Allbirds is betting on being totally ahead of the curve. The eco-shoe concept came from New Zealand native Tim Brown, who thought comfortable and environmentally friendly shoes could be created from his country’s native merino wool. He teamed up with sustainability expert Joey Zwillinger, who helped re-engineer the wool fabric specifically for footwear. The result: a sneaker-like shoe inspired by natural materials that’s impacted the entire footwear industry.
Allbirds has some big-name investors, including former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s also got some pretty famous folks who have been seen in its shoes, including former President Barack Obama.
What started out as a mostly digital startup, however, is evolving into a shoe retailer with ambitious plans to open stores around the globe. Allbirds now has retail locations in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, as well as Berlin, London, China and New Zealand. Plenty more stores are on tap, too.
Travis Boyce, head of global retail operations, previously worked in operations and finance for Chobani, and has been with Allbirds for two years.
Just how eco-crazy is Allbirds?
The goal was always to focus on the materials. We knew customers wanted a shoe with a simple design made from simple materials. Our customers have come to know Allbirds not just for its simple, sustainable materials, but the underlying principle that we won’t stray from. We’re not beating our chests about eco all the time. Consumers won’t buy environmental products unless they’re great.
Can you give us a recent example?
SweetFoam. It’s a long process and not easy, but we partnered with a sophisticated company to create a new foam for shoes that is made from sugar and environmentally friendly. They’re carbon negative. We actually take carbon out of the air with every outsole that’s created. It took several years to create. Now we have a novel material, and we hope others will follow suit in their outsoles.
Is Allbirds a manufacturer or a retailer?
We’re a retail company. We don’t own our own factories. We have incredible partners. We have a certain standard in our materials and an ethical manner in which we want them to be made. We’re different from the rest of the footwear industry.
What’s best for Allbirds: malls or non-mall retail locations?
Generally, we’re focused on controlling the retail environment and owning the experience. We’re not against malls. We want to go where the customers are. So, we’re agnostic on the retail location type but we always want the best location.
What’s best is the density of our existing customers. We have incredibly detailed information on the customers who purchase from us online. We want to go where there is high foot traffic and where our existing customers are close by.
Why are your retail store designs so minimalistic?
Our stores have a very clear focus on enhancing customer and employee experience. We want to focus on the product, so there are no frivolous things. We are light on tech and light on text and copy. We focus on showcasing the product. We expose all the inventory and don’t hide anything. The employee never races to the basement or the backroom to find a product. This also shortens the wasted time so we can focus on serving the customers.
What about the specific store designs?
We design around the 80/20 principle: By that, I mean 80 percent is consistent with our other stores and people know it’s an Allbirds store. But 20 percent we like to customize to the area or local neighborhood.
Can you talk about future Allbirds retail locations?
There’s lots of opportunity for next year. I can’t tell you where, but I think we’ll add a considerable number of stores domestically and internationally next year.
How many Allbirds retail locations could there ultimately be?
Well, I don’t think thousands. But I don’t want to put ourselves in a corner. We never want to get ahead of ourselves. We never want to open stores for the sake of opening stores. We will be very, very disciplined in how we scale and never get to the point where we’re not paying attention to details.
Where do Allbirds sell best?
The largest cities tend to be our best markets. We’ve doubled down in San Francisco with a second store. But for some reason Atlanta over-indexes above its weight class.
How can Allbirds keep its coolness factor?
We’re tried to create something timeless. We don’t chase trends or fads. Comfort is here to stay. If a shoe is comfortable, it will stay popular.
Where did the name come from?
New Zealand was the origin of our company. When the explorers first showed up, New Zealand was a country of all birds — and no mammals. It was a simpler time. The name is a nod to that history and the time when New Zealand was an island that was untouched and pristine.
You have some unusual employee rules at Allbirds — what are they?
We’re a brand that’s still a crazy startup at heart. Every employee from the CEO down spends time at the reception desk welcoming guests on a regular basis. It keeps you humble, and you spend time working with everyone from the mailman to the board member. It’s a tradition that I hope will carry on. It’s part of the onboarding process for every new employee.
In the holiday season we leverage headquarter employees to help out in our stores. It’s a great reminder of what customers are looking for.
Who is Allbirds’ target customer?
People who are conscious of what they consume. When we started, customers weren’t as conscious. But consumers are becoming more educated about the buying decisions they are making. They want to know where a product comes from and all the details around the business.
What’s the toughest thing about competing in the sneaker market?
Developing awareness. We are still so new and there are so many brands out there. It’s about finding consumers who are interested in what we’re creating. We did a great job in digital. Retail has been a big breakthrough for us. It’s for the consumer who wouldn’t have found our product through Instagram.
Are there any other products on tap?
We just launched Allbirds socks recently and they’re flying off the shelves. We found that 50 percent of our customers choose to wear socks even though you don’t need to wear them with our shoes.
How do sales in stores compare to sales online?
We are digitally led and ecommerce driven, but we have double-digit sales in our stores. Our stores are not just a marketing tactic or put up for appearance. Each one is financially successful, which is why we’re considering more.
What’s your advice for the entrepreneur who wants to create the next Allbirds?
Being maniacally focused on your customers — and, before that, maniacally focused on your product — is critical. The key is to do a very small number of products very well.