Welcome to the Retail Rundown, your go-to weekly podcast where RETHINK Retail teams up with industry experts to discuss the news and trends defining the world of retail.

In this episode, we spoke with Christopher Breen, head of partnerships at Public Goods, a membership-based online home goods store offering consumers healthy everyday essentials straight to their door.

Chris currently leads the B2B team at Public Goods, where he is focused on making simple, sustainable, and design-forward products accessible in the retail and hospitality industry.

We spoke about the value proposition of a DTC brand in retail, why merchandising is so important and how it helps brands like Public Goods own their narrative. You’ll also hear about Public Goods’ new wholesale store and what it’s trying to accomplish by working directly with retail and hospitality buyers.

If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know by subscribing to our channel and giving us a 5 star rating us on Apple Podcasts. 

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Hosted by Julia Raymond Hare
Written and produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller

 

 

TRANSCRIPTION

Julia Raymond Hare:
Okay. Hello, RETHINK Retail listeners today I will be speaking with my guests Chris Breen. Chris is the head of partnerships at Public Goods. Public Goods is a membership-based online home goods store, offering consumers healthy everyday essentials straight to their door. And Chris currently leads the B2B team at Public Goods where he’s focused on making simple and sustainable design Ford products assessable in the retail and also the hospitality industry. Thanks for joining today, Chris.

Chris Breen:
Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Happy to have you on the show and just a little context for our listeners, Chris is joining right now from California, but he is usually in New York. And Chris, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Tell us a little bit about Public Goods and how it’s a different model than traditional retail?

Chris Breen:
Sure. Yeah. I guess to take a step back, I’ve been doing this for about two years now. We’ve been very fortunate at Public Goods to see quite a bit of growth within that two-year span. The company originally, if you’re going back to the founding story founded by Morgan Hirsh and Michael Ferchak, Kickstarter based founding story there. Direct to consumer company and membership base. The business model was really revolving around a few principles and values, the product line, being simplicity, design-centric, sustainable and healthy products for the consumer and really the end goal to provide more accessibility and affordability.

Chris Breen:
So a membership-based company in the realm that you pay a membership and get access to a breadth of products, cross-category at lower prices. So interesting business model and COVID has actually really helped the business in the past year. So we’ve seen quite a bit of growth and it’s been an exciting time, I’d say within the past six months to a year in terms of growth.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Sure. So you’re saying it actually maybe accelerated the growth?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, without question. I remember a little bit over a year ago when COVID first hit, it was an interesting time for the business. The direct consumer side of the business, we saw it grow about five times and it was a classic startup moment where we found ourselves a bit understaffed and a little bit low on resources to deal with that. But since then a lot of great things have happened in terms of investment.

Chris Breen:
I will say though from the B2B end, my side of the business and our team working with hospitality and retailers, that was a difficult time for us, as you can imagine brick-and-mortar retail took a large hit during COVID and the hospitality as well as travel shut down. So it was a bit of a trade off but we’ve actually seen as of right now things start to pick up back on the B2B front as the direct consumer business continues to scale as well.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Sure. So is it fair to say that for a while you were maybe hopping and helping with some of the D2C growth that you guys saw while hospitality was still a bit behind?

Chris Breen:
Yeah. I do what I can. It’s a classic kind of startup where we all are really supporting each other, the departments and then there’s really open communication. The team works really well together and I will say, I have to pay credit where it’s due to Morgan. The company culture has really been kind of naturally formed, very smart, talented, curious employees and we all kind of have supported each other in growth and through those kinds of awkward moments as a startup scales. So it’s been exciting, challenging, but definitely more exciting.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Yeah. That sounds like a fun time. It’s always a bit of a rush when you’re trying to figure out how you can service all of the new customers that come in, but it’s a good problem to have. And you mentioned Kickstarter because I wanted to dive into that just a little bit. It’s interesting. I haven’t had many guests on the show who are working with a company that was founded in that way. Can you tell us a little bit about that story?

