Bright Perspective Episode 4: ‘Anywhere’ Retail Inventory Management – Feature’s Journey
Today, shoppers expect a consistent, unified retail experience, whether they interact with your brand in person or online. That requires retail inventory management strategies that let you market your brand experience so that customers don't see a difference between the warehouse, the store, or in between.
Creating a unified retail inventory management experience requires a few things, including:
- Instagrammable moments and brand experiences that get people off the Internet and into your store
- Connecting with your customers in the buying process with value adds like buy-now pay-later payment, flexible shipping options, etc.
- Smarter buying relationships with suppliers
- Insights to influence and adapt to multi-channel demand and build an authentic retail community
- Humanizing your beliefs through inclusion programs
- Technologies, like warehouse management (WMS), that support store-level retail inventory management and fulfillment to reduce shipping costs and stock problems, while improving customer experience
- Knowing the difference between out-of-the-box WMS solutions and those that bring game-changing capabilities like WMS customizations to the table
For more insights on the topic of retail store inventory fulfillment and more retailer journeys including Feature and others, check out our new omnichannel Growth Guide: “Actioning Stores for Anywhere Retail Inventory Management”
Welcome to Deposco’s Bright Perspective Podcast! I’m Carina Wingel of Deposco. Today I’m joined by EJ Luera, co-founder and COO at Feature. EJ is here today to talk with us about how to create a consistent customer experience in every retail touchpoint from the warehouse to the store. Welcome, EJ. Thanks for joining today.
Hey, thanks for having me.
So let’s dive into it. EJ, what are some of the ways you create brand experiences for customers from a store level at Feature?
EJ: Carina, we’ve been doing this for 10 years now, but just in the last probably six or seven years, we’ve realized that customers want more bang for their buck, right? They can shop on Amazon, they can shop online. That journey to the store isn’t always necessary anymore.
You have to give shoppers more value from your brand. You have to make them want to leave their house to come shop with you.
“It’s not enough to just open the store and have a great product. You have to basically build an experience”.
In our stores, we’ve always tried to have some wow factor, have some added value. We pump a really nice scent into the air when you walk in. It smells nice and every store has that same scent. We want that experience to be synonymous with Feature. We actually make products that smell like that. You can take that smell home with you. People come in and say, “Oh, it smells so good in here”. We offer candles and spray (products) just so that you’re still connected to customers, even at their house.
We also built our sneaker tunnel, which is kind of the focal point for all of our stores. Some people call it the Tunnel of Love. If you’re a sneaker head and you love shoes, this is your Tunnel of Love.
“That’s our Instagrammable moment”.
Even in the dressing rooms, we put a lot of thought into cool wallpaper, hidden doors, really brightly lit mirrors, infinity mirrors, things like that. It does create a brand experience that goes along with our well-curated product often. You have to do that as part of a well-rounded experience.
Yeah, totally. I remember visiting your Wynn, Las Vegas store there. It was just such a cool environment that you had built. Even from the set, I think I had a car scent thing. I brought it home and I was like, “Oh, this is how the store smells” and it was great. It was lovely.
There was one thing in the store I remember; it was a picture or an art piece you guys had made with the shoes. If you want to tell that story, I remember that was really neat. Really heartfelt with getting to the core of a brand culture.
Sure, of course.
“The three pillars for us are fashion, music and art. And we try to live by those”.
My background is actually music, as a DJ. My partner was a DJ and we just love art. We love all things good. We’ll probably talk more about that later, but we did try to inject art into all of our spaces. If you follow our social media, and even online, those three elements are well-represented.
So that art piece you’re speaking of was interesting. It was by artist Phil America who was kind of a conceptual artist. He has done a lot of really cool things–a lot of philanthropy awareness, political awareness types of things. What he did for us though was he built this art piece out of cut-up shoes, which were supplied from past employees, current employees, friends and family… people who have supported us since the beginning.
