MIAMI — At Shinola Detroit, a seven-year-old American-manufactured watch and leather goods lifestyle brand, the mission can all be tied back to a dark blue jacket.
Travis Harrison, head of retail at Shinola, wore one on stage at the Future Stores Miami conference Wednesday during a keynote presentation on how the brand integrates storytelling into the store experience.
"This is a workwear jacket," he told Retail Dive during an interview after the speech, as he tugged on the sleeves. "It tethers that line of manufacturing and our ambassadors as they connect with our guests on the frontline. It's that visual tie ... it's a sense of unity."
The ambassadors Harrison refers to are the company's store associates, all of whom also wear work jackets on the job. While the tie serves as a visual reminder of the company's deeply rooted mission to Detroit-based manufacturing and job creation, it's only one of many ways Shinola is keeping that connection alive as it scales quickly into a national brand.
Staying true to the mission
Harrison first met the company's founder Tom Kartsotis when he sold him a vintage watch years ago while working at Ralph Lauren. Little did he know that would help spark the idea for Shinola and that he would later join the upscale brand to lead its retail expansion.
When he first started at Shinola two years ago, there were only seven stores. Today there are 33 and counting, including a hotel set to debut later this year in Detroit. The company's newest stores have cropped up in New York City's SoHo neighborhood, Brooklyn, Westchester, Columbus, Dallas, Denver and Troy, MI. Shinola now employs over 600 employees, 340 of them in retail.
As the company continues to spread out across the country, last year marked a turning point where the brand began to move beyond points of destination that emit a sense of discovery — like its Los Angeles-arts district store that has a tattoo parlor (with a year-long wait) or its Miami Wynwood store nestled among some of the country's most heralded graffiti art.
Now Shinola is making the move to main street and A-class malls, as the brand develops a presence among top retailers, Harrison said. "I think we're another retailer sitting next to J Crew or Apple and Madewell, but when you come into our store it feels different, it looks different, it smells different — it smells like leather," he said. "It takes you to a different time and place."
The plan is to keep on growing until the company hits its sweet spot, somewhere around 75 to 100 stores. But as Shinola expands from coast to coast, keeping the authenticity and mission alive is a challenge, Harrison said. Especially for associates in California, D.C., Miami or elsewhere, who have never been to Detroit.
"It's a challenge we face at 30 stores. How do you deal with that when you double it, even triple it?" he asked. "I think that's where we want to get. We are a job creation vehicle. We want to add stores and grow our employee base. We want to expand our watch, leather and audio manufacturing so we can feed into what we believe in. In order to do that, we need to drive interactions."
That means interactions with customers, certainly, but perhaps more importantly, between those on the store floor and those in the manufacturing plant.
"Anywhere between 35-45% of overall sales are coming from the state of Michigan, which is amazing because that means the brand resonates in our home town, within those working class values: built in America, manufacturing, bringing Detroit back."
Head of retail, Shinola
During his presentation, Harrison showed attendees photos of in-house "celebrities," as he calls them, otherwise known as watch and leather artisans working in the Detroit manufacturing hub. In-store workers have come to know these faces intimately, he said, through photos hung up on the walls of every location and through store visits. "We take them on the road," he said, referencing the company's "makers series" which brings designers into stores to host events and connect with store teams.
As he's learned from conversations in stores across the country, it could come off as inauthentic if a store associate has never been to the home city, which is where the Destination Detroit program comes in. Recently, Shinola began paying for its top sales associates nationally to fly to the company's headquarters and tour the manufacturing site and the flagship store, while getting a sense of the work that goes into the product they sell.
Once those associates return home, they're encouraged to tell customers to make the same trip. And many of them are taking up the offer. The company gives between 20 and 25 free manufacturing plant and store tours a week.
Building for the future
Shinola is the only watch manufacturing facility in the country manufacturing at scale, Harrison said. And that's what it wants to be known for first and foremost, even as it adds bicycles, leather bags, turntables and headphones to the merchandising mix.
"I would be concerned that you walk into a Shinola store and all of a sudden watches aren't as important," he said. "Watches are our heartbeat, it's our motor, it's what drives us."
"We kind of have a golden ticket to ride this new path of retail if we do it right and stay true to who we are."
Head of retail, Shinola
Watches resonate most deeply with customers in Michigan. "Anywhere between 35 to 45% of overall sales are coming from the state of Michigan," he said. "Which is amazing because that means the brand resonates in our home town, within those working class values: built in America, manufacturing, bringing Detroit back."
But out in LA, leather has quickly become the top seller. "Watches may not be the brand story someone sees for the first time," he said. "From merchandising, we are constantly trying to steer that to watches, bringing in manufacturers to tell our story."
At less than a decade old, the company is still learning about the future of its in-store experience, and will likely continue to evolve and differ slightly from store to store. In five to 10 years from now, Harrison believes Shinola could have specific audio destinations, and even more hotels.
"Maybe it's pure[ly] experiential. We're talking a lot about that because of our tenets of who we are, what we do and why we do it," he said. "We kind of have a golden ticket to ride this new path of retail, if we do it right and stay true to who we are... If we are as successful as we have been in the store space, with our mission and what we believe in, the hospitality sector side of that will hopefully do well."