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Exclusive Q&A: Shinola President Reveals How Customer Insights Shape Evolving Loyalty Strategy Featured

  • Written by  Glenn Taylor

Shinola has consistently stood out from the crowd, both with an unlikely combination of product categories (high-quality watches, bicycles and leather goods) and a commitment to manufacturing those products itself. But its diverse product line and do-it-yourself supply chain are ultimately supporting players. What has made Shinola thrive has been its ability to deliver a sense of authenticity and storytelling that deepens the customer relationship, with shopper insights driving the retailer’s loyalty strategies even further.

During a Q&A conducted via Skype, Glenn Taylor of Retail TouchPoints sat down with Shannon Washburn, President of Shinola, to get a first look at her upcoming Retail Innovation Conference (RIC) session with Ernan Roman, President of ERDM Corp., which will highlight the retailer’s powerful though non-traditional loyalty strategies. Additionally, Washburn gives insights into:

  • The work Shinola has done with third-party firms to generate customer insights, drive brand awareness and improve customer retention;
  • The company’s entrance into the hotel business with the opening of the Shinola Hotel in January 2019;
  • Shinola’s approach to personalization both online and in stores, particularly with the deployment of in-store artisans in six markets; and
  • How her time as a merchandise buyer provided a solid foundation for her career.

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): Your upcoming RIC presentation will discuss how Shinola uses customer insights to create a non-traditional loyalty strategy. Can you give a preview of what you’ll reveal?

Washburn: Absolutely. When we engaged with Ernan at ERDM, our goal was to define how we wanted to evolve our current loyalty program. Our objective was to conduct one-hour interviews with 30+ Shinola customers to see what was important to them. [We wanted to know] what were the basic necessities they would want, as well as what they would not want from a brand like Shinola.

We learned a lot from that, and from there we were able to establish what would be the foundational commitments of this program, and then from there how we evolved the program.

RTP: The Shinola brand thrives on its storytelling and a deep connection with its consumers. What kinds of customer insights are most relevant to the company now?

Washburn: Over the last 12 to 18 months we’ve really engaged with a lot of outside firms. We’ve worked with 7th Sense to do in-depth consumer research and define the profiles of the Shinola customer, so that we can speak to them in a more personalized, effective manner. We also have utilized MakerSights as a way of predicting future trends and products to get early feedback from our customers.

We did find from our research that the Shinola loyal customers really want to be involved; they want to be included.

We did a lot of testing over the holidays through ad sequencing. We might run a shorter form video versus a longer form, and we found that leading with the 15-to-30 second video and following with a shorter form has allowed us to have higher ad recall and brand awareness.

RTP: One of Shinola’s biggest projects has been the opening of its Shinola Hotel in January 2019. Can you share what led Shinola in the direction of hospitality? How do you feel this complements your retail offering and improves the customer experience?

Washburn: From the very beginning, when we opened our first stores in 2013, we’ve always wanted to create a space where our guests could be fully immersed in the Shinola brand. We had a lot of feedback from our stores that they loved the unique experience in it.

When you think about it, a guest experience in one of our Shinola retail stores is truly hospitality. We strive for quality engagements with every guest, and the transition of hospitality to a hotel seemed like a natural thing. It’s all about the culture we create, so that at the end of the day they have the best guest experience possible at any touch point within the Shinola brand.

RTP: These days, you can’t talk about customer experience without talking about personalization. How has gaining these in-depth consumer insights helped Shinola implement/improve on personalization strategies?

Washburn: This last year, we’ve implemented Salesforce CRM and the Marketing Cloud, and it really gives us the full 360-degree view of our customers. From there, we can really personalize their journeys. We’re looking to how we speak to them with that initial email to welcome them to the brand, and how we follow up with them after they’ve engaged with us.

Personalizing SMS messages is something they’ve told us is one of the ways they’d like to be communicated with. I think we look at those things and how we can speak to each person individually in a way that they want to receive information about the Shinola brand.

RTP: What have been the challenges in building out an effective mobile strategy, especially in the high-touch luxury field?

Washburn: We did our first mobile redesign in October 2016, and we’ve been continually optimizing that. Currently we’re re-platforming into the Magento enterprise. We’re excited about that because this paves the way for us to migrate all of our mobile users to more of a progressive web app. We believe this is going to be the best solution to bridge the web versus native app experience.

RTP: How would you describe your brick-and-mortar expansion strategy, and are there any untapped markets you’re interested in?

Washburn: We’re focused right now on our current distribution. We have some key doors in key markets. We’re very focused on e-Commerce, and our wholesale business is one of our focuses this year going forward.

We’re always looking at the mix of our own stores, versus e-Commerce, versus wholesale, with an eye on how we can use our stores to develop and build a strategy of growth in all the channels of distribution.

RTP: It’s my understanding that each Shinola store has a different vibe or setting depending on the city or location it’s in, and other factors as well. How is Shinola using personalization as part of those experiences, and how does the company tie that to other touch points?

Washburn: The first thing we look at when we go into a market, if we’re in an environment with an existing brick-and-mortar store, is that we respect the building, we respect the location and we want to be part of that community. Everything from the store design to hiring the sales team to activations that we may do in the store — we want to ensure that it’s very authentic to the city and the location where we are.

In terms of personalization, we’ve actually put artisans in six of our key markets who can deliver personalized store experiences, such as engraving on jewelry. By putting artisans in these stores, it really brings a bit of Detroit and what we do here in our manufacturing into those stores, and it makes for more personal engagement for the customers.

RTP: How have your previous roles in retail, most recently as VP of Watch Product Development at Shinola, prepared you to take on the role as company President?

Washburn: In a word, experience. I was recently on a panel and they asked me a very similar question, and I said, ‘You know what, don’t pigeonhole yourself.’ I had a lot of different roles through my career, but it was each one of those roles that prepared me for what lies ahead.

I’ve also been very fortunate that I’ve been able to collaborate and be a part of amazing teams at every company that I worked with. I feel one of the major things I do as the president of the company is be a strong leader. And by doing that, it’s taking the time to know those people that I work with, a willingness to manage to their strengths, to help them develop things that may be more challenging to them and to really make them feel like they’re part of an integral process of the organizations.

RTP: Who have been your biggest career inspirations or mentors?

Washburn: I can think of one person I’ve known probably 30+ years in different roles and places, and I’d say this individual has inspired me. This is someone that taught me early on to understand the room you’re in, understand the people you are working with, respect them and always have an open ear to the situation around you.

RTP: How did you get into retail?

Washburn: Actually, I started in high school. I went to work for what I thought was a cool men’s and women’s clothing store in the mall. I was 17, and the woman that was my manager gave me a peek behind the curtain to running your own little business.

That really got me going, so when I went off to college, I majored in Fashion and Merchandising, and went on to work in a department store, Joske’s, in Dallas. From there, I went to work for Dillard’s as a buyer.

Those first 15 years in that retail environment were really a strong foundation of where I am today. I know retail has changed immensely in that time, but I learned a lot — just the foundation and the elements that I think are critical to retail success. Being a buyer allowed me to have a lot of opportunities from that point to where I’ve come to now as the President of Shinola.

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