The Modern Retail Podcast is a weekly show that hears from executives in the retail space, from legacy companies to the buzzy world of DTC startups. Cale Weissman, editor of Modern Retail, hosts.
'There's only so many really illustrious people out there who put out products': Ntwrk's Aaron Levant on expanding the livestream platform beyond its celebrity roots
Livestream shopping has yet to hit true mainstream levels in the U.S. but Ntwrk thinks it can help.
The platform has been around since 2018, and says it has doubled in size every year since launch. Ntwrk's approach to livestream commerce consists of a combination of brand, retailer and celebrity partnerships, along with limited-edition drops.
As Aaron Levant, Ntwrk's CEO, described it, the idea at inception was to create a "live, engaging, entertaining platform where some of the biggest brands and celebrities in the world are dropping exclusive products creating that kind of FOMO and tune in moments that you feel like you can't miss -- and things sell out fast." Now, he went on, "we've done that at scale -- and now we've gone much beyond that we've moved into new categories, new verticals, new supply side of the product."
Levant joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and spoke about Ntwrk's growth and ambitions, along with the overall U.S. livestream shopping market. One of the early inspirations for Ntwrk was the game show app HQ; "Once or twice a day, you get a push notification. And people would tune in at mass and be highly engaged. And I wanted to take that same ideology, but apply it for a product drop," he said.
Levant has a background in fashion and streetwear, and those past professional connections helped give Ntwrk its initial cultural cachet. Leveraging past celebrity relationships, he said, "allowed us to build a pretty big audience base very quickly for very cheap because of these relationships we had." The platforms has featured drops from brands like Nike as well as celebrities like Billie Eillish and Odell Beckham Jr.
It's this direct relationship with the brand or creator that Levant said makes Ntwrk successful -- and different from competitors. "We're not a peer-to-peer platform," he said, "not just anyone can sign up and start using our tools to sell."
While Ntwrk is still seeing growth -- and is expanding to new categories like collectibles and toys -- it still represents a niche market in the U.S. Levant, however, still thinks the U.S. will catch up with other countries like China where livestreaming is more prevalent.
"Their use and adoption of intuitive mobile-first technology is still drastically ahead of us," he said. "I think it's just a few years before we catch up."
'Far less transactional': PetSmart's Chief Customer Officer on establishing a modern brand voice
PetSmart is trying to maintain its dominance as a leading pet retailer.
The privately-held company, which has been around since 1986, reportedly brought in $2.5 billion in revenue in the second quarter of this year. But the retailer is also trying to stay relevant with its shoppers and find new ways to engage them. Stacia Andersen, PetSmart's chief customer officer, joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and spoke about her role and the evolving pet space.
PetSmart is not a startup by any means. Its loyalty program boasts 55 million members, and it works with a variety of talent, like HGTV's Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent. But the landscape is getting more competitive. With that, Andersen said PetSmart has been evolving its marketing strategy.
"We evolved our brand voice most dramatically probably a couple of years ago, when we went back and looked at our customer base," she said. "Our brand voice evolved from individually marketing different sales or individually marketing services … to this overall brand platform and voice about why customers do what they do." The idea behind it was to connect with customers. "This is really what our brand voice is about," she said. "It's far more emotional, it's far less transactional."
With such a large business, figuring out the customer profile becomes difficult. But Andersen said the retailer has figured out a few things. For one, most of PetSmart's customers are female; they often have multiple pets; lastly, they're often from families with children. Understanding this overall profile, Andersen said, has helped PetSmart refine its overall marketing strategy, as well as its loyalty plan.
One of Andersen's most important mandates is establishing a retail presence that is more than just a place to buy pet food. With that, she's been leading various campaigns and partnerships to make the company more of a lifestyle brand. The idea isn't just to grow sales, but to do something deeper and give the brand more credibility.
"There is a buzz factor," she said, talking about PetSmart's influencer partnership strategy. "There is a wow factor. And it also lends credibility to our own design."
'We're a community-focused company': Bala co-founder Brian Lockard on growing a footwear brand for medical professionals
Bala Footwear is the latest apparel brand going after working professionals.
The company makes shoes aimed specifically at medical professionals. Co-founder Brian Lockard worked at Nike for nearly five years. And the ethos of that brand informed Bala's thesis.
"At Nike, one of the phrases that was so important that we always used was: Always listen to the voice of the athlete," said Lockard on the Modern Retail Podcast. "And we've decided we would build a company where we always listen to the voice of the health-care professional."
On this week's program, Lockard spoke about how he's grown the brand, which first launched in 2020, as well what he's planning for the future.
So far, the company has raised over $2 million in venture capital, saw $4 million in revenue its first year and says that sales continue to grow month-over-month.
The idea behind Bala is that essential workers like nurses are on their feet for most of the work day. Yet, there's no footwear that's designed with that in mind. Some nurses wear clogs for comfort, others wear running shoes for support. But both of those items have drawbacks to nurses.
To get a sense for their needs, Lockard interviewed many members of the health-care community. This served both a product research and marketing function. "What's really cool about the health-care marketplace is how tight knit the community is," said Lockard. "If you reach early adopters and they drive word of mouth -- they're always around colleagues."
With this, Bala has its own rotating group of health-care professionals it leans on for product development and marketing outreach. "They're involved in telling us where we should be showing up, from a marketing perspective," said Lockard.
While Bala is sold predominately online, the company is now slowly seeking out other sales channels. It's inked a few retail deals with select shoe stores and is looking into other possible partnerships. But, according to Lockard, he is still focused on making sure the brand doesn't grow too quickly.
"One of the worst things that can happen is getting 100 new retail locations overnight," he said.