He created the art piece, which we hung at the Wynn store. It has a cool caption that reads: “it’s going to be a long walk”, which is an homage to fear and loathing in Las Vegas, and also kind of plays off the distance between the Wynn store and our Chinatown location in Las Vegas. Phil built another art piece for us at the Spring Mountain store, as well in Chinatown.
We have another custom piece from an artist named Denver Miller who is part of Broken Record art collective. He did a David Bowie piece for us there at the Wynn as well, made out of vinyl records. Again, music and art–that’s really important for us to have those elements. The music in the background, the art on the walls, and obviously the fashion on the racks.
Yeah, for sure. It brings in all the elements that encompass the Feature brand experience. I think that’s super important as you’re talking about creating that experience in stores and getting people off their computers and out of their houses.
We can’t talk about customer experience without talking about the buying process. Obviously it’s such a key part of how a customer will evaluate your brand, even if that’s online and they’re just perusing your website. What does Feature do to connect with customers during that process?
Well, I mean, if you start with our digital marketing team–who are just assassins, by the way–they’re so good at what they do. But part of their role is to find different ways to connect with customers, and then keep them engaged with us.
When you talk about the checkout process and the buying process recently, there has been a lot of movement in the buy-now, pay-later platforms. We obviously try to utilize all of those types of platforms because that’s what customers are into. That’s what Millennials are doing right now. Not just that… we also open up all of our payment platforms or payment gateways.
“We’re always looking for innovative ways to basically meet the customer where they’re at. Their spending habits, their buying habits. What makes them comfortable”.
So it’s really fluid for us. We’re never locked in or married to one type of a process.
Some of the other things we’ve done recently include getting the ‘get-it-by date’ right. People might’ve seen that before on a platform like Amazon, but I don’t see a ton of our competitors using this type of philosophy. So when a customer wants to get an item on our site, they can see if they purchase it now, how soon they can get it at the checkout.
They have all sorts of shipping options. They can upgrade their shipping, go with economy shipping, etc. So we give them all those options. It coincides with the way that they want it delivered to them.
So demand lives everywhere, right? In store, on the website, across social media… being able to influence and capture more of those opportunities (affordably) is a big challenge for so many retailers right now who are trying to unite their brand experience. What are some ways that Feature has been able to overcome this?
It’s, you may not want to hear this, but you never will overcome that. You will never overcome (the challenge of influencing multi-channel demand), but what you can do is constantly adapt and improve. It’s a constant struggle, but it’s just the nature of business.
“People change platforms. Algorithms change. You have to be on top of those changes at every moment”.
You can never just rest on your laurels, “Oh, we’re killing the game right now”. And it’s all good. Knowing that you have to adapt, making sure that your team is adapting, and that the customer’s mentality is changing, always. As long as you’re on top of that, you can succeed. People see our changes all of the time, but as long as your organization is okay with a change in mindset, and that no one’s going to love it, that’s how you can really thrive.
Yeah, that comes with the changing market, I guess. How do you guys approach those changes and the need to adapt in an ever-evolving market?
You have to have strong people on your team. Strong leaders who are used to adapting and comfortable with change, and then they just portray that down to their teams. Because the biggest fear is like, “Oh, what are we going to do now?” or, “We’re sunk!” Sometimes it’s, “We’re on fire”. It’s an average, right? Just a natural progression in business.
Yeah, it all comes down to serving the best customer experience that you can. My next question is how do you leverage the supply chain to enable a better customer experience?
We learned a lot of these things the hard way early on in our retail career.
“What we’ve done is we started buying better. We bought smarter, and we’ve forged really strong relationships with our vendors”.
In fact, during quarantine, because we had business so heavily invested in our supply chain, and so heavily invested in our digital presence, we were actually able to stay operational and keep everybody working.
We were able to take some of the pressure off of our vendors. They had extra inventory they couldn’t get rid of because some of their accounts that were brick-and-mortar only couldn’t take that inventory. (Smart buying) really positioned us to be a good partner with these vendors. A byproduct of that, which played in our favor, was that we are now a priority to some of those vendors.