Chris Breen:
Yeah. So when I first started about two years ago, the company was initially funded by Kickstarter and it was where we were offering our membership. So it really, I think, formed the value proposition of the company. And then when we started pitching the idea of a membership model for lower prices, cutting out the middleman, et cetera. So it was exciting. I don’t want to speak on behalf of Morgan and Michael who were behind that, but from my perspective and actually when I was joining, I think it was a good test if customers are receptive to that type of model and finding out if people would buy into it. And I’d say that it was very successful.

Chris Breen:
So yeah, it was definitely interesting. The early days were very interesting. We found that customers were open to the model, they resonated with the brand. I think the value proposition was there as well as the brand. And we can go and dive into this later around simplicity, again, design-centric sustainable goods was something that the customers were really yearning for in the marketplace. It wasn’t there currently. So it all aligned and I think, it’s been an interesting journey, but definitely a founding story that I think is unique to Public Goods.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Absolutely. And your website just beautiful. If you haven’t seen it and you’re listening to this, go take a look at publicgoods.com. The products are super curated, clean, modern, beautiful. And I know you use the word simplicity a few times already in our conversation. And what do you really mean by that? What is simplicity in retail?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think simplicity in something we’re trying to do goes beyond the products themselves. So if you ever have a chance look at publicgoods.com, you’ll see the product designs are very simple, personal care being our first category. It was really the shampoo conditioner, body wash, et cetera. That really helped form our general brand values. Again, I have to pay credit to Morgan on his vision here. I think simplicity, the goal of it was to stay consistent in the product line and deliver more value, more products with that kind of simple design, but then reach further beyond just the products themselves and deliver simplicity in the shopping experience.

Chris Breen:
So how customers operate on the site, the user experience and then the digital product. So the customer journey and the whole kind of the ecosystem around a site, we try and think through how we can make things more simple for the customer. And that’s something I really challenged myself on the B2B front as we just actually launched our new B2B store last week. How can we make wholesale shopping more simple? Because wholesale shopping historically has been something that’s usually robust, clunky, hop on the phone, negotiation, et cetera. It’s kind of this thing that’s inconsistent and now we’re trying to really revolutionize wholesale shopping and make that more-

Julia Raymond Hare:
More fun even.

Chris Breen:
Yeah. Exactly more fun. Yeah. More beautiful.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Well, congratulations on launching that. That must have been a huge relief and exciting moment to get that up and running.

Chris Breen:
Yeah, I appreciate it. It was a big lift and there’s still a long way to go in terms of improving the site, et cetera. But I think the vision is there and really excited to see what the future holds for the B2B site.

Julia Raymond Hare:
And in the B2B side of things are you laser-focused right now on beauty? Do you have plans to expand out of that or is that really where it makes most sense for you guys?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think B2B right now in our wholesale partners, it’s still revolving mostly around personal care in terms of category. Again, the goal is to deliver easy experience for wholesale buyers and connect with them directly, but we’re still seeing most purchasing behavior being in personal care. What I will say is, as product line expands and we may have household and grocery and new categories on the way.

Chris Breen:
Every new SKU has a new potential opportunity, whether it be through a new retailer or on shelf somewhere, et cetera, you never really know what the hero product is going to be. So having new products on the pipeline in product development to me is exciting because it could open more doors than we currently have. And the goal of the company is to continue expanding into new categories and add more SKUs to the business. So from my perspective, it’s going to open a lot of doors and just provide us more wholesale opportunities.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Sure. That makes a lot of sense. And then also I see that you work with a handful of partners, Neighborhood Goods is one of them. We’ve talked about them quite a bit on the show because they made a big splash when they first launched and just how their business model is so unique. What does that look like when you work with someone like Neighborhood Goods?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, I really like working with them. I think they’re the perfect example of the type of retail, especially brick-and-mortar and other e-commerce stores. If we’re going to sell on them, the type of brand fit we’re looking for. The reason why I say that is because they really care about merchandising. And for us having a narrative-driven storytelling approach to how we sell is so important.

