Despite a highly competitive and saturated marketplace, the three emerging retailers chosen for this feature stand out from the crowd by inspiring the customer not only with great product but with messages and actions that create a sense of meaning and purpose for the individual and for the communities in which they live, online and off.
To make their visions come to life, they are embracing technology across their supply chains and into their online and brick-and-mortar stores, keeping the customer experience in the center of it all.
REFORMATION: CHEEKY WITH A BOLD AND SUSTAINABLE VISION
The first time I encountered Reformation I was caught by the tag line. “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” It was bold and funny and transmitted the essence of the brand in just a few words.
A more recent visit: The brand’s cheekiness (pun intended) is on full display, with the top of the thereformation.com home page featuring a video clip focusing on the bottom region of a female model. Overlaying the video are the words: “My butt is down here.”
Where that subversion of “my eyes are up here” sits along the spectrum of feminist thought I have no intention of debating here, but the retailer’s irreverence is fun and the clothes are fantastic. If you don’t believe me, just ask high-profile Reformation fans such as musical artists Taylor Swift or Rihanna.
That, we should keep in mind, is the core of any successful business: great product or service. Without an excellent product that speaks to the consumer, no amount of same-day delivery, or innovative technology or attentive customer service is going to cut it.
But once you bake the cake, the icing sure adds sweetness, and Reformation has that in spades, too. For one thing, it has other missions besides keeping you from walking around with all of your information hanging out: “We make killer clothes that don’t kill the environment.” In other words, the brand was built from the ground up on sustainable principles such as using dead stock fabric, focusing on lowering water and carbon footprints and providing clothing labels that instruct customers how to send in their apparel for repurposing. Reformation focuses on sustainability in sourcing of materials, dyeing fabrics, manufacturing, packaging and shipping, and shares its carbon, water and waste footprint online.
If you think of sustainability in all of its forms: lean operations, clean lines and conservation of movement and offering service and experience that keeps your customers coming back again and again — all of which makes your business sustainable in the long-term, you might say on that score Reformation has tacked a few theses about the customer experience to its dressing room door.
The online retailer made a splash when it started opening chic, high-tech stores (now numbering 14), where it is melding all of the ease people love about online shopping with the best of the touch-and-feel brick-and-mortar experience.
Designed to look much like showrooms, Restoration stores welcome with big open spaces and just one of each item in one size on the retail floor. Consumers may browse the clothes, touch and feel and discover what they like, and then select the items they'd like to try on and in what sizes via touchscreens located around the store. Because there is just one of each item, the stores stay clean and organized and are visually attractive.
Next up comes the unique Reformation dressing room experience, which is a bit like a real-life version of the wardrobe scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, but instead of opening into a land of mythical creatures, it’s a Narnia of fashion delights. This is how it works: After selecting your items, you’re called to your dressing room when your clothes are ready for you. Each room is equipped with an entrance as well as a back door that opens into your own personalized wardrobe. Should you want to try other items or sizes, well, you are free to stay in your state of undress, because there, inside the dressing room, another touchscreen is there for you to make further selections, which will be, magically it seems, placed in your wardrobe. By on-screen alert, you’ll be notified your items are there and also that the back doors to the back doors have been closed so that you may retrieve them in privacy.
Essentially, the Reformation experience is like shopping online from your own bedroom, but with the added perk of being able to try on the clothes immediately before you buy them. It doesn’t get much better than that.
ROTHY’S: KICKING WASTE OUT OF THE SUPPLY CHAIN
Have you ever watched a shoe or an item of clothing being manufactured? What you’ll often see, to varying degree, is a lot of fabric or leather waste. Imagine a pattern or a marker laid atop a piece of fabric or leather. The piece is cut, by hand or machine, and what’s left over? A piece of fabric with a shirt-shaped or shoe-upper-spaced hole. What happens to that piece of fabric? It’s waste. It may be recycled or repurposed, but much of it winds up in landfills.
Technology in the form of large high-tech cutting machines and AI-driven marker making solutions that maximize fabric use have significantly reduced the amount of waste (and cost) from the process for companies that can afford that equipment, but they’ve not eliminated it by any means.