The main thing is diversifying your supply chain. You can’t be so stuck in one supplier or one country that’s supplying 90% of your goods. That’s just a recipe for disaster.
So, we’ve gone out, especially with getting our private label out. We have some production here in the States and some production overseas in different countries.
“The main thing is diversifying your supply chain. I don’t think that we will ever be just reliant on one channel moving forward”.
Yes. I think a lot of businesses, unfortunately, learned that the hard way during the pandemic. That’s great to hear that Feature didn’t have that issue and was able to shift. So the importance is having that flexibility in your supply chain and being able to pivot when you need to.
Related to the customer experience, there’s a lot of data that retailers can get nowadays and all types of systems being used. Looking at improving the customer experience, what types of data do you look at for that?
The biggest thing for us is trying to discover what’s important to the customer. Like I said previously, that’s always changing.
“As the trends change, as payment platforms change, as social media platforms change–we just have to be willing to change with them or adapt. Knowing what’s important to the customer is really at the heart of that”.
Like most of our customers are on Instagram, but when we first opened, they were on Facebook; now, TikTok is a huge platform. We’re just starting to get our feet wet with Discord, now that it’s in the mix. Some of your listeners might not even know what Discord is! I just learned about it a couple months ago, and now we have a Discord channel.
So, meeting your customers where they’re at is really important, but you have to understand what’s important to them.
I think you guys have done a really great job at building a community with the in-store experiences you have, and with the communication on your website. Community is what creates loyal customers and a brand. So how would you say you build community with your brand?
That just comes down to authenticity.
“What’s interesting about building a retail community is that, if you do it right, you don’t really even know that it’s happening”.
When we first opened Feature, the idea was that it was going to kind of have this barber shop vibe, right? Just like an old-school barber shop, you come in and you just talk like you’re talking about sports or politics. In this case, you’re talking about sneakers and fashion and music, right?
We used to see so many customers who came in just to talk. They weren’t even necessarily there to shop because it’s a shared interest. What we noticed from those kinds of interactions is how we came up with the mantra, “All Things Good”). You could come into a store and you’re just talking about everything that you’re talking about 2Pac versus Biggie and, Jordan Highs vs. Mids, etc.
I mean, this is people just talking. But everything they’re talking about is good. Or it has some relevance, or as I call it, “goodness”. It makes the store visit worthwhile. What we didn’t know was that we were building our community. We were just talking about things that we like to talk about and having fun.
Those talks escalated into real events, where we’d put a DJ under the stairs and we’d have a food truck outside. The idea was never that we were trying to get people to the store to shop. It was to hang out with your friends, and we supplied a service.
We wanted to bring that over to the digital side, as well. We still wanted people to have those experiences, whether it’s through our social media channels, or if it’s our curated, brand matrix on our website. We just wanted everyone to see it. It felt cool. It was high-end and everyone felt like they were part of that community.
“A lot of the things that we’re doing now are really based around inclusion”.
One of the knocks you’ll hear a lot of times with boutiques similar to ours is that it feels very exclusive. Not exclusive in the sense of, “Oh, we have exclusive products”, but rather exclusive, like “You can’t have this,” and we’ve always preached the opposite.
We greet you when you come in the store, we help you pick out a gift for a family member, or whatever. We really try to get involved in under-represented communities. You’ll see that with some of the initiatives we’re doing, like music, fashion and art scholarships.
We gave out three scholarships; one for music, one for fashion, and one for art. All of those scholarships are actually for people of color. Every one of the brands we partner with… community is very important to them, as well. We don’t do it because it’s important to our partners; we are like-minded in that we have the same goal to uplift people and create an inclusive experience for our customers.
So how does Feature create that consistent customer experience whether they interact with your brand in person or online (and do that affordably)?
In the beginning when we first opened, we were not omnichannel (obviously). We had one little brick-and-mortar store, very entry-level brands, and entry-level owners. I mean, we just didn’t know anything.
