and for any purpose at any time.

No one in America wears dress shoes: Precisely. So when in 2015 the couple were accepted onto the prestigious Silicon Valley accelerator programme ‘Y Combinator’ with lots of funding and all that, they realised that America was truly another country in terms of shoe-wear. Which led to them doing the same design thing over again but this time with sneakers.

Trainers: I’m going to call them sneakers because it is an American-based company. And anyway whatever you call them they all have elastic laces.

I beg your pardon? Honestly, it’s worth including them in this column purely for this innovation alone. What’s the most annoying thing about shoes?

I’ll ask the questions, thank-you: Go on then.

What’s the most annoying thing about shoes? The bit where they are too tight and you have to keep tying, loosening and retying the laces every time you put them on. You can kiss that kind of rubbish goodbye with Atoms shoes. You tie it once tight enough and then for ever after you just slip them on and off and they spring back to being tight enough.

That’s actually so simple I’m amazed no one else did that before: Well, they didn’t. And here’s another. Quarter sizes – no more “they nearly feel okay so I’ll get them”. This lot are aiming for the ultimate snug fit every time. Here’s another: the tongue is specially designed not to slip down.

How big is the range? Tapping neatly into the current trend towards having no choice whatsoever, it’s tiny. There is currently one shoe – it’s called the Atoms Model 000 and it comes in black. And it comes in white. And then it got really exciting because it also comes in…

And then there was one: the Model 000

Black and white? Correct. Atom has designed a custom foam which moulds to your feet and some kind of anti-bacterial copper is sewn into the insoles.

Copper, what on earth for? It kills bacteria and prevents odours. The company’s aim is to create a common object in a beautiful way. They don’t want it to look too sporty or too fashionable – that’s not the target market.  

Talking of markets, what is the retail price of this 000 model? The original colour ways mentioned above retail at $129 a pair. Now and then Atom does drop a limited edition colour (recent iterations were ocean blue or pink coral) and they are $169 but if you buy one of these you unlock various member benefits. The aim is to offer a shoe that you can wear all day at work and then go out in at night and it still feels comfortable and looks good in both places.

I take it the sustainability targets are all in order: Oh yes. 100% vegan, all carbon offset, no water used in the dyeing process. Trade-in programme on the way and Covid-19 has sent another ethical opportunity Atom’s way.

How so? They have re-purposed some of their Korean workforce into making masks – with the copper anti-bacterial material. They are £10 and if you buy one they donate another to a vulnerable person. Same with the limited edition shoes – for every pair purchased another is given to a New York medical professional.

So when can we look forward to the Atom 001 model in the UK: That would be telling – it has plenty of Silicon Valley money behind it now and Reddit founder and Mr Serena Williams, Alexis Ohanian, is on the board. But it’s not immune to getting it wrong – a particularly flowery back story narrative about the founders’ business journey led to widespread social media ridicule and mocking headlines on Gizmodo such as ‘Silicon Valley invents shoes’.

Ah, bless ‘em, they’re only young: I know. And elastic laces remember – you heard it here first.

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