You know it’s bad when your dad tells you it won’t work …
But that’s the spot Nate Checketts — co-founder and CEO of Rhone — found himself in when he and two friends decided to start a premium activewear company destined to compete against the Goliaths that dominate the industry.
“Over and over I heard the naysayers, including my own father,” Checketts recalls. “It’s a hard space, I don’t ever want to say we’ve cracked the code.”
Finding the Opportunity In Between
What Checketts can say is that he and his team spotted a gap in the market.
On one end, industry giants are targeting the masses and trying to be everything to everyone. “That means you wind up being nothing to everyone,” Checketts says. “The men we’re targeting care about clothes that’ll improve their performance but don’t want to be walking around looking like human billboards for those brands.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Checketts suggests smaller niche players that narrowly focus on a single sport or specialty wind up ignoring the majority.
Somewhere in between is the guy Rhone is targeting: the sophisticated, high-income, active man interested in activewear that serves two purposes:
- Helps him perform his very best
- Helps him look his very best in the gym and out
The doubters predicted Rhone would be crushed, but Checketts and the team knew something no one else did …
What the world anticipated would be just another clothing company was anything but. Checketts and his friends set out to build was a brand that’d ultimately be an extension of their customers and would help them perform.
Today, the world is attracted to good men and we want to create content and build a community of good men be better than they were the day before.
Little did Checketts know that it’d be these very men who’d actually inspire them to build a better company.
Breaking the One-Channel Mindset
Rhone is a hybrid, part ecommerce company, part wholesaler, and part brick and mortar retailer. “I think a lot of companies make a mistake when they limit their brand’s distribution strategy to a single channel,” Checketts says. “We just want to reach people wherever they are regardless of whether that’s online or offline.”
Born online, Rhone quickly learned one of the drawbacks of being a digital-only store was the inability to connect with customers in person. It’s one reason Rhone began holding events while simultaneously developing a wholesale channel that put the company’s apparel in more than 120 brick and mortar stores like Bloomingdales and Nordstrom.
“The combination of connecting with someone online and offline is definitely meaningful,” Checketts says. “But the truth is connecting with someone in the real world is always stronger.”
The distribution combination is turning the doubters into believers and has resulted in accelerated growth; selling products online, in person, and through wholesale partners are reasons why Rhone grew 500% in 2015.
We don’t differentiate between channels,” Checketts says. “You don’t need an ecommerce or a retail strategy, you need a commerce strategy.
Facing the Goliaths with Pop-Ups and Superpowers
Unfortunately, Checketts missed out on something magical in his younger years …
“Coming from a software world I never got to see someone’s face the moment they first experienced or touched the product,” he says.
It’s something that always nagged at Checketts but his loss would ultimately turn into a meaningful gain for the men who now love the way Rhone’s high-end activewear fits, feels, and inspires them to be their best.
Nowhere else are those connections more evident than the Rhone pop-up store that launched in New York City.
“When we opened the pop-up we learned the first customer had driven eight hours from Pennsylvania, stood in line until we opened the doors, spent $400 shopping and drove all the way back home,” Checketts recalls proudly. “It was really rewarding to make that kind of connection, you can’t have that type of experience digitally.”
While Rhone is not releasing financial details, the company says the SoHo pop-up store was a financial success that created real-world connections with the opportunity to grow even deeper with Rhone’s digital offerings.
It also righted that wrong that occurred back in Checketts’ days in the software world.
“It’s unbelievably rewarding when you hand over a tangible product and see someone react to the fit, feel, or color,” Checketts says. “It’s more than just the instant feedback when the customer tells us how they took the product to the gym or on a run, it’s really rewarding to feel like our products have superpowers.”
When Technology Fades Away
“I just want it all to work and fade into the background,” Checketts says of the technology that underpins Rhone’s ability to sell anywhere.
Time spent worrying about technology, integration, and development is time that isn’t being spent on what’s really important: building a brand and creating memorable customer experiences. In the beginning, Checketts and the team listened as vendors pitched ecommerce platforms and tried to persuade them that Rhone required a highly customized solution.
It seemed illogical to start from scratch rather than use existing technologies that provided all of the functionality Rhone required.
“In all of those conversations, I said please explain why we need to spend $100,000 on a custom checkout cart the vendor has probably already built for another client versus one that’s already on the market and working well for thousands of other ecommerce companies like ours,” Checketts recalls. “If I go down the custom route it could be a black hole and wind up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars more for development and integration.”
