In the Gem Retail Hotlist, 'Retail Visionary' is one of our most special awards. This year we awarded it to Tim Brown of Allbirds. Here's the scoop on this innovative sneaker brand.
For Tim Brown, co-founder of Allbirds, the word visionary is loaded with both the past, the present, and the future.
“It means that a long time ago you had an idea, with the tenacity or stubbornness to keep chipping away at it, even when people, often experts, told you it was probably not likely to be successful.”
Listening to some feedback, and ignoring the rest, he says success arrives after a lot of hard work over a sustained period of time.
“In hindsight you look back and it’s like you had all the answers, or if you didn’t have the answers you had a hunch and the grit to keep going.”
With co-founder Joey Zwillinger, the duo created Allbirds, a business centred on the need to find better ways to make things - in this case footwear - and the fact there was a revolution in sustainability approaching. These two elements have largely underpinned every decision they’ve made as a business, layered with several insights.
“People don’t buy sustainable products, they buy great ones,” says Brown. “Also, business can fundamentally be a force for good and for positive change, as much as it can be for profit. There was a real opportunity in the footwear and fashion space for a brand that dedicated itself to these types of principles.”
For Allbirds, the product was the starting point, says Brown, and the ethos and the larger purpose embodied the brand.
“Ours was a product insight, and I think brands are usually built with a product solution or a hero product as the initial starting point for the journey. In our case it was a singular expression of a sneaker made from materials that were not traditionally used in footwear, together with a business model that supported that - we’re direct to consumer rather than through wholesale. That was the story, and the larger mission and ethos was the brand. Those two things came together to be a representation of what we wanted to create.”
Retail is evolving, and Brown says while it’s never been easier to start a business and sell a product online, it’s also never been so competitive.
“The competition for eyeballs and attention, and cutting through the noisy online environment is challenging. That being said, in the retail space it feels like there is a pretty commonly told narrative that the ‘High Street’ is dying.”
And that’s where there’s a real opportunity to be innovative in store design and customer service, he says.
“At our core we are a material innovation company; people want to come and touch the products and experience them. In the context of shoes, people want to try them on and learn about the provenance of the materials and the supply chain.”
The opening of New Zealand’s first bricks and mortar Allbirds store in Auckland on August 15th was a very special event, says Brown, bringing an additional retail channel to his homeland. Other locations with an in-store experience are the United States, the United Kingdom and China.
Remaining innovative means placing the customer at the centre of the journey concludes Brown. Allbirds seeks feedback at every touchpoint, gathering input from customers in the retail stores and customer service in-store and online, with Brown spending time personally working on the shop floor. Reports come out on a regular cadence and metrics measure customer experience and how likely they are to recommend the products. The ability to continually seek feedback has led to around thirty changes being made to the wool runner since its launch, contributing to the culture of continuous improvement.
The launch of Allbirds was preceded by seven years of research and tinkering, says Brown, which is an important part of innovation, alongside finding the next ‘big’ material.
“Often people think innovation is some sort of silver bullet, or a new technology that just changes the game, but usually it’s about incremental improvements over a long, long period of time in a sustained way, constantly tweaking and improving.”
This story originally appeared in NZ Retail issue 764 October/November 2019.