Designed for Versatility: Q&A w/ Ben Checketts of Rhone

Designed for Versatility: Q&A w/ Ben Checketts of Rhone 1440 428 ASG

In just eight short years, Rhone has carved out a space for itself in men’s apparel with a focus on luxury materials and versatile products. We sat down with Co-Founder and Creative Director, Ben Checketts to talk about the brand’s expanding vision, intentional restraint, and knowledge gained along their journey.

Q: Ben, thank you for spending some time with us. First of all, “Creative Director” can encompass a number of things, so start by telling us about your focus at Rhone.

Ben: I am split between two teams, product and brand marketing, and we recently adjusted to bring product under one creative direction.

On the product side, I try and stay current on trends. I look at our positioning in the product category and what stories we can explore. In brand marketing, I explore larger seasonal themes and how they translate into individual campaigns and product marketing. On the brand marketing side, we are finding ways to show that we are a little bit more sophisticated and a little bit different than anything they’ve seen.

I obsess about how we talk to our customers, whether that’s in product or whether that’s directly through messaging and brand marketing. My obsession is understanding our customer better—the psychology behind why he makes certain decisions on his daily journey and how we can serve his needs better. The better I do that, the better the entire business is— both on the product and on the marketing side.

Q: Give us a little background on why you and your brother, Nate started Rhone and what you hoped to accomplish in the retail space.

Ben: When we started Rhone, we were one of the only brands focused on men and athleisure, although we prefer the term “work-leisure,” and we have a robust active performance side as well. We knew we had to be a brand that spoke to men of a certain age and demographic because at some point you graduate from wearing Nike and Under Armor. You want something a little sleeker and more sophisticated. ASG really did a fantastic job of helping us bring those concepts into our stores in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed. You know when you walk into stores and there are words plastered on the wall? We didn’t want that. We wanted something more elevated. Something that matched our brand.

Q: When you started thinking about Rhone’s ideal store, what was most important?

Ben: I wanted to create a space where men of all sizes, shapes, backgrounds, etc. would feel comfortable shopping. Our staff is committed to creating a place that’s safe for all men. Shopping is not the easiest thing for men. So how do we make it as comfortable and as inclusive as possible?

If we create a product that people love and create spaces that are safe for them, those are really our main objectives in terms of an in-person brand experience.

Q: Is there any correlation between bringing product under a single creative view and Rhone’s transition to physical retail?

Ben: Definitely. As we grew our retail presence, it became increasingly clear to us that our product was a little bit all over the place. We were hard to understand as a brand, mostly because of the variety of our products. A lot of brands get into this trap. We started out with four styles, and we had tremendous success, and we thought, you know what’s better than four styles, like 300 styles.

But the art of essentialism is doing less but better—and that was kind of the transition. So as we went into retail, we knew we needed to simplify in order to better serve our customers. Shoppers are just now starting to see some of the changes that we made to condense product as well as the execution of certain creative ideas and themes that make us easier to digest and easier to understand as a brand.

Rhone: Q&A with Ben Checketts

Q: How has your approach changed since opening the first store?

Ben: We incorporated storytelling (where appropriate) and let the product be the star. We are also educating on the products. Other brands call in-store associates “Educators.” We wanted an element of that, but honestly, for us, especially as men, we almost want to discover that for ourselves.

Our main objective is to just get guys to try on. There is this crazy stat we discovered that 83% of people who try on our clothing, buy it. Usually, in retail, it’s much lower than that. Our objective is to create curiosity and educate so that all they really want to do is just try it.

Q: Digitally native brands often feel like they have to bring technology into the stores. How does Rhone think about digital as part of the in-store experience?

Ben: We believe our product is the best statement of who we are as a brand and what we believe in. Even something such as a simple TV screen that shows videos of your campaign can distract from the product.

We want people to get off their phones and experience the story. We had people come in and tell us, you need a statement wall so people can post on Instagram. What 37-year-old man, who’s in the exact middle of our target demo, do you know that’s looking for a statement wall to take a picture with? I know of none.

But we do need new technology to make it convenient for our guy, to make it so that if he orders online, he can pick it up easily. If he has a discount that can apply online, it can carry through to the point of sale. But we don’t want anything that’s going to detract from their experience and that first interaction with the product or trying it on. If we can get him to that point in the customer journey, we know that more than likely, he is going to convert.

 Q: Rhone has worked with ASG now for over a year now. I would be foolish if I didn’t ask how the partnership has been for you and your team.