Being that we were so new in a pretty bad location at that time, there wasn’t a ton of store traffic. We knew we had to look to other revenue streams in order to keep the business going. So we started selling on eBay; this was just in the very beginning. Obviously we’re not on that channel anymore, but eBay really helped us stay afloat in those early years.
What that looked like at the time was literally selling things on eBay and then going into our Point of Sale (POS) system to deduct that inventory. We’d export a report from eBay and match those SKUs to Lightspeed, our POS at that time. We had to just manually remove those units, so they could no longer be sold in-store. And then vice versa. If you sold something in-store, you would go into eBay and deduct those units, so that you didn’t oversell them.
“Early on, we didn’t know what we didn’t know”.
Obviously, early on, we didn’t really know much about technology. Once the volume really picked up on both levels, eBay, and in-store, we saw that manual process was just so tedious. And, it was broken. If you missed something, just like we were talking about earlier, if something was out of stock, you couldn’t fulfill it for your online customer.
Technically, eBay customers weren’t our customers. It didn’t really put the brand in a bad light, so to say, but there’s still that kind of friction. We went out looking for some technology to account for this. We started at some entry-level apps that could basically manage your inventory in real time.
The only thing we were looking for in these apps was just to remove a unit from here when you sold it over here. That’s it. The systems did so much more than that, but that was all we needed then. That’s where we stopped asking the questions.
As we grew, we opened more stores. We launched our e-commerce channel. We started doing really well there, and got off of eBay. That took care of that issue, but we were still seeing similar issues. The entry-level WMS solution could not keep up with our volume.
“When you start exploring a new WMS solution, you go in with a sense of skepticism. Once you start to see what a warehouse management system can actually do for you, it just opens up all these other possibilities”.
There’s a big jump point. A lot of time passed between our first WMS solution and to where we’re at with the possible now.
I think a lot of people listening to this episode are either experiencing these growing pains right now, or are about to experience them very soon as they grow their brand. Let’s dive into what that journey looked like for you.
Sure. We used to ship from our brick-and-mortar location in the beginning when we were fulfilling eBay orders. On any given day, you could come into a Feature store and see 100 packages on the sales floor, under a shelf, because we had nowhere else to put them. That’s where the postman picked them up from.
After a while we said, this isn’t a good look. People walk into the store and they just see a bunch of outgoing boxes on the sales floor. It’s just not a good vibe. So we moved into a little 1,000 square-foot warehouse space and built some racks. We put the products in there that we were fulfilling for eBay.
We didn’t even know what ‘Locations’ meant! For the listeners out there who might not know what ‘Locations’ means, it just means that you assign a location so that you can locate a product when you need it. That your system tells you exactly where it’s at.
So, we’re walking around the warehouse looking at these little, tiny boxes and trying to match SKUs to orders.
“The picking process would take us hours. It was so inefficient. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know”.
The first WMS vendor we had told us, “Yeah, we can keep your inventory straight across different systems. You can also add locations to your products”. We’re like, “Oh, okay”. [Light bulb moment].
Little by little, we increased our volume. We got off of eBay, but we started selling online. We grew into a bigger warehouse, 4,000 square feet. The first thing we did was build Locations into those, into the warehouse–but still used a lot of manual type processes. Our shipping software at that time was separate; our WMS solution didn’t handle shipping. It was very entry-level, like I said.
We were using a separate system to ship every morning. We’d come in and print a hardcopy list of things to be picked. Luckily, it had the Locations on them. You’d bring those pick slips back, and then someone would manually type in the order number, manually ship the product, and print a label. I mean, just very tedious and very manual.
Once you start shipping 400 or 500 orders a day, we said, “There’s gotta be a better way”, and started vetting new systems. What can you assist? Can we get an all-encompassing warehouse management system that has Locations with transfer orders–which we had never used before–purchase orders, and obviously a shipping platform.
So, you dive deep into these B-systems and the entry-level ones; they cost entry level, right?
“Sometimes I think a lot of business owners are scared to make that next jump to a real enterprise WMS solution because it can be scary to say, “Hey, I’m going to invest real money into a system”.
