Exclusive Q&A: Shinola Chief Merchandising Officer Chris Hull

0aaChris Hull Shinola

After spending 14 years at Nike, Chris Hull shifted gears and became the Chief Merchandising Officer for a fast-growing design brand selling leather goods, watches, bicycles and more. Based in Detroit, Mich., the company purchased the “Shinola” brand name in 2011; and as a tribute to that name, Shinola also sells shoe polish.

Since joining the Shinola team in 2015, Hull has worked to incorporate merchandising fundamentals and create opportunities to improve cross-functional communication so they can execute an effective go-to-market strategy. He shares his experience and insights in this exclusive Q&A.

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): You talk about focusing on the Art and Science of Storytelling. What does that mean at Shinola?


Chris Hull: Most people define “merchandising” as balancing the art and science. I don’t necessarily believe in the balance. Depending on the situation you need to flex one or the other, however they both need to exist. It is my responsibility to drive the science side. In simple terms, the science tells me the what and where –– what consumers to focus on, what products to feature and where to put them within the marketplace. I get that through our data analytics and various consumer interactions. For me, the art of merchandising is partnering with the creative and product teams to craft a relevant story for the consumer. Creatives by nature are inspiring people and they need to drive a future vision. The Merchandiser needs to embrace this vision but utilize the science to amplify and maximize the story.

For example, we launched a new watch last year called the Bedrock –– our “slimmest” watch related to height on the wrist. Our male consumers were telling us they wanted a watch that could easily fit under their shirt cuffs. This is a valuable consumer insight that motivated us to create a new watch model. To further connect with the consumer, we paired that watch along with a new men’s briefcase for a Fall story we called the “Back to the Office” season (instead of Back to School). This is an example of using consumer insights to develop a new product. Then we integrate the science that tells us the right price point, how much to buy, and which stores to put it in. The art is deciding how to tell the story, when to introduce it and how to merchandise it.

RTP: What kind of things do you do to motivate the internal team?

Hull: I try to lead by being inclusive in communication and execution. This leads to teammates learning from each other and having a stake in the outcome. For example, I’ve always been a big believer in not having meetings for meetings’ sake. But I also find in-person meetings to be the most efficient, effective way to communicate. That may sound weird in the email world, but I would rather get everyone to sit in a room for an hour –– ask the direct questions and get direct answers. This allows us to problem solve, find solutions in real time, and have everyone involved and knowledgeable. It doesn’t mean we don’t communicate over email. But we try to hold all big discussions in these meetings. If you’re not aligned on execution the results will be very confusing for your end consumer. This has led to my colleagues calling me the Chief Meeting Officer. I take it as a compliment!

RTP: Explain the concept of ‘Edit to Amplify’.

Hull: It’s a tried-and-true merchandising technique that Nike drove home quite a bit: cut lower-productive SKUs and highlight what is most important. When you reduce the number of products on display in the store, the remaining breadth of the line increases in sales. It is so easy to overwhelm people with too many products. We now edit the line to show the best of the best. This is where the science comes in –– what is the right amount to show before shoppers get overwhelmed.

At Shinola we also have been challenged around merchandising because stores are different shapes and sizes –– from 800 square feet to 3,000 square feet. So each can house different size assortments. We are getting more scientific on the right amount of product to put in each store. This must be done in collaboration with the Visual Merchandising team to create a compelling assortment. Once again back to the balance of “art and science”.

RTP: How do you collect feedback on the shopper experience?

Hull: We try to meet them in our stores because this provides the best context. Whenever I visit a store I try to approach five to 10 consumers and ask them about their shopping experience, reaction to the product and merchandising. I have found people really enjoy providing their input and thoughts. We also collect feedback from sales associates. We get daily reports from each of the stores. The associates can add editorial comments to those reports –– type of consumer, comments heard. My goal for 2018 is to engage more with our Customer Service team. They interact with consumers every day and the knowledge they provide, on product or experience, is very valuable.

We also use a company called Makersightsto facilitate on-demand product and experience feedback. In the platform we ask shoppers to vote on the product –– one star to five stars –– and ask for reasons. We have been getting between 2,000 and 6,000 responses within a 24-hour period. This is quantitative –– we can filter the data by gender and ages. We can start to localize inventory and tailor some of our marketing based off those responses. We will also begin to close the feedback loop and speak directly to the consumers who voted favorably on the product, with personalized emails containing more product information relating to that product.

RTP: What strategies will Shinola focus on in 2018?

Hull: In 2018 we want to focus on building the capabilities to 1. Interact with our consumer across channels; and 2. Empowering our sales associates to drive this communication and outreach in an efficient and effective fashion. From a product standpoint, we will continue to create high-quality product in our existing categories that resonate with our consumers.

RTP: Are you more focused on customer acquisition or customer retention? How do consumers discover the brand?

Hull: The easy answer is “both.” We are constantly looking for opportunities to connect with new consumers and share our story and introduce them to the high-quality Shinola products. While we haven’t conducted any studies, we believe our brand awareness is low. We look for ways to connect via social or activating our stores to create engaging experiences with new consumers. Our store associates are great ambassadors for the brand so want to give them all the tools possible to tell the brand story. At the same time we listen to our existing consumers to understand how they connect with the brand and if there are additional products or experiences we can provide that are authentic.

Outside of the typical marketing initiatives, we believe new consumers find out about us through word-of-mouth and peer recommendations. When I meet with consumers in our stores they love to talk about their Shinola products and their engagement with the brand. We are discussing ways to empower our consumers in their markets to be brand ambassadors.

RTP: Talk about how you’ve used Surprise and Delight to improve customer loyalty and connection to the brand.

Hull: We are constantly looking for ways to connect with our consumer in a more meaningful way. For example, we sent a new leather watch strap to the original 2,000 consumers who bought the first Runwell watch about two years after the purchase. Our leather watch straps are incredibly durable but we felt that if they wore the watch as much as we did, they could use a second strap. The response was incredible. We don’t want to lose that personal touch, so as we scale we need to continue to find innovative ways to accomplish that level of high-touch personalization.

RTP: Are there any new technologies you’re looking to implement in the next year?

Hull: As discussed earlier, we are striving to better connect the dots between our stores and e-Commerce channel. Thus we will develop a consumer data platform and invest in CRM technology. Furthermore, with a strong focus on personalization, we have partnered with Listrak to provide much more personalized emails. We are a small team, so we are looking for anything that can help us work more efficiently on the data and marketing side. We are hungry to analyze and interpret against the data.

RTP: Are there any other retail brands you look to for innovative ideas and strategies?

Hull: Suitsupply  As a consumer, I believe they have a phenomenal consumer experience. I am able to look on my mobile device or computer and see my entire purchase history. If I am in a city and need a shirt or sport coat –– I can go to my phone. Fantastic experience.

Peloton  They have given me the gift of time! I am able to get an immersive exercise experience in the comfort of my home and still have time to have breakfast with my kids. My love of the brand led me to a conversation with their retail team and I learned how they methodically enter a marketplace. They have provided some learnings on how to test, refine, and ultimately execute.

Yeti  A fantastic brand selling premium hard goods. They emotionally connect with their consumer, they are very thoughtful with their product categories, and their use of brand ambassadors is first class.

RTP: Have you had any mentors along the way in your career in retail?

Hull: I have been fortunate to have several but the most impactful has been Elliott Hill, an executive at Nike. He taught me the fundamentals of retail, the importance of leadership and how to be a great teammate. He took a chance on me and I am forever grateful for the experience and exposure he provided. At the time, Nike didn’t have a “rotational program” but he provided a diverse set of experiences for me to learn and make mistakes. It was transformative.

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