Chris Breen:
We really, as a brand, going back to simplicity, it’d be very difficult for us to stand out on shelf next to other items, et cetera, because the products really enhance themselves when they’re standing next to other Public Goods product. So what Neighborhoods Goods has done for us has really brought us a merchandising experience that aligns all the SKUs together on shelf. They give us an end cap opportunity. There is storytelling experiences, there’s an email on their site and they’re really the perfect partner for us in that regard.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Very cool. I definitely like that you mentioned about the narrative-focused immersive experiences that can be offered. I know that we had chatted a little bit about how that’s important and the fewer SKUs and bigger investment in marketing is important. Are you guys working with influencers or how would you say you typically approach your marketing either from B2C or B2B side?

Chris Breen:
Yeah. We have an affiliate team that works with influencers. So that’s working well and that’s the direct consumer marketing side of the business. Hopefully down the road, as we scale B2B marketing will become more vital growing inbound leads to our new site and really driving traffic there is kind of a B2B e-commerce model versus dealing with sellers and negotiating, et cetera. So having self-serving traffic. So really excited about that. But yeah, I do think going back to the fewer SKUs, you mentioned that retail, it would be virtually impossible for us to launch with a retailer of say, Neighborhood Goods with our entire product line.

Chris Breen:
We’re 300 SKUs plus right now and growing. So for those types of relationships, we try and focus on best-sellers and really work with the category buyer about what’s a good fit, what resonates with their customer, what are they looking for on shelf and really use the value proposition of your finding a direct consumer business outside of their membership maybe in brick-and-mortar, in New York City or online and getting to find one of their best products there.

Chris Breen:
So for us, it’s working well and we’ll probably continue to just do limited SKUs tell the story, introduce them to the Public Goods brand and use that as a funnel, either for the membership side of the business or to help the retailer themselves and improving their brand as a retailer.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Very cool. And the membership side of the business, is that only on the D2C side or is that also applied to B2B?

Chris Breen:
Correct. Yeah, it’s only on the D2C side. So B2B customers who buy from us in wholesale will come to us for case packs, but do not have to opt into a membership. Yeah, no membership on B2B, but membership on D2C.

Julia Raymond Hare:
And let’s dive into marketplaces. This is one of my favorite topics, just because there’s so much to know about it. And there’s a lot of you see frenemies basically working together nowadays in retail. It’s always happened, but I think it’s happening at scale now with marketplaces, how would you say Public Goods maintains its brand image when selling on marketplaces and what does that look like?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, it’s an interesting topic because I think there are pros and cons there. Obviously a marketplace you’re sharing the space. It’s not your own brand and opportunity. So I’d say that’s one of the cons, but diving into the pros, you do get to unlock your brand to a whole pool of leads and customers that you normally would not have access to similar to how a distributor works and they have their relationships. So marketplaces can really help introduce the brand to new opportunities, but at the result that you’re sharing the space.

Chris Breen:
So I think really finding a brand fit in marketplaces is important. We have tried testing on fair, which is a wholesale marketplace and they’ve done a really good job at introducing us to small boutique retailers that are actually a really great brand fit. And they give us the opportunity to kind of vet them and decide if they’re good for the Public Goods brand so we can kind of control the image. So fair is a big wholesale marketplace, but then other retailers websites, we also sell on there as well given that the brand fits. So Indiegogo in Canada, that would be a good example of that, West Elm, Verishop are examples of places you can probably find some Public Goods bestsellers.

Julia Raymond Hare:
I love West Elm. So that’s cool. I’ll have to look out next time I’m there. And when you were testing on fair, that experience went well. It sounds like you were able to meet some new customers that way on the B2B side. Did they come to you? Was it something where they discovered you or how did that work?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, I can’t quite remember if we went to them or maybe there was an inbound email, but I think there was alignment on what we were looking to achieve through that and we decided to test it. We did a line of some of our best-selling products and it did exactly what we needed it to do. Marketplaces are an upfront investment in time, you get your SKUs uploaded on the website, you upload the photos, you have to write the product descriptions and you hope that there’s some return on that kind of effort.