They go in with some skepticism, as well.
Initially, we felt that way with our current system, which is Deposco. No surprise there, but Deposco has been a game changer for us. This is for your listeners who are starting this journey with Deposco.
You get with the sales team and they’re talking about the bells and whistles, and the design process. To me, with all the WMS technologies we used prior, there was no design process. It was out of the box; everything was “built in”. That’s where that skepticism comes from.
It’s like, “Oh, you’re going to ‘design me a system’? I’m just not buying it”. But once you actually get into Deposco, and you see what the customization is, you see with the automation that every business is different. Things that are important to one business might not be as important to our business. And so that design process is real.
“The (Deposco) customization is real and it has been the biggest game changer for us”.
That’s an amazing story to hear, EJ. I think a lot of business owners can relate to that. Either they are going through that skepticism now, or, have just gone through that. I know our team at Deposco loves working with Feature and continuing to make those improvements as you guys keep growing.
I do want to ask a bit more about the customization. Can we dive into how you use that to look at your inventory in stores?
Sure, totally. It’s interesting because at Feature, we try to preach operational excellence. If you visit any other retail locations (not ours), it seems like operational excellence is not always their main focus.
It’s tough a lot of times on our employees too because we demand so much more.
“Associates no longer get to just stand around and look at their phones when no customers are in the store”.
What they’re really good at is identifying pain points in different areas. Whether it’s at the warehouse or at the brick-and-mortar, what we do is we try to address those pain points and solve those pain points with technology.
I’ll give you an example of a pain point that we have at the brick-and-mortar location, where products move so fast. People buy something that’s on display. What we’ve done is we’ve created Display Locations in Deposco and in the store. We had Deposco build a customized daily report for us, which a sales associate can pull at any time. The system tells them, “Hey, you sold this product off the display. You need to replace it”.
A lot of those guys, they’re good at doing that in the moment. But if it’s really busy, sometimes they forget. This is a safety net that we’ve created. I won’t say which store–I’m not going to put those guys on blast–but we did have one situation where there were 40 or 50 units that weren’t on display. They just got away from us. The dashboard report that Deposco built for us is one of those ways we attack the pain point.
Having that visibility into inventory, just in general, we get a lot of customers who will come into one store, they want a product, we don’t have it, but it’s available at another store. We can totally check them out during that process. The associate can confirm that inventory is either at our warehouse or at another location. We can get that shipped to a customer. They can purchase it in-store and then we’ll transfer it over to that store, all using real-time technology. That’s another way we’re able to accommodate the customer regardless of where the inventory is right at that moment.
Awesome. That’s certainly something a lot of people expect. I would assume also, especially with luxury brands, they expect that instantaneous; like, where is it? How can I get it? I’m here to purchase this item right now, so…
Interestingly, Carina, we actually had this other customization done between our developers, which we use for our Shopify account in conjunction with Deposco as the API system. Let’s say you’re shopping–say you came to Las Vegas to visit–and you’re on our website and see a specific shoe you like in a specific size. We can use the API from Deposco to match it to the product that’s in our Shopify system.
The system will actually show the customer on the front end of the website which Location is holding that product. So they may be staying on the strip and they say, “Oh, that shoe is at the Wynn store. I can go to Wynn and buy it”. It’s either there or it’s not showing anywhere. It’s only showing on our online store, so they could order it and just have it shipped to them.
That’s a partnership. That’s a collaboration that we were able to pull off, and it gives visibility, just like you were saying… a consistent store experience vs. online.
Yeah, being able to know when you get there, “ok, I know this shoe is only online”. People might come saying, “Hey, you have this; where is it?” Being able to show that accuracy, just like your expected ship date, just adds so much more for the customer. The more the customer can know, the better without the middle stuff, I guess.
There was an unexpected bonus to that Deposco customization…
Have you ever had that experience of going into a store and you’re like, “Oh, you have this in a Size 8”. They get the answer, “No, I don’t have that. Sorry”. But you may very well have it, and you’re just striking out left and right.
