Frank & Oak: A Canadian start-up men’s retailer gains global attention through near-perfect physical and digital integration

Posted on Oct. 21, 2015 by Canada Post in Shipping Solutions

Style & Substance

The words “innovator” and “trendsetter” get thrown around pretty casually these days, but when it comes to the men behind fashion retailer Frank & Oak, those descriptors are a perfect fit.

It’s been three years since childhood friends Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani introduced online menswear shop Frank & Oak to Canada and the world. Right from the start, the Montreal-based start-up proved it was something special.

For one, it is vertically integrated—the company does everything in-house, includ­ing the designing of its line of stylish, casual clothing. It offers truly innovative services, such as the Hunt Club in which members receive a crate of clothing each month that they can try on in the comfort of their homes, keeping only the designs they like.

It pays detailed attention to the editorial component of its website, offering meaningful content catered to its precisely defined demographic—well traveled, well-educated urban men between the ages of 18 and 35. Last year, it stretched its editorial voice even farther, launching a print magazine delivered to its members twice a year.

It is continually first out of the gate to grab the reins of emerging e-commerce trends. In 2013, it launched its mobile shopping site and app, while around the same time it also began expanding into physical retail, launching pop-up shops and standalone stores in key markets across the country.

Now, 31-year-old Ethan Song, CEO, and 31-year-old Hicham Ratnani, COO, find themselves as inspirational mentors to the next generation of retail entrepreneurs in Canada. Delivering the Online World magazine spoke with the duo in search of their tips, takeaways and tales from making it in the global marketplace.

Getting noticed

Everything was hard when Frank & Oak first launched in 2012, recalls Song. He and Ratnani had to build up knowledge on all aspects of their vertically integrated business, including design, manufacturing, and technology. “To be successful, we knew we had to be good at a lot of different things,” he says. “We had to be willing to take on multiple roles.”

Often, new entrepreneurs tend to build their expertise in one area, either product or technology, Song has observed. But to stay competitive in today’s ultra-com­petitive retail environment, you need to specialize in everything, he says—and increasingly that mix includes marketing.

One of the hardest parts of getting started, says Song, was “capturing people’s attention.” With so many choices and so much information out there, just getting the voice of the brand heard was its own full time job. That the duo was already tuned into the rhythms of their target demographic proved critical. Know­ing how their customers used the online space made it easier to connect to them: “We were very good at leveraging social media.”

Their efforts at getting heard have paid off, grabbing them the attention of global media, including GQ, Esquire, and Fast Company, which this year ranked them among the top 10 most innovative companies in retail… in the world.

Millennials + technology

The combination of youth and tech has always comprised the core of the Frank & Oak experience, and helped set it apart. It’s also guided them on when and how to take risks. For instance, when the site launched and shoppers first realized they wouldn’t be able to browse unless they created an account, to some it was a rather shocking new twist to the traditional Canadian retail experience. However, Frank & Oak’s target audience, millennials, didn’t blink an eye.

With sign-up options available via Facebook and Google, as well as email, digital natives were logging in, perusing the in-house editorial pages, connecting with personal style advisors, setting style preferences, finding their perfect merino wool zip-up and proceeding to check out, while those just a few years older were still weighing whether to submit their information.

Where some viewed the log-in process as a potential barrier, Frank & Oak saw it as the ultimate opportunity. Ratnani explains that having customers sign in every time they shop enables the company to gather incredibly relevant data that allows them to get to know their customers’ preferences on a level that traditional retail could never provide. They use this information to make better decisions, offer greater personalization, and ultimately build customer loyalty. As Ratnani says: “We strive to offer more than just a transaction. We want to offer an experience, a unique one. To do that we have to know who you are.” And they have to know what their customers expect.

Faster, better, cheaper

Customer expectations may be rising more rapidly than ever, but the narrative remains largely the same—shoppers will always want more for less. What is so different now is that digital technology is exploding what “faster, better, cheaper” can look like. It’s also adding to the mix a “whenever, wherever, however” expectation. But the founders seem largely unfazed by it all. “We grew up with this technology,” says Song. “We’re used to this kind of change.”

With this digital comfort comes an intuitive understanding of how to leverage it for retail. For example: Whereas some retailers are still experimenting with marketing on Facebook, Frank & Oak is already expanding into Snapchat, where younger millennials and teens are increasingly active. “We’re always adapting. Changes are happening every day,” says Song. “Today, your company needs to have the ability to continually reinvent itself.” Nowhere is this idea more significant than with the integration of technology.

Omni-Channel

It’s no longer enough, explains Ratnani, to offer a great mobile shopping experience. Now, that experience has to work in step with all other channels. It’s that customer expectation thing again. Customers may not know that what they want is called omni-channel retail, but they do know they want the ability to move smoothly across all channels when shopping, and they are displeased when they cannot do so.

Providing a quality omni-channel experience is what Frank & Oak is focused on most right now, confirms Ratnani. This includes ensuring that something bought on one channel can be returned via another, or that customer profiles can be accessed and updated seamlessly no matter the device, and regardless of whether you’re online or in-store. That seamlessness is even more important as the company expands its physical presence.

Community

In 2013, Frank & Oak got physical. It began opening pop-up shops to test the physical store waters, and it opened its first standalone in Montreal. Last year, it opened another in Toronto’s trendy Queen West district. While critics have heralded the move as signalling the end of pureplay online retail, Frank & Oak take a different perspective. The duo believes that adding a physical dimension to their retail presence is another opportunity to serve the needs of their generation.

A physical presence doesn’t just enable them to localize services, such as making exchanges in-store, it allows them to tap into the millennial desire for communi­ty and for weaving human interaction throughout the digital experience. “We wanted to create something authentic,” says Song. “Something that had a sense of community about it.” It’s another nod to the entrepreneurial spirit of reinven­tion—which they see growing in Canada.

Frank & Oak’s journey within the Canadian retail landscape has been paved with innovation. When they began taking those first steps, the road they were on was fairly empty. There weren’t a lot of other people launching untested retail strategies, which meant their ideas weren’t always readily supported. But that has changed over the years, they say. Today, Song and Ratnani are seeing and helping more entrepreneurs who are excited about the possibilities of digital, which has led to an exchange of ideas, a willingness to take risks, and an increased level of support across the retail scene.

With Frank & Oak at the helm, the future of Canadian retail innovation appears poised for renewal.

Canada Post is a proud and long-time supporter of Frank & Oak. To find out how Canada Post shipping and e-commerce solutions can help grow your business, please visit canadapost.ca/shipping

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