Chris Breen:
Luckily with Fair, they have an amazing network, small businesses that they were able to put us in touch with and be the driver of the sale that normally for say a salesperson would not really be able to have access to. There’s a whole bunch of lead generation that has to happen, et cetera. So they really simplified that process and got us into boutique retailers that for Public Goods makes sense. So I will say it was a successful launch and we’ll probably continue working with them in the future.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Definitely. And I want to mention, it’s crazy how much you guys are actually living the sustainability portion of your brand because some people claim to be sustainable and they’re not, some people greenwash, et cetera, but you guys, I went to your LinkedIn page before hopping on the podcast and I know it said you plant a tree for every order.

Chris Breen:
That’s right. Yeah. Sustainability is an active goal we’re trying to reach. It’s something I think every company, the consumer spaces is targeting. There’s a lot of stories to tell there around sustainability and there’s a lot of question marks as well around what’s truly sustainable and what’s not. So it’s a bit of a moving target and something we’re trying to do, but it’s an active thing where you can always do better. There’s always improvement. These partnerships like one tree planted, for example, have been great for the brand and the customers resonate with it and just makes sense. It’s a wonderful initiative. So we’re happy to do it and continue to work with initiatives in that space as well.

Julia Raymond Hare:
It is a wonderful initiative. And this is kind of a niche question, but I noticed some of the products you offer to the hospitality space are not the single-use shampoo, conditioner, body wash, they are the larger bottles that the hotel refills. It blows my mind that more hotels don’t use that kind of product and they use the single-use. Do you know why that is? Do you have any insight as to that decision?

Chris Breen:
Yeah. Now, this is great. I think there’s a lot to unpack here. It’s something we deal with on a day-to-day basis. I can’t say exactly why hotels choose to use single-use items. If I were to guess, I’d say it’s mostly around costs. Most single-use items from some of the big hospitality distributors are extremely cheap and affordable. They also make sense from an operational standpoint for the hotel. They’re just easy. It’s an easy turnover room by room. If somebody leaves, you throw out the stuff, et cetera, you put new stuff in there.

Chris Breen:
Is it a good solution? No. And I think that’s what’s happening now in the hospitality space is what we’re seeing also to take a step back about, I’d say a year ago, I believe California put a ban on single-use plastics effective in 2023. So what’s happening now is we’re seeing hospitality companies and hotels start to take notice of this initiative and take change early, which is really great.

Chris Breen:
So we’re trying to basically catch the wave there. And what we’re doing is we’re launching gallon refills in the coming months. We have a 12-ounce bottles that are made from sugarcane that will be refillable. And actually about a year ago now I designed a stainless steel wall mount for the properties that are custom-fitted to our bottles. So that it’s also a beautiful customer experience.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Oh, wow, that’s your design?

Chris Breen:
Yeah. I did it about a year ago. It’s an interesting one because it is custom to the bottle. So I’m very happy with the way that it came out. I think it looks great.

Chris Breen:
So basically we’re going to continue to sell the wall mounts. Something that’s interesting that’s happening is there also is a need for tamper-proof options in the space due to COVID and safety concerns. Every property has its own decision-making around whether or not they want to use a tamper-proof option or a non-tamper-proof option. It really depends on usually the size of the hotel or the hospitality group, whether it’s a boutique or an Airbnb example, they would normally go for a non-tamper-proof option. Usually, those are more sleek and beautiful and a tamper-proof could be a little bit more clunky and robust. So the next challenge I think, is for people to create opportunities for big hospitality groups that are also beautiful on design at the center. It’s something we would like to get ahead of as well.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Those are good points. And I hope that the hospitality industry does adapt. I think they’ve done a good job with putting communications out to people who are visiting the hotel, where it says, “Hey, if you want to hang up your towel, instead of having it washed every day, you save this much water.” And I think the same kind of communications could be applied to Public Goods products, where it’s, how many plastic bottles you’re saving by not having them and using the larger ones.

