Direct-to-consumer darling Allbirds—which had been in the midst of evolving from a digitally native brand to an omnichannel proponent—is taking “a cautious, but optimistic” approach to physical retail, Travis Boyce, head of global retail operations for the sneaker upstart, said at NRF’s Retail Big Show Thursday.
While the Silicon Valley shoe maker had plans to open up new locations in North America this, those efforts have now been put on hold. Instead, Allbirds has decided to focus on serving its existing customers both online and in locales where retail has recovered. “I do think we see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel in some of our other markets,” he said, citing China and New Zealand, which have managed to emerge from the Covid crisis through hard-line containment efforts.
Over the course of the next year, Allbirds will approach its brick-and-mortar strategy with a bit more trepidation, given how much success it has had in the online realm. While omnichannel retail has proven essential to long-term success, with shoppers’ appetites for convenience and choice continuing to grow, the brand is being “thoughtful and strategic” about adding to its international fleet of stores.
“I think a lot of other retailers have talked about having an omnichannel experience and having the ability to meet the customer wherever they want to meet,” he said, and that strategy is “critical.” But the idea of a traditional “four-walls” store is expanding to include other experiences like popups and events that allow brands to engage with consumers and perform some of the necessary retail functions, like returns and try-ons, without necessarily owning brick-and-mortar landmarks, Boyce added.
The lifestyle brand kicked off an event and engagement initiative called the AllGood Collective in June, he said, bringing together individuals in communities across the country “who are really aligned tightly” with Allbirds’ brand values and sustainability-driven mission. Efforts like these have provided hubs for business and transacting as well, he added.
The company also continues to offer free shipping and returns, allowing shoppers to try on their wool runners at home. While Boyce admitted that the returns process carries a carbon cost, he said the brand has lower return rates than the industry standard due to the fact that the product is flexible, and the fact that the team has built out extensive dot-com fit tools.
Returning items in store carries a smaller environmental impact, and Allbirds is considering incentivizing in-person returns within its existing network of stores. “While the answer is always to continue to reduce and try to get to zero emissions,” he said, “until we get that point, we offset every bit of carbon that our company uses in both the manufacturing side, the logistics, the retail the office, and travel.”
Allbirds had not been in the physical retail space long before Covid hit, Boyce said, and did not want to “sprint before learning to crawl.”
“We were so focused on the in-store experience, I think we intentionally had blinders on,” he added. “We hired amazing talent, built out a pretty good retail experience and we continue to improve that.”
The next step for the company is “crossing the chasm” into true omnichannel retail territory by amplifying its services, like shipping online orders from its stores and enabling curbside pickup, he said. He also hopes Allbirds can do more to target loyalists both in store and online. “We need to make sure we understand who the customer is when they walk in the door or when they log in the website,” he added.
Store associates often recognize repeat customers, he said, “but we need to develop something that’s more scalable and efficient.” Once the brand is able to make a connection, Boyce hopes that Allbirds can deepen that relationship through tailored product recommendations, birthday promotions and other creative, engaging touches.
Digitally native DTCs have been touting their forays into new channels and strategies “for a while now,” as shoppers’ needs and appetites continue to change. “That is the next big step for us as a retailer—to make that move, and really walk the walk,” he said.