Ben: In a word, it’s been fantastic. It’s been transformative for our business. We had some initial calls and the ASG team fell in love with the way we talked about and positioned the brand and our values but they said, “look, we love this—but we don’t see this translating in any of your stores.”

ASG helped us see that not only is the in-person experience a statement about your brand in new and different markets, but it’s also an opportunity to inform about why we’re different from other options. They taught us that the physical store is really about the personal connection and the opportunity to speak about your brand.

Path to In-Person: A DTC Guide for Physical Retail

Q: So, what’s next for Rhone?

Ben: We want to have a real community space. This is one of the areas in which I believe Lululemon got it right. They deserve all the credit for being an innovator and using their spaces for their community.

We have had groups of men come in for what we call Mind and Muscle. There’s a little workout or a breathwork class for 20 to 30 minutes. Then it’s 20 minutes of, essentially, group therapy. The format is men talking and responding to prompts and sharing their feelings, and it’s remarkable to watch. Especially within the world of physical fitness influencers, you see these guys who look like their body is Photoshopped—they don’t look real. And suddenly their walls come tumbling down. They tell you about the issues they’ve had with their father, issues they had growing up, the fears, and the anxiety they have as fathers themselves. We want to create these safe spaces, where men can come in and shop, but also where we could hold these community events.

We’re also looking at active. During the pandemic, people really fell in love with the idea of getting good at something specific. They started running marathons, started cycling, weightlifting, or powerlifting, trail running as opposed to distance running. We are creating products that are a little bit more specific on the fitness performance side—an active refresh that will sit perfectly alongside our work leisure apparel.

And then, it’s just all about expansion—finding the cities and the areas where we fit in best.

This interview is part of our continuous DTC series, Path to In-Person: A DTC Guide to Physical Retail

Operational Translation: Q&A with Rachel Williamson

Operational Translation: Q&A with Rachel Williamson 1440 428 ASG

DTC operations details are crucial but an often overlooked part of creating a great in-store experience. Seasoned retail advisor, Rachel Williamson of Running Great Stores, shares operational insights on helping DTC brands find success going from clicks to bricks.

Q: How did you get into the retail industry and why did you decide to make retail consulting your career?

Rachel: Retail was an “accidental” career. I was working my way through college, and I did what lots of other students do; I got a job in retail. I realized I was pretty good at it and I really enjoyed it. I decided to take time off before pursuing law school to see if retail was going to be my career.

I had a great role as a men’s buyer for a small company, and my career took off from there. If we fast forward over the last 30 years or so, I spent time working for iconic brands and I’m so grateful for that. They taught me lessons both on how to be an operator, and also on how to be flexible and resilient because those are, I think, characteristics that are vital to being successful in retail.

Q: Retail trends come and go, and over the past 30 years in retail, I’m sure you’ve seen quite a few. What trends are you seeing in the retail industry at the moment?

Rachel: The direct-to-consumer (DTC) customer is absolutely expanding the most right now. They are looking for guidance from people that have been working in brick and mortar because that is where they are growing.

My strategy is not a magic pill, but let’s say all things are equal: you have a great product and enough of it. You know how merchandising works. Your customer understands your message, your story, and your brand. Then we look at operations; the fundamentals of operations are always going to move you ahead from a financial point of view.

The biggest reason why businesses aren’t working or running the way they should be and having the output that they should have is that there’s such a lack of clarity.

Q: How do you help retailers on the store side gain the clarity necessary to be successful?

Rachel: We start by understanding the desired store experience and work back from there to clarify roles and responsibilities. We help them define what success looks like for each role. That is how we tackle it from the store side, but we often also need to look at the business operations side. We help them to be more strategic and prioritize. How a store operates and how the business operates are umbilically connected.

Q: When working with a DTC brand, how early in the process do you engage with them? What does the process entail?

Rachel: Typically, by the time I get brought in, the DTC brand is working with someone like Asset Strategies Group (ASG) to help them find the right physical space. As the location decisions are made, I begin to help them think through the customer journey and the experience that their stores will deliver. This is the starting point. The experience online is very different than the experience in brick and mortar. We help them think through this creatively, then it becomes more tactical. DTC brands know their product and their consumers love them. They have a great online customer experience, but they admit they feel overwhelmed about running great stores. We can help them address every aspect of running a store through our Retail Playbook™. Once retailers see this tool, their mind is eased.

Q: What do stores need to do after opening day to ensure operational excellence?

