Adventures in Offline User Experience

I originally published this on Svbtle on March 12, 2013. I’m republishing some of my older content here to create a single repository of material.

As ecommerce intersects with traditional retail, user experience design is moving offline.

Bonobos, the sartorial wunderkind of the internet age, was started with both feet planted firmly in Digital. Founded in Palo Alto in 2007, the company set out to provide better-fitting menswear without the burden of running a bricks-and-mortar operation. Since then, Bonobos has grown to become a heavy-hitter in high-end digital retail. It’s surprising, then, that they recently decided to extend their presence into the physical world with the addition of Bonobos “Guideshops,” locations which enable customers to check out their clothes and get fitted before making a purchase.

What happens when a digital clothier decides to apply its understanding of online user experience to traditional retail? A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of finding out.

Two of my close college friends visited from out-of-state recently. One of them is getting married soon, and as the three of us aren’t often in the same place, we decided to use the opportunity to get fitted for suits. We tossed a few ideas around – Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, Saks – until Ryan (the groom) suggested Bonobos.

My only previous exposure to the company came from word-of-mouth on Twitter and the occasional article in the New York Times. I was curious about their merchandise, but since I wasn’t about to plunk down $90 on a pair of pants I’d never seen in-person, I was content to remain a mere observer. When Ryan mentioned that they had a guideshop in Manhattan where we could see their clothes in-person, I jumped at the opportunity.

Ryan, Luke, and I took the train into Manhattan and headed towards the Flatiron District. The guideshop is on 25th Street, between Broadway and Sixth – right in the heart of one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. (And, for you fellow design nerds, less than a block away from Pentagram’s New York headquarters.)

When we got to the building, I was pretty sure we had the wrong address. Rather than the chic storefront I expected, it was just a basic office building. The dim lobby had nothing but a couple of elevator doors, closed to anyone who didn’t have a key. I checked the list of tenants on the wall, but sure enough, there it was: “Bonobos Inc. – Floor 5.”

“I’m pretty sure this is just their offices.”

Ryan pulled up their website and called the number at the bottom, and they asked if we had an appointment. The answer was no, but they told us they’d buzz us upstairs anyway. Sure enough, a moment later, the elevator doors opened and we stepped inside.

On the fifth floor, it was immediately clear that this was indeed the guideshop. The place looked like what you’d expect from a high-end Manhattan retailer: wood floor, high ceilings, hipster-approved light fixtures. More comfortable than Bergdorf, more guy-friendly than Tiffany’s; dressier than Macy’s but less formal than Saks.

It was obvious from the start that this wasn’t going to be a typical shopping experience. For one thing, you don’t come to a guideshop to actually buy anything – you can get fitted and check out merchandise, but any purchases have to be made through the website. This saves on inventory costs and reduces the time pressure on customers and sales pressure on employees. The whole place feels more relaxed because of it.

Even on a Saturday, the guideshop was quiet. There were only two other customers in the store (guests, I kept reminding myself, since nobody was really buying anything), so everyone got personal service. One of the advantages to the reservation system is that it ensures that everyone receives one-on-one attention. In typical tech startup fashion, the reservation system is run by a Google Calendar-like interface, which you can access straight from the Bonobos website.

Our guide was a tall Scandinavian man who, it turns out, was actually the guideshop manager. When we mentioned we were shopping for a wedding, he rushed off and returned a moment later with three bottles of imported beer. Sufficiently pleased with our decision to go here instead of, say, JC Penney, we began the fitting process.

We all know what shopping is like, so I won’t go into detail about the process itself – suffice it to say that Bonobos makes some seriously comfortable clothes, and our guide knew his stuff. Out of everything we tried on between the three of us, only one item didn’t fit properly the first time.

As we tried on clothes, our guide wrote down our sizes, which he would email out to us after we left. As we discussed style choices, he made some recommendations about other brands which me might like, writing down their web addresses so we could take a closer look at home. I’m always impressed when a salesperson for one company promotes products from another – trust is everything in sales, and that certainly builds trust. He even wrote down the names of some sartorial inspiration websites he uses for his own wardrobe.

As we proceeded, our guide asked what each of us did for a living. When Ryan and I both responded that we were in digital strategy, he offered us a tour of their offices. Despite the company’s inception in Palo Alto, they were now headquartered in New York, a smart move for an up-and-coming fashion company. The guideshop was simply the public-facing gateway to the two floors of back-office operations.

Visible from the guideshop was the customer service room, staffed with “Bonobos Ninjas.” I’m usually against such hokeyness, and I half expected to meet Management Rockstars or Marketing Gurus, but the ninjas were so friendly that I let it slide. A surprising number of them were in the office on a Saturday, but I suppose that’s a job that never ends.

The rest of the office was configured in an open layout, resembling a tech startup more than a clothing company. With the exception of the tech team, which is still based in Palo Alto, everyone works in the New York office. Even the photography for the website is handled in-house in a photo studio adjacent to the marketing bullpen.

We concluded the tour and changed back into our regular clothes. I noticed for the first time that the pants I’d worn into the store didn’t fit that well – points for Bonobos. Our guide promised to email us the results of our fitting, and walked out without having bought anything. This was my first pleasant shopping experience in years, and a refreshing change from the usual hassle of offline shopping.

Later that day it struck me how much the guideshop experience mirrored the experience of shopping online. Bonobos clearly took care to create an experience that was casual, personalized, and pleasant. Their focus was on creating value for the customer, rather than making money for the company. When I got home, I tried to distill the lessons I saw represented by the guideshop:

  • You can’t fake sincerity. When an employee only cares about making a sale, the customer can smell it a mile away. The guideshop’s main advantage is that it frees the employees from having to worry about their commission. Sales don’t happen in-store, so they can focus completely on taking care of the customers, without their own self-interest getting in the way.
  • User experience is everything. The atmosphere in the guideshop undoubtedly colors my perception of the Bonobos brand; had the environment been sub-par, they could have lost a future product evangelist. This alone justifies the care and attention to detail the shop so obviously displays.
  • Data isn’t everything. Since the guideshop doesn’t process sales independently of the website, Bonobos probably can’t directly measure the impact that the guideshops have on sales. While data is extremely valuable, sometimes human instinct is required to fill the spaces where analytics can’t reach. Even if the guideshops’ value is solely anecdotal, that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent.
  • Invest in people. The employees we met clearly love their company. Few things are as infectious as people who are passionate about their jobs. It makes for a better customer experience, and improves the perception of the brand as a whole. Building a culture that cultivates that attitude is worth the expense.
  • Bricks-and-mortar can coexist with digital. In the Age of Amazon, it often seems like everything is moving online. Some purchases are still improved by an in-store experience, though. Bonobos is proving that bricks-and-mortar can supplement e-commerce in a more natural way than has previously been explored.

The growth of online shopping will fundamentally change our relationship with retail stores, no matter how hard traditional retailers like Sears and JC Penney pretend otherwise. While Bonobos is not the only company introducing e-commerce showrooms into the offline world, it is one of the most visible, and its guideshops will likely become a template for companies doing similar work in the future. User Experience Design is usually mentioned in connection with websites or apps, but its effects are reaching ever further into our lives.

If you get the chance, check out a Bonobos Guideshop – they have locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, Georgetown, and San Francisco. You won’t be disappointed.