This is Part 2 of the Huckberry piece of the Best of the Best Series that I am doing on Quora. I have been holed up in various startups’ offices throughout the country crafting my Best of the Best Series of badass, super-in-depth highly visual analyses on my favorite e-commerce startups. The series is designed to systematically break down:
Who they are
Why they are special
What they are explicitly doing that’s special
This is an attempt to break the 榡ust copy the popular startup?mentality that is pervasive and incessantly annoys the sh*t out of me!! This series will break down the critical parts of each company and analyze it from a component level to enable new ideas and conversations about how things hould?work vs what the other guy (or gal) is doing. Hopefully the 2-months worth of work and 60 pages will give you nerds something useful!
The Best of the Best Series focuses on and analyzes four e-commerce startups: Huckberry, Ministry of Supply, Pistol Lake, and Dolls Kill. These articles will cover who they, why they are special, what they are doing that transformative, and why you need to pay attention to them.
None of this is paid work or designed to be promotional – these are simply mind-blowingly good stories that I wanted to analyze & tell.
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I am really excited to present the second part of this epic series, my favorite retailer of all time, Huckberry.
Best of the Best Series: Huckberry
PART – Huckberry Intro, Overview, Model, Dopamine, & Story
PART – Takeaways from Brick & Mortar & creating reasons for people to buy something
Here is Part 2:
This is the basic structure of the emails that Huckberry sends:
This is who the ‘typical’ Huckberry customer is:
These are the 4 unique aspects that I wanted to focus on for the Huckberry Model:
We finished section 2 on this post: [Best of the Best] How Huckberry is kicking Warby Parker’s Ass in Transforming the Future of E-Commerce – PART 1 .
Section 3: Give People Reasons to Buy
In Part One, we drilled down into the extraordinary unique aspects of the Huckberry experience. However, we are going to take a step back from the hyper-focus for our next part.
In general, when traditional/old-school businesses make a digital push – they simply try to port the existing offline model to the online medium. This RARELY works – mainly because there is too much experiential bias (i.e. we were successful selling Dunder Mifflin paper offline so we should just sell it the same way online). For example, when print publishing made the push to digital, the advertising business model was ported over as well with the natural assumption that people would see digital ads in the same way they saw print ads – that didn work out too well and still doesn to this day ( I literally loathe display advertising as a business model – it ridiculous to build a business that preys on the dumbest 0.20%of people to build a business )
That being said, it systemically important to study the offline strategy with a fresh pair of eyes (i.e. not someone who works at the company) and critically deconstruct what going on and why certain things are working for them. Then take that example and reimagine it for the digital world.
Let start by taking a look at the world of brick & mortar retail. The brick & mortar retail model has become pretty dialed in over the past several decades.
The Value Prop of the Brick & Mortar Model
There are essentially 3 components that wel focus on before we dive into what went wrong.
Store Design Embodies Brand Persona
That Urban Outfitters is designed to aesthetically connect with the Tank-wearing Coachella Music Festival pseudo-hipster while H&M (clothing retailer) uses a sense of modernity to merchandisse the fashionista-on-a-budget products – Major retailers embody their brand persona in the physical aesthetic of the store.
Customers Create Reference Points
The value of a physical store is that customers are able to do 榤arket research?- looking at other customers and gauging if hey could pull it off?too. This is valuable for stores with heavy foot-traffic like an Urban Outfitters or H&M (clothing retailer) – there is a broader cross-section that allows the brain to build associations – he looks cute & kinda has some of my body features maybe I could try that jacket.?The customers help establish a peer group to provide lots of data points for making purchasing decisions.
Between the store layout, racks of clothes, and stylized outfits – there is a ton of visual data to help guide the customer in the right direction. Simply looking around the store and walking down a couple of aisles allows the brain to see a large selection and focus on the products that it’s flagged as interesting. This is similar to how Huckberry’s Brand Stories are designed to provide lots of contextual, visual clues without requiring a cognitive investment of analyzing each product individually.
Employees Create Aspirational Models
If you work at a Levi’s (company) store – you pretty much wear Levi gear. The retailer has an incentive to put employees in their product to present the full picture to the consumers.
This pretty much defines how every major apparel retailer builds their brick & mortar retail presence – the H&M (clothing retailer)s, Urban Outfitters, to Anthropologies, The Gap (company)s, and Levi’s (company) of the world all employ these four basic retail practices. In the early-aughts, the boutique retail model exploded – especially for women fashion. Generally speaking – the key difference was that boutiques positioned themselves as style experts with more focused product selections of expensive brands.
