Features, Innovation

How Timberland Imagined a New Shopping Experience: Its Tree Lab Concept Store

Timberland, the New England-based outdoor lifestyle brand, has left big footprints in fashion trends across the globe. Famous for its iconic yellow boot, designed by Timberland’s founder Nathan Swartz and introduced in 1973, Timberland initially became the work boot of choice for rugged outdoorsmen (and outdoorswomen in 1984) and blue-collar workers. Then in the 90s Timberland boots were adopted by the hip-hop crowd, and became “the” footwear for urban hipsters both in the States and across the globe.

Innovation runs deep at Timberland, being the first footwear company to use injection molding technology which enabled the company to develop the first truly waterproof work boot. But that drive to innovate doesn’t only apply to its products. Timberland is stepping out to innovate its retail footprint as well with a new imaginative concept store called Tree Lab.

Located in the King of Prussia Mall outside of Philadelphia, it’s described as “the experiential Tree lab that features carefully curated product collections and brand stories in a gallery-style setting that will completely change every six weeks.” If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Rachel Shechtman, founder of the STORY store in NYC, must feel the love. While Rachel paved the way to transforming retail from a store to sell product into a place to tell stories, to my knowledge Timberland is the first brand to take the initiative and dedicate their own store to tap the power of brand storytelling in a standalone, dedicated space. For daring to step out and be different in brick-and-mortar retail, Timberland gets my kudos.

Tree Lab’s Goal: Simplify in Order to Amplify

Kate Kibler, the vice president of direct-to-consumer retail, led the development of Tree Lab as a way to break up the monotony shoppers find in the typical mall and give them an introduction story by story into the breadth and depth of all that Timberland has to offer. Today the brand operates roughly 20 full-priced Timberland stores that are the “pinnacle expression of the brand that showcases the breadth of our product, and exposes the consumer to everything that Timberland makes,” Kate explains, noting that while Timberland is best known for footwear, its range extends to apparel and accessories. But she adds, “A lot of people don’t know we make women’s products, which inspired part of this Tree Lab concept.”

It is this expansive range of product offerings that is both a blessing and a curse for brands like Timberland, as psychologist Barry Schwartz describes in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. When shoppers are confronted with too many choices, it creates confusion and anxiety and ultimately reduces their likelihood to buy. Present them with fewer, better choices, however, and their propensity to buy increases. This is based on human psychology, but something that too few retailers seem to understand. However, Kate and her team at Timberland “got the memo” and Tree Lab is the result.

“There is so much noise and clutter out there, with media coming at you, we wanted to create a simple, easy-to-navigate environment for the brand to tell a great story,” Kate says. “The idea was to simplify to amplify the Timberland brand message.”

To do that, Tree Lab contains 70 percent fewer SKUs than a typical Timberland store with a set-up to tell one story at a time through a carefully curated selection. Its first story is “Streetology,” showcasing its FlyRoam streetwear collection that is described as the “Heart of a Boot. Soul of a Sneaker,” as well as the new line of other sneaker/boot combos with SensorFlex comfort technology. These innovative mashups of a boot and sneaker yield a super flexible and comfortable footwear experience, which is brought home by the in-store video showing dancers doing their signature moves.

The next story on deck is “SHEvolution,” which will be dedicated to women, followed by a gift-themed story going into Christmas. “King of Prussia Mall is pure holiday chaos,” Kate says. “The simplicity of the Tree Lab store will bring people in and give them a place to relax and step away from the noise and bustle to become an oasis.”

For now Tree Lab is a test concept and the company is waiting to see the results at least through the holiday season to decide if others will follow. King of Prussia was carefully chosen as the test market for the concept store because it has long been home to a full-priced Timberland store. That means they will have real historic data in order to read its results.

But actual sales out of the store will not be the only metric that is measured. “Philadelphia is a key market for the brand,” Kate explains. “We chose KoP because we were already there and wanted to give shoppers a different experience. We will measure success not only based on things like revenue, but also foot traffic and conversions on Timberland.com. Our DMA analysis will also include how it affects our wholesale partners in the area and chatter on social media in the Philadelphia region.”

The goal then is not just generating sales and transactions, but customer engagement and excitement. “We want people to learn more about the brand,” Kate said. “For us, having that customer feedback and one-on-one experience with the Tree Lab team becomes really important. It’s more than transactional, we want this to be all about the brand.”

Tree Lab Gets “A” for Effort

Tree Lab shows that Timberland dares to be different, but in visiting the store, I feel they haven’t dared to be different enough. Here are some tweaks I would make to Tree Lab to elevate the customer experience even more and make it POP!, borrowing the phrase from my book, Shops that POP!, which Kate assures me is welcome, “It’s a test concept so I love feedback.”

