Dolls Kill

Founders of some of the fastest-growing digital brands in apparel, beauty and footwear had their brains picked on building loyalty and community — and it turns out not trying so hard may be key.

Executives from Dolls Kill, Soko Glam and Allbirds participated on a panel held during the National Retail Federation’s conference, which wraps Wednesday, only to prove their successes at building authentic brands and communities were not so much focused strategies as byproducts of passion projects.

“You can’t fake authenticity,” said Dave Cho, cofounder and chief executive of South Korean beauty retailer Soko Glam. “We were lucky five years ago to just be who we were.”

Soko Glam started in Seoul and is now headquartered in New York City, where Cho and his wife Charlotte Cho still head up the business.

Soko Glam, with roots in e-commerce, more recently launched its first physical retail experience within Bloomingdale’s in SoHo. The company last year closed a $2 million seed round.

“We basically said we never want to get into [physical] retail and we did our first mini-shop this year,” Cho said. “We’ve done everything digital before and that was just a really great way to get to know our customers and interact with her in the way she wants to be interacted with.”

The Bloomingdale’s shops-in-shop isn’t so much a point of sale for Soko Glam as much as it is an environment to learn more about the customer, Cho said.

It’s a similar story with San Francisco-based Dolls Kill, the multibrand e-tailer selling club-, punk- and other alternative lifestyle-inspired apparel and accessories. Had someone asked chief executive officer and cofounder Bobby Farahi two years ago whether plans called for physical retail, he would have said no. That changed earlier this year when the company opened its first ever pop-up in San Francisco’s Haight District. Now, with the store, Dolls Kill staffers see what their customers are wearing when they enter the store, what bags from other retailers they’re carrying and other details they couldn’t possibly have picked up on online.

“Now having a store I realize how much you learn about the customer,” Farahi said. “With online, you were completely missing that.”

“The offline component, having an interaction with your customer in store is something hard to replace online,” added Joey Zwillinger, cofounder of sustainable footwear maker Allbirds. “We have two stores. We take data from online and we look at that from a pretty deep quantitative perspective.”

Allbirds, which has raised $27.5 million to date, has one store in San Francisco and another in SoHo.

While each of the three companies had different approaches to entering bricks-and-mortar, their abilities to do so successfully were supported by their loyal followings.

Farahi, who cofounded the company with wife and DJ Shoddy Lynn, described Dolls Kill’s focus on building a following — or tribe as he put it — as something that established the brand in the beginning and keeps it authentic to followers today.

“From the very first day we were obsessed with [building followers],” Farahi said. “It was about product first and then content around that product. That was a bigger metric for us than sales and traffic.”

Building excitement around a brand is what keeps people coming back, but it can’t be formulaic and doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal loyalty program.

“I don’t think we look at loyalty in that way,” Farahi said when asked what the company does to reward loyal customers. “I think how we get loyalty is by continuing to turn the assortment and continuing to introduce freshness of product, but we don’t have a loyalty program. We’ve tried loyalty programs…and I think it’s not a one-box-fits-all type of solution. If you’re going to have a loyalty program, it needs to be very specific to your audience.”

To that point, Allbirds has something slightly more formal in an Early Bird program that rewards repeat customers with early access to product launches or exclusives. In return, these top spenders, provide feedback that helps inform product development.

“The way we focus on loyalty is less through Kool-Aid,” Zwillinger said, stressing any such program should be of substance and mutually beneficial.

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