What the sales associate can do, because of the way that the website was built, and with that Deposco API connection, is use the website as a sales tool.
They can say, “Ok, you’re looking for footwear” and they can filter by footwear. “You’re looking for a Size 8”, so they filter by Size 8. “You’re at my Spring Mountain store in Chinatown, Las Vegas”. So they can filter by Chinatown and then BOOM! They can see a catalog of everything that’s in that store, in the customer’s size.
That’s nice. I am a shoe lover myself, and the most tragic thing is falling in love with a pair of shoes that you cannot find in your size. I think other shoe lovers will appreciate that, as well.
These types of store inventory fulfillment situations are more and more common as we look to improve omnichannel experiences with customers. What does Feature see from doing this out of some of your stores?
Our ability to fulfill from a store is actually kind of out of necessity right now.
In the beginning phases of that journey, like a discovery phase, we were seeing what was actually possible in terms of store inventory fulfillment. We were doing it because our stores shared inventory. That’s really our main function. We didn’t want an online customer to not have access to a specific product just because it was in one store or only lived at one location. And vice versa; to lose our in-store customers just because there was a product located somewhere else. They wouldn’t have access to it.
“Our ability to fulfill from those stores opened our company to be able to share inventory across every platform”.
What’s interesting for us is, when we’re talking about fulfilling orders, our stores kind of have this pecking order.
We steal from Spring Mountain first because that is the most accessible store; we can replenish them the fastest. The Wynn, because it’s also in Las Vegas, is easier to replenish than Calabasas in California. That has become kind of a pecking order.
“Now, as we’re scaling and growing, it’s not going to be about which one’s the easiest to replenish. You start thinking about efficiency and cost savings and treating them like a little mini-DC”.
Where you can capitalize on cheaper postage because you’re closer to the customer. We’re getting smarter about how we are buying. We’ll start buying for stores specifically. Although we will still share the inventory–and having visibility on all that inventory is important–each store will have their own inventory which they own.
You start being able to make those smarter choices, saving on postage efficiency, ultimately serving the customer better, and operating more efficiently. Win-win. A hundred percent!
Awesome! I love all of this. If someone else wanted to find out more about Feature, where can they find you on all of the platforms? Give me the hashtags…
You can find us at #Feature, which people are always surprised that we have that tag, but it didn’t come easy! We had to work for that one. Obviously Feature.com is our website. We had to work hard for that one, as well. On Twitter we are @FeatureLV.
For me, I think just finding Discord is going to be a challenge! One final question… How did you come up with the name Feature for your brand name?
When we first started talking about what the story’s going to be called, there were four of us partners at that time, and we all kind of went home and were running through ideas. Some of the first ideas got shot down, like “Kickstand”. That was one of them.
Actually this is a credit to my partner, Ajay Bouri. He always felt that the brand was going to be very elevated and higher-end, even though at the beginning, we just had very entry-level brands. I think that was his vision long-term. He didn’t feel like Kickstand could be taken seriously in a luxury type world.
When we came up with “Feature”, I was just going through, trying to connect feet- to sneakers, shoes, etc. in some title. I was just running through words that started with feet. I didn’t have a marketing background. When the name Feature came to me, I followed. There are all sorts of things you can do with that word: “feature”, “featuring”, “features”. I thought the marketing ideas were pretty endless and it was a nice, clean name. So it worked.
It did! It did, for sure. Well, thank you so much, EJ, for joining me today. I’ve really enjoyed diving into this topic and learning more about Feature that I didn’t know. If you have not checked them out online, be sure to do so.
For more insights on the topic of store inventory fulfillment and more retailer journeys including Feature and others, check out our new omnichannel Growth Guide: “Actioning Stores for Anywhere Retail Inventory Management”
EJ is the Co-founder and COO at Feature, a luxury retail sneaker and apparel brand with over 98,000 SKUs, whose grassroots brand experience led to rapid growth and transformation with Deposco’s advanced warehouse management system (WMS). You can learn more about Deposco Bright Warehouse WMS system here.