Rachel: Once the store has been opened, we train the team on what running a great store looks like. We implement the Retail Playbook™ with the store teams. The Retail Playbook™ answers questions like, how do I hire talent? How do I onboard them? How do I develop them? How do I deliver effective one-on-ones? What is my review process? What happens if somebody isn’t performing? It’s everything around the people pieces but also goes deep into how to engage the customer and KPIs to focus on as levers to pull to impact sales results. It is about helping teams understand the behaviors that deliver results.

The final piece of the Playbook is around operational excellence. This includes the operational components for keeping the store filled in, managing inventory levels, loss prevention, health and safety, and more. So every single process you can imagine for running their specific brand is now all in one place, in the customized digital Retail Playbook™.

For DTCs, their sense of relief when we get to this point is incredible. It is perfect for helping a generation of digital natives learn how to operate in brick and mortar. We are seeing amazing success with this formula.

Q: So, is the benefit of the Retail Playbook™ for DTC retailers that it includes a lot of things they just haven’t thought about?

Rachel: Yes. An example is inventory management. Sure, they’ve got a way that inventory is managed on their e-commerce site, but they haven’t thought about whether the same system can manage brick-and-mortar sales. They often haven’t thought about injuries and incident reports. How do we recycle here, and what does the city require? They don’t know what they need to be worried about and what they do not need to worry about.

The Retail Playbook™ also helps retailers understand the fundamentals of running great stores so they can operate consistently across locations.

Whether you started as an e-commerce business or as a brick-and-mortar store, the fundamentals are the same. Once they understand the fundamentals of running a store, they must execute consistently.

The problem is that fundamentals are not sexy, right? It’s boring to do the same thing over and over. As humans, we like to invent; we like to create. And some people are just wired that way. They don’t want to execute something that’s already been figured out for them. They want to tweak it and create a new way of doing it.

When this happens, the brand standards can be desecrated as the brand becomes defined by the manager who runs that specific location. If you have 50 locations with 50 managers doing it 50 different ways, you no longer have a brand. What you have is a bunch of stores that all run differently. A true brand wants consistency from location to location. Imagine how you would feel if you went into Mcdonald’s and your fries tasted differently than you were expecting. It isn’t a good brand experience. Those fundamentals are really where the excellence lies.

Q: In some ways, DTCs have a lot to learn about selling in a physical space, but are there advantages you see for DTCs moving to brick and mortar?

Rachel: The biggest advantages are that they have a product, they know what their customers want, and they have data to prove it. I could open a store tomorrow, but I don’t have a product to sell. I’ve got all the knowledge to run a great store, but I have no product. Am I going to be successful? Of course not. Likewise, you can have an e-commerce site today and the product is great. You’ve got a steady flow of inventory and everything you need to be confident in what you’re selling now. You’re moving into brick and mortar and don’t know the first thing. But is that something you can learn? Yes, easily.

It makes so much sense for direct-to-consumer businesses to move into the brick space because they already have the most important things–a great product and a business plan. Everything else is easy, and we can help them get that figured out. But if you don’t have the product, we can’t even have this conversation.

Path to In-Person: A DTC Guide for Physical Retail

Q: You seem to love working with DTC brands. Why is that?

Rachel: The really cool thing about working with digitally native brands is they’re not saddled with “the way it’s always been done.” That thinking gets in the way of many companies and limits them unnecessarily. And even experienced retail managers say, “we can’t do it that way,” whereas DTCs have no baggage. They say, “let’s try it.” I think it has helped DTCs move into the brick-and-mortar space and be successful so much more easily than other retailers.

The other thing about direct-to-consumer brands is that they’re good at using design thinking as it relates to the customer. They are quite open about the customer and their challenges. They can evaluate how their business addresses those challenges and how they make the customer experience the center of everything they do. They have a more innate sense of how to use empathy to understand their customer’s pain points. I find that a very open way of thinking is beneficial to the DTC customer, and it makes the transition into brick and mortar super easy.

Q: What do you say to the people who proclaimed retail was dead during the height of COVID?

Rachel: While we were going through COVID, the media narrative was that brick and mortar was dead. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have been in retail a long time, and the truth is, It’s never going to die. Sure, there are things we choose to have delivered to our doorstep, commodity items. But nothing replaces the fun of going out and having an experience and visiting retail locations and meeting and falling in love with brands.

This interview is part of our continuous DTC series, Path to In-Person: A DTC Guide to Physical Retail

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