The answer was to use proven technology that did not require expensive custom coding and was ready to work right out of the box. It’s why Rhone partnered with Shopify Plus.
“To say we’re all in on Shopify Plus is an understatement,” Checketts says. “It allows us to focus on building a product rather than building an ecommerce site.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but Shopify Plus is also helping Rhone grow its business offline. For instance, when Rhone holds an event, sells items in brick-and-mortar locations like Crossfit gyms, or erects a pop-up store of its own, Shopify’s point of sale (POS) application allows Rhone to track offline sales just like those made online.
“That’s another reason why we love Shopify,” Checketts says. “The POS app allows us to have centralized reporting and have all our sales flow through one channel and provides a single report which is really important.”
Separately, when Rhone wanted to add a live chat application through Zendesk, it did so with ease — without having to rely on developers — and had it up and running within day.
Rhone is also known to get a lot of media attention. If the company or its founders are featured in a well-known publication and Rhone’s site experiences a surge in traffic, Checketts says the platform can handle the spike without interruption.
“Shopify’s platform gives me huge peace of mind,” Checketts says. “I know Shopify is going to work and grow with me.” It’s also a secret weapon in Rhone’s quest to rapidly transform the customer experience.
Experiencing the Brand in Three Dimensions
The way Rhone blends the digital and physical worlds creates a 3D customer experience that’s lacking in a digital-only two-dimensional experience. Creating richer customer experiences appears to be generating ROI in two ways:
- Product Development
“How do we personify our brand physically,” Checketts and his team wonder. “We have to think hard about how we transfer our brand from the digital world to the physical world and give people something tangible.”
The SoHo pop-up store presents a unique opportunity to experiment:
- What types of materials might be used to represent the brand in a physical store; metal, wood, or something else?
- How does Rhone ensure the brand identity born online is consistent with what’s on display in the pop-up store?
- Exactly how should employees in the pop-up store interact with consumers?
“It’s definitely something we’re going to continue to think about,” Checketts says. “It’s not black and white but we know combining the experiences makes for deeper connections.”
The pop-up was still open as of this writing so data is still coming in. But Rhone suspects the data will indicate that adding a third dimension to the customer experience aids in customer retention and possibly accelerates the timing of future purchases.
The 3D customer experience created when the digital and physical worlds merged in the pop-up store also created opportunities to develop products, or at least improve products, right alongside the customers to whom these products would eventually be marketed.
Here’s an example:
Behind the scenes, Rhone had been developing a new pair of shorts. Then a customer visited the pop-up store and requested the company add a liner. However, it can be extremely difficult to manufacture shorts with built-in liners the right way. But the in-store feedback prompted Checketts and his team to re-examine how lined shorts might be designed and manufactured in a way that worked for everyone.
A liner was added to the shorts.
“We released the lined shorts and they quickly became the best selling item on our site,” Checketts says. “The difference was that in the pop-up we were actually having a real-time conversation with customers, it wasn’t just customer service.”
In essence, Rhone and its customers were co-creating a product.
Tomorrow & Beyond
Whether you’re solely an ecommerce customer of Rhone or planning a trip to shop at a pop-up near you, expect the company to continue innovating the experience you’ll have. “We have some really exciting things coming down the pike,” Checketts says.
Rhone plans to simplify several processes and use the customer data it has to:
- Automatically ship products routinely bought
- Curate complete looks based on purchase histories
- Leverage the Rhone community to create and share new products
Rhone also plans to use the data it collects in the digital world to improve the experience customers have in the physical world. For instance, Rhone wants to streamline the checkout process in pop-up stores by recognizing when someone has previously purchased online so the credit card on file can automatically be billed and the customer won’t even have to take out their wallet.
“We kill ourselves trying to fix things if we get negative feedback,” Checketts says. “Our customers are our lifeblood, if we can’t provide value above and beyond a great product, we don’t deserve your business.”
By the way … turns out one of those naysayers at the outset, Checketts’ father, is now one of Rhone’s most loyal customers.
“Yes, now it is all he wears,” Checketts says with a chuckle. “He is our biggest fan. It took about fifteen months and some good local press but, eventually, he got on board. Just last week he outfitted the entire local high school basketball team in our gear.”
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