eTail West 2018

February 26 - March 01, 2018

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Bonobos Builds Brick-and-mortar “Guideshops” to Ecommerce

By John Waldron

Once upon a time the future of retail was online. Now it seems that the future of etail might be offline.

With the rise and rise of ecommerce, it was perhaps only natural for many industry experts to challenge that brick-and-mortar retailers should fear brands maintaining an online-only presence. But, such is the competitive world of retail, it’s now some of those very ecommerce brands that are turning to bricks-and-mortar as a means to secure their position in the hearts and minds of consumers.

In recent years, some 30 online US companies have launched a physical presence. The reasons behind such moves are simple: to build better customer experiences and forge stronger relationships; to improve the marketing of their wares; and indeed to give a boost to online traffic and sales. Amazon, of course, is perhaps the most well-known brand to adopt this tactic after it opened its first brick-and-mortar extension – a bookstore – in Seattle in November last year. But, if we allow the ecommerce goliath to stand safely aside for the moment, we see that it’s in fact the specialty and clothing segment of etail that has shown the greatest eagerness to emerge from clicks and enter the bricks.

Bonobos – From Clicks to Bricks

Today, the challenge for retailers is to meet the increasing consumer demand for an experience that seamlessly transitions from online to offline and back to online again – a play that must take place across physical stores, desktop computers, tablets, mobile and, increasingly, wearables.

This demand, indeed, has given rise to the omnichannel retailing imperative, which in itself dictates that brands cannot be confined to either an online or physical presence alone – both worlds must be catered for.

And when it comes to the customer experience, it’s not difficult to see why apparel ecommerce brands have had to branch out into the physical space. Bonobos – a menswear retailer that launched exclusively online in 2007 – is one such company that has in more recent times been finding success through its extensions into bricks and mortar.

Bonobos has grown into a 100-million-dollar company in just shy of 10 years – success that’s been built on a strong unique proposition, outstanding service, and customer convenience. Originally the brainchild of Stanford MBA students Andy Dunn and Brian Spaly, Bonobos was created to exploit the opportunity to sell to men conveniently online through addressing a specific need – namely, to supply tailored trousers that would fit perfectly and look great.

Spaly had become increasingly dissatisfied with the poor fit of men's trousers and was determined to fix the problem. Dunn had correctly identified that the way to convince people to regularly buy clothes from a new online company was to focus primarily on a level of customer service other businesses didn't offer. 

“Not to be self-aggrandizing, but in 2007 that was a very contrarian and new idea,” explains Dunn in a recent interview with online fashion news magazine, Coveteur. “This was pre-Casper and pre-Warby Parker, pre-Everlane, pre-Dollar Shave Club; pre-everything that is what I call digitally native brands. Meaning, they are born online, but they actually are not ecommerce companies, they are brands that are creating a physical product delivered via a digital-first experience.”

(image source: bonobos.com)

Top-end tailors aside, the high street men’s apparel store, of course, often has to plump for a limited approach to its in-store trouser-stock – leading to many men walking away in pants that don’t quite fit. And this is exactly where Bonobos wanted to differentiate. As Dunn puts it:

“To deliver on fit you can’t just serve one body type. You have to look at all body types and figure out how many silhouettes you need. In our case it’s four or five. Then, within each silhouette we offer really deep sizing. We offer 37 waist and inseam combinations – it’s really a custom fit. There is no way to do that in a store because you can’t stock it.”

Guideshops, Ninjas, and a Complimentary Beer on Arrival

Bonobos has indeed built its reputation by focusing on what best fits its customers – and this is a concept that goes beyond inside leg measurements.

As a retailer that targets primarily male millennials – a demographic that often finds the retail experience a hassle – the ecommerce route made the most sense. The original business model allowed Bonobos to offer trousers of a great fit with decent style through an online channel that eradicated the hassle of actually trudging around shops hopping in and out of legwear that was inevitably too tight or too slack. 

However, where Bonobos has really excelled ahead of the curve is with its introduction of brick-and-mortar “Guideshops”.

“Opening the stores was a total accident,” said Dunn. “We put two fitting rooms in our lobby to learn how we were doing with development of our second product, shirts. Once we spent four years perfecting pants, we said all right, let’s go into shirts and let’s deliver on the same concept as amazing customized fit in shirts without the weight and the hassle of custom clothing. What happened blew my mind! Guys started coming in, trying on our clothes, and buying stuff, placing ecommerce transactions right on our website with the help of a guide, and then they walked out.”

(Image source: bonobos.com)

Instead of just going straight to the Bonobos site, running through some options and then placing an order, Bonobos now asks customers to make an hour-long appointment for a personalized visit to one of its Guideshops. Once at the venue, they are greeted by representatives (or “Ninjas”, as they are playfully known) who have a beer at the ready to ease the customer through a personalized tour and the fitting procedure.

The appointments system serves to help ensure that only a few people are in store at any one time, meaning the Ninjas can afford shoppers all the attention they may require as they try on every style in the quest for beautiful, perfectly fitting, made-to-measure clothes. But the beauty of the Guideshops concept is that when a purchase is made, the order is placed online, and the garments will subsequently be delivered to the customer’s doorstep 1-2 days later. The whole experience means that all the inconveniences of milling around with other shoppers, queuing up at dressing rooms and checkouts, and being left with bags to carry are completely eradicated. What’s more, customers’ measurements are recorded and stored, so any future items they decide to buy are easily picked out online, and will still be tailor-made to fit their unique body shape perfectly.

Bricks – The New Asset to Ecommerce

The Guideshops tactic has most certainly paid off for Bonobos. The average order size in these stores has proven to be twice that of online orders, with customers more likely to make repeat transactions and less likely to return products, and a higher number of brand new customers also coming through the physical channel. Bricks-and-mortar, indeed, are by no means a liability, but fast-becoming the new asset to ecommerce success.

Make sure to also download the eTail agenda to discover all of the great activities, speakers, & sessions planned for this year.

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About John Waldron: John Waldron is a technology and business writer for markITwrite digital content agency, based in Cornwall, UK. He writes regularly across all aspects of marketing and tech, including SEO, social media, FinTech, IoT, apps and software development.