When we take a look at the explosion of women boutique fashion in the US – like Akira in Chicago, Scoop in NYC, and M. Fredric in LA – these retailers employed cool, stylish, cute girls as sales associates to create a different experience (of course, this is not limited to girls – but I am focusing on girls because it a generally accepted stereotype and to make a larger point). In general, if you were a girl and loved fashion – you would probably work at a boutique in the same way a gear/tech nerd, like me, would have worked at a Best Buy (company).
This model pretty much defines the boutique experience from the late-90s to right before the start of the Great Recession in ?8. All of these retailers were generating a significant amount of value by utilizing the passion and expertise of these girls to drive a unique retail experience. Working in a boutique served as an outlet for expressing your passion for fashion.
However, the problem with this model was that the minimum wage environment treated these employees like commodities. These fashionista-obsessed employees were investing in researching the newest trends (outside of work) and engaging in market research as they played around town. The boutique experience was generating value to customers because these employees applied the experiential knowledge of their passion in the only outlet they had – selling cool apparel to customers. This implicitly created an inequality in the value delivered to the boutique in exchange for the hourly compensation paid for services rendered.
Tech & the Great Recession Changed the World for E-Commerce
In 2008, there were two powerful forces that began to disrupt this status quo:
Great Recession Gutted the Core Value Proposition of Boutiques
As the Great Recession started gathering steam, boutiques couldn profitably deliver a valuable retail experience. These retailers closed in droves and most of the core knowledge workers (i.e. the fashionista girls) were fired – all of this valuable style and fashion knowledge (i.e. human capital) was dumped into the labor pool. The underlying expert value proposition of specialized fashion boutiques that had been a staple of this business model for 20+ years was functionally gutted.
However, if the boutique was the outlet for the fashion/style passion and expertise of this population – the world of tech would enable a new way of deploying this human capital.
Tech Enabled Deploying Passion to Audiences of Scale
Prior to the onset of the Great Recession – blogging was technically challenging and building an audience were major barriers to entry for most content creators. As this population of core-knowledge workers were seeking new outlets for their passion in fashion – WordPress & Tumblr erupted onto the scene to functionally drop barriers to entry to zero. Anyone who wanted to talk about fashion could easily setup a blog, download a theme to make it look pretty, and have an outlet to express this passion.
The power enabled by WordPress & Tumblr (website) wa profound, but didn address the core issue of building an audience of scale. This is where the social web of Facebook (product) & Twitter (product) provide the tools that finally enable expression on a scale that the world has never before seen. The Social Web ushered in one of the most transformative forces in modern commerce – these social tools enabled the expression of these content creators passions to the world. You could create and through sharing and promotion – you could reach millions of people in a way never before possible (really – bloggers had only SEO & janky email lists to drive demand – it was pretty challenging).
The majority of the girls who I knew, who previously only had a small boutique to engage in their passion, began employing their passion for fashion to reach tens of thousands of people. As the social revolution gained significant momentum, the ability to monetize quickly followed. I have a lot of girlfriends who were in this first major wave of WordPress fashion bloggers who were able to build audiences that enabled them to generate advertising and promotional revenue models. Tech unleashed a business model for fashion experts to deliver a product in a monetizable way.
This was functionally brain drain on the expertise in the fashion retail environment that parallels the downfall of Best Buy (company) – all the tech nerds could talk about tech on blogs. Think about it – in the early-00s the guys like me who knew everything about tech would work at Best Buy (company). Fast forward ten years and Best Buy (company) almost goes bankrupt because the retailer didn deliver value – it was/is a commoditized medium for acquiring a product (something that customer won pay anything but the lowest price for).
With the iPhone in the hands of millions and everyone being on Facebook (product) – the content and social revolutions were changing how consumers interacted on the web – this opens the door for the explosions in e-commerce. However – in the same way that publications simply tried to port the image-based ad business model to digital – brick & mortar retailers thought that they would do the same thing. The basic theory is:
– Display a bunch of images like how products sit on helves?/h2>
– Categories will function like big signs to guide customers
– Customers will see an image and click in the same way that they would pick up a product from a store shelf
– The product information is limited to what would be on a hangtag on a pair of jeans
This fundamentally flawed approach to 榩ort?an existing model to a new medium completely undermines the basic fact that the customer is doing all the work:
– Customers must sift through all the products
– Customers need to invest in applying the product to their style
– Customers must do outside research to build an informed perspective
The retailer is not delivering value to the user and functioning like a 榙umb pipe?- if the customers are doing all the hard work in making a buying decision then what are the drivers for buying from this retailer or that one. To add insult to injury – customers?simply aren experts and want to have guidance to help make decisions. It was basically the function that our fashionista girls in the boutique served – they had valuable expertise and wanted to communicate it to the customer.