  • Grab shoppers’ attention at the door. Use a tree—Shopper curiosity is one of the most powerful tools a retailer can use to draw people into the store. Instead of announcing the store with just the Timberland tree logo with “Lab” mounted on wood panels, I would mount the sign on a real tree trunk, giving a 3D effect that actually reaches out into the mall and grabs people’s attention immediately. They’d be compelled to stop. And speaking of trees, I’d also place some real trees in the store to add color, warmth and reinforce the Tree Lab concept.
  • Draw attention to beer samples with a keg—Offering its guests a free sample of beer from local craft brewery Tröegs Independent Brewery is a real plus, but its availability isn’t prominently displayed. Only a small sign announces it. I’d put a big beer keg out on the floor. It doesn’t have to be the tap that the beer is served from, but it would be a more effective way to tell the story that beer samples are available. For those under 21, water bottles are available too, so I’d put a bucket of those on top of the beer keg.
  • Layer the shoe displays and shine a spotlight on the star of the show—The FlyRoam shoe is the star of the “Streetology” show, but the various shoes that take center stage are all displayed on a couple of platforms hip-height. I would devote one of those platforms, the highest, to the one ultimate shoe in the collection, with the rest of the other offerings set on boxes at different heights to vary the shoes displayed so they aren’t lost in a flat-level display. I’d also use track lighting to shine a spotlight on the ultimate expression of the FlyRoam shoe that takes center stage and be sure to have signage that tells the key stories about its trademarked AeroCore energy system and SensorFlex comfort technology.
  • Store is too edited, bring in more engaging product displays—While the Tree Lab store is small, 2,000 square feet, it still has space to bring in more engaging and interactive product displays. Even if those products aren’t sold there, they could be used effectively as props to tell the Timberland lifestyle story. There were three backpacks mounted on metal stands in the corner, but it’s a sad little display that doesn’t do much for the store or the customer. I’d bring in mannequins dressed in Timberland’s best expression of “Streetology” style displayed around the store.
  • More benches, foot level mirrors to encourage try-ons—In retail, two key variables are most impactful in driving sales: the amount of time customers spend in the store and the amount of interaction they have with the merchandise and staff. Tree Lab is designed to increase both, but in the current layout it is not clear that trying on a pair of shoes is an option. There is only one bench to sit on, and that is hidden beside the door, and no mirrors were apparent to see how those shoes would look. I’d correct both with more benches and mirrors to show that Tree Lab shoes aren’t just to look at, but to try on too.
  • Encourage online orders with BOPIS—Tree Lab has an online screen that allows customers to browse the full range of Timberland products, but it doesn’t offer the opportunity to buy-online-pick-up-in-store. BOPIS is a growing trend, as shoppers have discovered it is a way to avoid shipping and handling charges. But it is a real plus for retailers too, as it gives them one more chance to interact personally with their customers, learn more about them, and hopefully sell more upon their return trip.
  • Tree Lab? Tree House?—In my other life as proud grandmother of five-year-old twins, I know firsthand the irresistible attraction of tree houses from my playground trips with the boys. The first thing they do upon arrival is climb up into the tree house perch. In thinking about Tree Lab, with its name clearly defining its role from a corporate perspective, I can’t help but think “Tree Lab” is less relevant to the customers than a name that is a riff on “Tree House.” There already is a TreeHouse chain of home improvement stores growing in Texas, but a name like “Timberland’s Tree House” would be unique. Such a name would be more playful, more engaging and more inviting for the customers to explore than the idea of a laboratory. And I’d be working overtime with the design department to actually build a tree house in the store as well.
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Tree Lab is a great first step for Timberland in imagining a new way to engage with customers and create an experience with the brand. I can see its potential not just as freestanding or mall stores but also as separate pop-up shops in its full-price stores, as well as areas to showcase the brand with its department store partners.

Timberland also is working on a new “Flexible Retail” concept that will launch first in Bloomington, MN Mall of America. The “Flexible Retail” stores will offer the complete range of Timberland products, as in a full-priced store, but be designed as pop-up shops that can be set up in three days, from white box to store opening. Kate explains, “Our flex retail stores are about being fast and light and being there for the consumer when they need us.” The MOA store will be followed by four more prime locations hand-picked to maximize shopping for the holiday season. After the holidays, these stores will be packed up, ready to be moved to new locations as the customer’s needs change from gift shopping to outdoor living.

In its thinking about Tree Lab and flexible retail, Timberland is out in front imagining what the store and brand experience can be in the future. I look forward to circling back with Kate next year to see what she and her team have learned through these innovative retail concepts and where the Timberland adventure will go next.

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