Enter Rothy’s. The footwear retailer, which produces flats and sneakers, tackles waste from both sides. It uses yarns made from recycled water bottles, and then it constructs them using a 3D knitting process that uses just the amount of material needed to make the shoe. What’s more, that knit process creates a unique looking shoe that sets Rothy’s apart from the competition.
The $140-million San Francisco-based sustainability-focused alternative shoe retailer has taken its high-tech practices beyond production into its entire enterprise, from the warehouse to e-commerce. For example, it built an e-commerce structure on top of Shopify Plus, with a completely responsive e-commerce experience, and completed a supply chain and warehouse overhaul that allowed the retailer to hit 99.99% inventory availability .
It has further improved the online customer experience by automating and scaling its communications, moving from a batch-and-blast email strategy to an AI-driven platform from ReSci that can adapt to microscopic changes in consumer behavior. Now, it can personalize to consumers using information beyond simple triggers, such as high vs. low purchasing intent, tailoring communication based on each customer’s unique interaction with the business.
Another assist in its efforts toward personalization comes from Google, which is helping Rothy’s to implement marketing strategies that capture the “full funnel” and to understand how to craft messaging that works in the context of where people are, what they need and what channel they are using, says Matt Gerhing, Rothy’s vice president of growth.
“For example, if a shopper is just learning about Rothy’s, we rely on Google Search to focus on top-of-funnel results, like brand awareness, and center our strategy around engaging graphics, such as images of plastic water bottles or shoes spinning in a washing machine, that visually introduce us to her and tell our brand story,” he says.
Among many other initiatives, it is also using Google to analyze customer segments where knowledge of Rothy’s may be low but interest in sustainability is high, to better develop its Google Search campaigns.
OUTDOOR VOICES: GOING OUT AND DOING THINGS
As you might guess from its name, Outdoor Voices is about flouting the rules, running free, making friends and generally celebrating doing things outside. Founder Tyler Haney started the activewear apparel company with the recreational enthusiast in mind, rather than the competitor. “It’s less ‘bigger, faster, stronger’ and more about getting out and being active with your friends your community. It’s really a way of life,” says Kevin Harwood, vice president of technology.
That message resonated far and wide, leading to rapid growth. From 2016 to 2017, for example, the Austin, Texas-based company grew revenues by 400 percent. Like many an online startup, Outdoor Voices also expanded from pure digital into the real-life world, opening brick-and-mortar stores — each one unique, reflecting and helping to create the character of the community — in Austin and Dallas in Texas; New York City; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Nashville, Tenn.; Washington, DC; and Chicago — so far.
The stores serve as community hubs as well as retail centers. Its Blanco Street location in Austin, a bungalow tucked into the Clarksville neighborhood, hosts local events, while its adorable 12 South Nashville location, another former home, takes customers through an immersive journey inspired by the personal spaces of music legends including Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Elvis. While you’re there, you can take a spin on its indoor bike or take a class on the front lawn.
Like any business with a strong upward trajectory, managing that growth was a struggle, involving manual processes that could not scale. Often Outdoor Voices systems’ were out of commission for days at a time. Knowing it couldn’t grow without technology to support it, the company implemented Oracle NetSuite to serve as 1) its inventory master across its retail stores and warehouse; 2) the financial system of record; 3) the item master; and 4) for logistics, to track packages shipped to customers, inbound from warehouses, transfers between warehouse and stores, and other product moves.
That technology freed up time to focus on its customer, and those customer experiences that are integral to the Outdoor Voices name. This summer, it started an integration with a retail platform, NewStore, to bring buy online pick up in-store (BOPIS) to its stores. It’s also focused on mobile — experimenting with augmented reality (AR) “as a way to encourage people to get off the trail,” Harwood says — and personalization. As a younger brand, he says, it has the advantage of being able to roll out new, agile technologies without being hampered by years’ of build-up of legacy technology. In its interactions with customers, the company uses information such as past-purchase history to automatically display the same sizes or similar colors and fabrics on the site.
Still, he says, it’s important not to get too caught up in personalization or you risk becoming robotic in your behavior, instead of inspiring. “We’re not just trying to be an Amazon that’s 100% optimized to show the things that you’re probably going to buy,” says Harwood. “Our founder Tyler Haney describes it as ‘we want to be the friend that brings the orange slices on a hike.’ And you can’t just personalize all the way through that process, you’ve got to have more of a human connection and a human interaction to drive that home.”