The majority of e-commerce retailers shoot themselves in the foot by not delivering a value-added experience that gives the customer a reason to buy a product.
This essentially informs the reason why Huckberry exists – this model of retail simply has never made sense to them:
If Huckberry is going to invest in selling a product – they believe it their job to put together a complete picture that tells a story that explains their excitement and gives the customer the reasons to get excited too. Huckberry invests heavily in every brand they sell from creating pretty graphical stories to making videos. Simply putting some products on a page, hoping the customer likes it, and if theye lucky – buying the product – this is simply not an option for the team.
Additionally, they aren really too concerned about conversion rates and are opposed to using tricks to boost sales – they see it as a relationship. When you tell a good story – you earn a little credit from the reader to be receptive to the next story. It about long-term relationships – so, by virtue of engaging in the story, Huckberry delivers new data about what makes a good knife or why a pair of jeans are made a certain way. This is a long-term relationship for them – it will all work out in the end.
There are essentially three parts to how Huckberry crafts a story that gives your a reason to buy a product:
Part 1: Introduce the Brand Through a Visual Narrative
The format of the Huckberry email is designed to tell a story that visually communicates the context for what the reader is looking at. This story is a combination of a header image + a couple of sentences of commentary to pique the interest of readers and compel them to want to learn more.
Here are a couple of my favorite header images that tell a story:
1. Randolph Engineering
Here is the link to the Randolph Engineering Shop on Huckberry:
This is the Bladeo page at Huckberry if you want to take a look it it
These header images are designed to provide quick overview of the brands and the products contained in the sale. The goal here is to give the reader some high level contextual information between the image and keywords in the short commentary. The goal is to provide just enough detailed information to contextualize the who/what/where of the sale to pique the interest of reader.
Part 2: Connecting with the Brand Story
When readers click on one of the brands they are directed to the brand landing page. The most prominent feature is the Brand Story that sits on top of the product page.
After getting out of the douchebag world of investment banking, Andy & Rich vowed to do 3 things with Huckberry:
– Only work with & do business with friends
– Only sell products they love
– Only support brands that they respect
This commitment seems like some pretty lofty goals that have held true to over the years. The brand story is the second stage of Huckberry communicating why the customer should care about a brand and be interested in learning more about the product.
Here is how the process is designed to connect the dots:
In this example, we are looking at the Huckberry Explorer Shirt
The brand story is designed to communicate the inspiration for why the founder has undertaken this Herculean mission of building a brand and provide a narrative that connects with the reader. This is the same way that every major Kickstarter has an insanely good video that is designed to connect with the reader & earn their support.
Consumer Advocacy: People want to have their consumer dollars mean something – it a form of consumer advocacy. The brand story serves as the introduction to who the people are that made the product.
Who are these people: Huckberry is about introducing new brands & products to their readers – the Brand Story is how Huckberry begins to lay the background information to start communicating the value proposition of the products
How Does this Model Create a Different Experience
Randolph Engineering makes military-spec sunglasses and are currently on Huckberry. Here is how Huckberry setups up the Randolph Engineering story:
Let contrast how this model feels compared with the 榖eacon?of e-commerce, Nordstrom (company):
Randolph Engineering on Nordstrom.com
The approach to retail has never made logical sense to Andy & Rich – they want create value for the customer by creating a better retail environment.
Part 3: Give Them Reasons to Buy
For the most part – consumers don really know what makes a 榞ood?product. Let take a look at Levi’s (company): most men buy a pair of Levi’s (company) because they are popular and have a good reputation. In fact most men, don even know how to select the right product line for their body type – they see something cool, try on a size or two, and buy them.
The reason is that in most retail environments there simply isn enough information to help guide the consumer to make an educated decision. In the best-case scenario there is a hangtag with a paragraph of Levi’s (company) marketing-speak that delivers little insight into who should wear a product and why it will work for them.
Huckberry believes it their job to communicate the value of a product by systematically breaking down the product with the information that will enable an informed purchase. Again – this isn about selling a product – it about communicating the reasons that a product is great and empowering the customer with the information to make the right purchase
For purposes of the a deep dive, let use the Huckberry Explorer Shirt as an example:
Now, let break down how Huckberry systemically crafts reasons to buy a product:
Regardless of whether the customer purchases the product – there was a lot of information about the features, fabric, fit, and some lifestyle images of the product. Huckberry isn some sleazy salesman trying to pitch you something – their goal is to provide the information that gives you reasons to buy.
This is exactly what Apple Retail does – those blue-shirted Apple Specialists are there to function in exactly the same way. Apple Specialists don sell Macbooks or iPhones to customers – they ask questions, try to understand who you are, and recommend products that will work best for you. The goal is to communicate the value of great products honestly and without the pressure of an ulterior motive (i.e. a sales commission).