'People want to go to the physical stores': Levi's Rui Carlos Da Silva Araujo on the brand's Latin America DTC strategy
Levi's Latin American business is growing -- but it's very different from its Northern counterparts.
The apparel brand's svp and managing director of Latin America, Rui Carlos Da Silva Araujo, spoke on the Modern Retail Podcast about how the company approaches this part of the business -- and its overall approach to DTC. This episode was recorded live at the Modern Retail DTC Summit held in Miami. Levi's Latin American business grew by about 70% in the first quarter of fiscal year 2022, and Araujo said the company plans to continue growing and opening more stores.
While the brand's digital business is continuing to grow, Araujo said stores remain one of the most important sales channels. "We see this opportunity still in Latin America that people want to go to the physical stores," he said.
Currently, Levi's has 400 stores in the Latin American region, and the company is in the midst of an overhaul of its entire experience. It recently unveiled its Indigo store concept, which Araujo described as a way to showcase Levi's as lifestyle brand. It features fewer products and more experiences, such as in-store tailor shops. "The stores are really happier, the product is different," Araujo said. He hopes to have 50% of the Latin American stores to feature the Indigo model within the next two years.
But no one store is the same. That's because Levi's customers are different not only between regions, but also between countries. Latin American customers, he said, "are much more European-driven -- south European, like Spain in Italy -- much more than the U.S. in some countries in Latin America. So the Colombians, the Argentinians and the Brazilians, they are really, really fashionable."
Even with the emphasis on stores, Levi's is still focusing a great deal on digital. It has its own DTC sites for all the countries it serves, but local marketplaces like Mercado Libre also play a big role. "You need to have your mark, you have your own sites," he said. "But you need to have your marketplace players there."
Even so, a big focus for Levi's right now is thinking about new retail concepts that customers will want to hang out in. Said Araujo, "we are seeing this momentum and the physical retail is working for us. So I think that's a huge opportunity."
Outlines co-founders on trying to make shower liners work as a subscription
Outlines is trying to be the Quip toothbrushes for bathroom and home cleaning products.
The company launched earlier this year with a shower liner subscription service. The idea is that customers can buy the shower liner along with other accessories. Then, every few months they can pack up their used musty one, send it to Outlines who will recycle the material and then send another brand new clean liner. But Outlines isn't stopping at shower liners -- the startup is launching both a replenishable body scrubber and a toilet brush soon.
"I knew that if I was to replace [a product like a shower liner], it was simply going to landfill," said Luke Young, one of Outline's co-founders. "So I would live with it for far too long -- and you wouldn't live with dirty sheets or any other product like this in your home."
Young and his fellow co-founder Meg Murphy joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and spoke about the genesis of Outlines and how the direct-to-consumer business is trying to grow and get its products into new homes.
Both Young and Murphy were working in DTC before Outlines. Young was working in adtech for a U.K.-based DTC company that sells education products, and Murphy was also working at a British CPG startup that made glue products. They met at a coworking space and got to talking about the state of shower liners, and decided to launch their own company.
Thus, Outlines was born. The company launched its first product at the beginning of 2022. The big question was whether or not a humdrum product like shower liners would work with a subscription model. As the two founders put it, it's all about education. The website focuses specifically on detailing how much waste is made because of thrown-out used plastic. And the hope is that people will align with the sustainability ethos around the company.
The strategy to get eyeballs was to be available on the company's website first and try to find new customers who were searching online for new products like a shower liner.
"I think we made a lot of mistakes in the first couple of months of what we were bidding on [and] where we were specifically marketing, but it was really just a process of testing and learning," said Young.
Now that the two founders feel confident in the branding and messaging, their expanding the product base as well as looking toward new sales channels. And those announcements may be on the horizon.
"We love retail, we're very excited about it," said Murphy. "we've spoken with some buyers to get some early feedback -- they're definitely ready for a refresh and a new brand to come in."
'Most products out there don't need to be subscription': Cloud Paper's Ryan Fritsch on the state of subscription businesses
Cloud Paper is trying to get more people -- and businesses -- to try its products.
The company makes bamboo-based tree-free toilet paper. When it first launched in 2019, co-founder Ryan Fritsch said the goal was to grow via business-to-business partnerships by selling to businesses like corporate offices and hotels. Its first major account was a Seattle WeWork. But then the pandemic hit, and office buildings shut down. As a result, Cloud Paper had to pivot its business to be consumer-facing.
Two years later and the company is continuing to see year-over-year growth. But it's no longer a business focused solely on supplying toilet paper to other businesses. "Consumer sales are still driving the majority of our sales today," Fritsch said on the Modern Retail Podcast.
The idea behind Cloud Paper was to make an environmentally conscious toilet paper. "Toilet paper hasn't changed much for many, many decades -- and it hasn't changed much, especially in terms of sustainability," said Fritsch. "It's very much lagging behind other household goods." With this in mind, the company decided to use bamboo as its source since the plant is both abundant and renewable.
In addition, Cloud Paper decided that its consumer-facing business needed to be subscription-only when it first hit the market as a way to rope in repeat shoppers. The bet seems to be working out, even after the coronavirus-induced toilet paper mad dash. The company recorded a huge sales bump in 2020, but didn't see much churn after inventory leveled out. "We actually didn't see much change at all kind of once things got back to 'normal,'" Fritsch said.
But even though the subscription business is healthy, Fritsch is dubious of it as a one-size-fits-all model. He's seen many subscription companies come and go -- and it's usually because the product didn't fit with the business plan. "Everyone wants to launch a subscription box or a product on subscription," he said. "But it was our idea early on that most products out there don't need to be subscription."
Luckily for him, toilet paper does seem to be working -- at least for now.
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