Last week I caught up with Kris Bromley, managing director of Firebox.com, to discuss the online retailer’s recently opened pop-up shop in the Metrocentre in Newcastle.
For the uninitiated among you, Firebox.com’s motto, ‘shop for the unusual’, pretty much sums up what it’s all about.
From anti-flatulence underwear to a full-size electric DeLorean (flux capacitor sadly not included), pretty much everything sold on this site is designed to get your attention.
And it certainly does that. Behind the ‘somewhat’ unusual product range is a very successful ecommerce business, and after 17 years the brand has waded into the murky waters of physical retail for the first time to see if it can replicate that success offline.
Kris and I discussed the decision-making process and the challenges involved in opening the new Firebox store, along with what the future holds for the brand’s offline ventures.
Firstly, what was the reason for creating this pop-up shop and why did you wait 17 years?
To be honest it was a matter of time, resource and opportunity. Over the last couple of years the emergence of pop-up locations and the nature of the economy means these things are more readily available.
Not only that but you can do a lot more with them. They’re more versatile, and there’s greater opportunity to make it look cool. Ours is a pop-up store, but it actually looks like a proper shop that’s going to be there forever.
It just felt like the right time to dip our toe into physical retail and it’s very exciting. It’s mind-blowingly exciting actually (laughs). I keep saying this to people…
What has the reaction been like so far?
Well it’s only been open a few days but it’s been really positive. People have been looking through the windows and getting really excited and they’re keen to know what’s going on.
We’re not entirely sure if it’s customers who already knew about us or whether they’re entirely new.
That’s what’s exciting: trying to figure that out over the next few months and expanding ourselves to reach more and more people.
What have been the most challenging things about opening the shop?
Erm, how long have you got?
No, it’s a matter of resource really. We’re obviously geared for online trading, so it’s that first step into the unknown and it’s been a complete learning curve for everybody.
It’s only when you actually start doing it you find there are loads of things you hadn’t even considered.
Our pop-up store is actually quite big, and we’re only used to having an online presence. Once you’ve got the physical stock into the store it just looks completely different.
It’s a different way of merchandising and branding and getting the message across, so it’s challenging in terms of there being loads of stuff you wouldn’t necessarily expect. It’s a real step into the unknown.
But the Firebox way, historically, is that we’ve got lots of people who – and I don’t know if this is a terrible phrase – ‘wear many hats’. People are really excited to just learn as we go ahead.
And we’ve partnered with people too. We’ve worked closely with Athena and they’ve helped us with a lot of the stuff that would be difficult for us to know without being in the trade.
But the actual kitting out, design, stocking, vibe, hiring the right staff and making sure they project the Firebox brand and voice: that’s all down to us, and that’s why it’s really cool.
What can people expect when they visit the shop?
Well it’s tricky because even though it’s quite a big shop we can’t fit all our products in there, so we’ve tried to pick and choose the products that typify Firebox and our message: ‘shop for the unusual’.
We’ve got a big VW Campervan tent in the window as you come in, which people seem to be interested in. We’ve got a mixture of own brand products and stuff we get from suppliers. But we’ve also got ample space for messaging and branding.
It’s about trying to have an unusual Christmas, bringing back a bit of surprise. We’re trying to inspire the reaction of, ‘Where on Earth did you get that?!’
It’s part showcase because not everything is there. But it’s about quickly getting across the messages we want: fun and irreverence, stuff that’s exclusive and shareable and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Just being unusual.
How did you choose which products to include?
We’ve tried to pick the things that typify Firebox as a brand, but there are some realities in terms of what we can and can’t sell.
We sell a lot of alcohol online, for instance, but while we can showcase that in the shop we can’t sell it.
There are also some things we get in large quantities early in the year and we have to decide whether or not we’re going to keep them for the site or include them in the physical stock.
But ultimately it’s about trying to reflect as many of our ‘hero’ items as possible: the exclusive or iconic stuff that appears in our top-50 chart on the site. And also our own brand products like make-your-own gin or cheese kits.
As it’s Christmas we’re starting with the fun, impulse buying side of what we sell. Some of the more tech-heavy stuff might take too long to explain.
Why this location?
Well, as a proud Northerner… (laughs). No, Newcastle is just a really cool city, and it’s huge. We really liked the Metrocentre and the space there, and it’s a great location in terms of neighbouring shops.
Because our head office is in London it’s arguably a bit far away if we just wanted to pop in, but it just felt like a good, fun place.
So it suits the Firebox vibe?
Yes. I mean I wouldn’t want to say there are humourless cities, but people in Newcastle perhaps have a more care-free attitude to life and don’t take things too seriously, and we definitely have that kind of brand.
We’re about fun. We’re just trying to make your Christmas day a bit unusual. Yes, you might get your £500 computer, but the Firebox present is the one everyone’s talking about and wants to have a go on.
What other locations are you considering in future?
We’ve got another one coming just outside London. We can’t confirm exactly where just yet but we should be able to announce that soon.
Finally, if the pop-up venture is successful would you consider something more permanent on the high street?
Yes, if it made sense. But we’re very early on in our learning. The more likely path is we’ll keep growing as a Q4 pop-up shop.
All year round is not exactly the next step. I think this year is about information gathering, trial and error and learning.
But say we have one or two that work really well this Christmas, then absolutely we’ll be looking to increase our real-life presence.
This is really exciting but it’s all very new. Although we have 17 years of experience in ecommerce, how people behave in real life and how they behave online is not the same at all. It’s going to be really interesting to see what sells and what doesn’t.
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