How the Product Page Creates Reasons to Buy
One of the most important differentiating aspects of Huckberry is the amount of time anf effort they invest in explaining why a product is awesome. When we contrast this with major retailers like Nordstrom (company), their several-million-product-scale inhibits them from crafting unique product stories. No one could reasonably expect the e-commerce team at Nordstrom (company) to take photos and write the story for each product.
However, this is a staple of catalog retailers like Lands’ End (company) or Orvis – every page tells a story to contextualize the products on it. This harks back to my comments about Huckberry: it really wants to be a publication like Monocle that finances itself through selling products. The goal is to imbue the retail experience of Huckberry with the aesthetic sophistication of a top tier publication like Monocle. The HB Journal does this in spades with incredible content, but Huckberry wants to progressively incorporate the feel of a publication into the shopping experience to enable readers & customers to seamlessly pass from one channel to the other without feeling like there was a switch.
Huckberry spends the time to add all these special section to clearly illustrate why a product should earn your purchasing dollars – they believe it their job to give the customer reasons to buy. There are four primary sections of a Huckberry product page that they utilize to craft the right reasons to buy:
Section 1: Features Overview
There is a story behind every product that exists – whether it an experience the designer had or what inspired the creation its creation. Huckberry’s Opening Remarks/Features Overview is designed to communicate a story and then detail reasons for the customer to purchase the product
Inspiration: The Features Overview opens with large lifestyle / inspirational images to set the tone – in this case an awesome hike in the forests of Northern California. It the romance of what possible with this product.
Style / Persona: We buy and wear gear because it a reflection of who we are and what we enjoy doing. These features highlight the situations (i.e. a hike) where the unique aspects of this product excel
Feature Details: These are the specific selling points that support what will make this product be a valuable addition to your wardrobe – they contextualize how in the lifestyle shots the specifics will be valuable to the customer and outline the bragging rights you can tell your friends.
Section 2: Fabric
When in a retail shop, a customer can pick up a product and instantly apply the cornucopia of experiential knowledge about how this product will work based on past experience; this is tactile feedback. Although you can replicate touch & feel – Huckberry does 3 things to explain why a particular fabric is great for the product:
Product Drape: In addition to lifestyle shots of real customers rocking the product the Fabric section adds additional photos to showcase how the fabric works in context of the product
Zoom: A close-up of view in-line with a discussion of the fabric, connects the dots about the fabric weight with the details – it designed to be visually illustrate the Fabric Details
Fabric Details: Saying ?00% cotton?doesn really give the customer a whole lot of information – cotton is pretty much infinitely variable. So fabric details like 渟tone-washed?and “preshrunk” inform the customer
Section 3: Fit
The vast majority of men are clueless about fit and sizing issues – we simply buy our size because “it our size” and if it a little big, it a little big.
The digital nature of the web cannot really capture the tactile feedback of trying a product on and experiencing the product in person before the purchase. Huckberry tries to solve this by:
Wearable Views: A product laid flat for a picture doesn provide a lot of contextual cues about how it will fit. Additionally, unrealistic people wearing the product distracts the customers because – none of us simply look like that – So Huckberry balances the lifestyle shots with shots of a filled out shirt sans model
USABLE Size Guide: Sizes vary dramatically by brand and the majority of retailers treat a size guide as a generic template providing little value. Huckberry takes the time to measure and gauge sizes and then shows the sizes on the actual product where each measurement hits to articulate how the product will actually work for the customer
Section 4: Closing Remarks
Making purchasing decisions are emotional – especially in apparel – the market doesn contain perfect information and consumers don act as perfectly rational entities – despite the protests of most economists. Huckberry adds the Closing Remarks section to visually communicate why you need to buy this product. There are 3 main features of this section:
Product Narrative: Huckberry communicates emotion by bringing the reader into a story about the person, place, and thing (he is doing) surrounding a product. Simply by looking at the images, the mind is passively telling a story.
Personality: These images tell a story about the personality of the guy who buys this product without investing a lot of resources in text, which requires an investment by the customer.
Inspirational / Aspiration: In the same way that 99.99999% of Range Rovers are purchased to conquer the urban jungle – it sexy to know that it could and was designed to traverse hostile environments like the Sahara or Volcanic Iceland – these images are designed to inspire HB customers to get out there & do epic sh*t
[Best of the Best: Huckberry] Part 3: Constantly Investing in the Next Shot on Goal
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NOTE: Special shout out to Rick Levine for the editing – Jesus I needed that! I took out most of the &s, but left a few for style! Thank you!