Chris Breen:
Yeah. And I think historically single-use products were used. I think the bulk formats were probably viewed as less sleek and less beautiful options. So if you had those, maybe they thought it’d be great, the brand of the hotel and took it down a notch. And I think that’s really changing. We’re seeing a lot of hotels that are beautiful, higher rated, gorgeous, sleek hotels that are adopting these bulk formats, or at least attempting to weigh out the cost-effectiveness of one option versus the other. And I think it’s going to continue happening.

Chris Breen:
So we’re going to continue pitching hospitality clients in that space and hopefully trying to win them over. But I’m just excited to see how that space evolves because obviously it’s a great initiative. It’s super important. Single-use is massively wasteful in hospitality. So I’m excited for the next few years and seeing how that space evolves.

Julia Raymond Hare:
I am too. And sort of to extend this topic just a little bit, I saw something the other day that said a lot of Gen Z consumers are more focused on the idea of a capsule wardrobe so that they have key pieces and they’re not as interested in fast fashion because of the implications to the environment of course. So, consumers are spending… They’re spending on things that are maybe a little bit more expensive, but more curated. And can you share any predictions on consumer trends that you guys are seeing?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I’d agree to that. And I’d say this goes back to the narrative storytelling approach that I think is happening in retail. People really want to feel an emotional connection, the products they’re buying and I believe rightfully so. I think that’s part of the reason why we’re seeing retailers brick-and-mortar and online take a new approach to how they sell products. Brick-and-mortar maybe it’s like an immersive experience. Showfields, for example, is a great example of a company that’s maybe they have a brand in there that only does one or two SKUs, but there’s this whole design around that story.

Chris Breen:
I think Pop Up Grocer as well, is a great narrative-driven company that does all these amazing products in there that are design-centric, et cetera and they tell a story. So I am seeing companies adapt from a retail perspective in brick-and-mortar to try and to tell the story, to sell the products. Selling the products is obviously the end goal of the storytelling experience, but to get the customers in, you’re inviting them to have this emotional connection. So, yeah.

Julia Raymond Hare:
The emotional connection with the curation. Absolutely. And what would you say, Chris, just taking a step back, the broader picture D2C is such a popular topic in the retail space right now. We’ve been covering it even more so this year in 2021 and I assume we’ll be doing that in the coming months as well. What’s the biggest challenge you would say D2C faces and what’s the biggest opportunity?

Chris Breen:
Yeah. I’d say D2C, it’s becoming a thing where there’s a low barrier to entry, so companies are popping up left and right. I think that the challenge is really going to be telling the story in a field of other companies telling similar stories and getting your product to stand out. And I think competition will really be the main challenge there. I’d say the biggest opportunity is there really is so much room to connect with customers and I find it exciting now that what we’re seeing is B2C companies, digitally native B2C brands are being courted into retail examples.

Chris Breen:
Maybe you’ll find them on shelf somewhere , maybe you’ll find them on another retailer’s website. They’re launching beyond their own website and trying to get their products to resonate with different types of customers and testing new channels. So I think what we’re going to see is a lot of digitally native brands, maybe trying out brick-and-mortar, maybe trying out a pop up, maybe trying selling on another retailer’s website and just testing to see what those channels look like as they may be struggling to scale using Facebook ads, for example.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Right. Yep. Great. Well, Chris, it was a joy to have you on the show today. I learned a lot and I’d love to have you on again in the future. How can our listeners connect either with you directly or also learn about Public Goods?

Chris Breen:
Yeah, I’m always available on email. So chris@publicgoods.com and LinkedIn as well, always available on there.

Julia Raymond Hare:
Perfect. Great. Thank you so much.

Chris Breen:
Thank you for having me.