Is there anything easier to buy online than shoes? There’s a litany of boutique footwear e-commerce sites, resale platforms like Goat or StockX, behemoths like Amazon and Walmart, and Nike’s SNKRS app lingering in the background. But in 1999, when Nick Swinmurn was unsuccessfully looking for a pair of desert boots in San Francisco, there were zero. So he started a website where people could buy shoes. He named it…shoesite.com. Eventually, he met an entrepreneur named Tony Hsieh, who invested in the company—and thought it could use a less generic name. Zappos was born. A year later, Hsieh came on as cofounder and co-CEO.
Tragically, Hsieh died at the age of 46 on November 27, from injuries suffered in a house fire in Connecticut. He had retired from the company in August, but in his 20 years there, he fundamentally transformed the way we shop online.
In the beginning, even Hsieh wasn’t sure people would be interested in shopping online for apparel. “I thought that selling shoes online sounded like a poster child for bad internet ideas,” he wrote in 2010. At the time, Amazon was successfully hawking books—but moving a one-size-fits-all product is a lot different than trying to persuade customers to buy something much more subjective, like shoes. The reason we are so comfortable with the concept today is due in no small part to Hsieh’s ingenuity.
Zappos converted customers by introducing what are now mostly standard policies across online shopping sites: free shipping, free returns, and a generous window to send back unwanted merchandise. In the early 2000s, these were radical innovations, and they soothed customers who were anxious at the prospect of buying shoes online. Think of the era before StockX and SNKRs: You’d go to your local mall, ask an associate in a striped referee shirt for some help, and hold your breath until they walked out of the backroom with a tower of boxes. “Sorry, we didn’t have those in a 9.5, but we do have a 7, 13, and a completely different style in a 9.” Hsieh’s policies were designed to make buying shoes a little less miserable.
With Zappos, that Jenga tower of shoes could come to customers’ homes, no commitments necessary. Free shipping and returns, as well as a full year to return the shoes, meant that customers could order as many shoes as they wanted and keep only the ones they liked. Hsieh’s then revolutionary policies are now the bedrock of other companies. Amazon’s free shipping comes as a premium to subscribing customers, while the direct-to-consumer unicorn Warby Parker boasts of the ability to let customers order multiple items at once, so shades fiends can try them on at home without consequence.
Hsieh will be remembered for his quirks—he introduced a manager-free hierarchy at Zappos, and kept a pet alpaca named Marley—but for all his idiosyncrasies, his real legacy lies in the way he shaped the modern era of online shopping. Zappos’s success was the result of Hsieh’s understanding that selling apparel online was a knotty concept, one he’d have to revolutionize to get people on board.