Add Value — We tie education into our brand outreach by highlighting the detrimental impact plastic waste has on our oceans and marine life. Whether they are shopping for a beach chair or not, we want to draw in customers by addressing a ‘real ‘problem’ and bringing it front and center. We do this every Sunday in our email campaign titled ‘Why LowTides’.
As part of my series about the “How to Create a Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back for More,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenton Hutchinson, Founder & CEO of LowTides Ocean Products. Inspired by an infamous 2018 National Geographic article, “Planet or Plastic?” about the vast amounts of ocean plastic and the detrimental effects it has on local beaches, Hutchinson sought to be part of the solution to cleaner tides. That same year, he founded LowTides Ocean Products with a mission to perserve the beauty of the ocean for generations to come. Now in its second season, LowTides Ocean Products has saved over 16,000 pounds of plastic from entering our oceans.
A dedicated ecopreneur, Brenton is intrinsically involved in every step of the production process for LowTides Ocean Products line of ocean-saving beach chairs. From drafting designs to sourcing HDPE, or upcycled ocean plastic from tracible sources, Hutchinson leads the brand’s partnerships in manufacturing and visibility in marketing efforts.
In addition to leading the eco-startup LowTides Ocean Products, Hutchinson works in Commercial Real Estate as Vice President of Property Management for Nightingale Properties. With over 15 years of experience, he oversees their portfolio of office and retail properties throughout the United States.
Hutchinson is a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, and later graduated with a MBA in International Business. He also holds a Pennsylvania Real Estate License. He currently resides in Red Bank, New Jersey with his wife and four children, and continues to spend his summers at the Jersey Shore with his extended family.
“My family has been visiting the Jersey Shore as far back as the 1950’s and it’s become a part of our identity,” said Brenton Hutchinson. “I want to ensure future generations can enjoy clean beaches, just as generations of my family has. LowTides Ocean Products provides a sustainable solution to cleaner tides, and I’m proud to deliver a product that will help preserve our local shorelines we know and love for many years to come.”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, I spent every summer down at the New Jersey Shore which is instrumental to LowTides. After graduating college in 2006, I went into Commercial Real Estate. Shortly after, during the Great Recession, I started a Residential Real Estate Business, flipping single-family homes and renting to local students. I come from a line of successful entrepreneurs, so naturally, I wanted to create my own path to success. In 2018, the ‘Planet or Plastic’ issue of National Geographic was published, exposing the vast amount of plastic waste in our oceans — this is an issue that really hit home for me, so I began to brainstorm a solution to reverse this. How could we reuse or ‘upcycle’ this plastic into a new, functional product that other beachgoers could love and support? Shortly thereafter, LowTides was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
BH: In hindsight this is a funny, but expensive mistake. We thought it would be good to launch via Kickstarter. We did everything they told you to, hire an agency, hire a PR firm, run digital ads, etc. At the end of the day, Kickstarter’s core demographic are men ages 25–35, which is way off base from our suburban, beach going, gift buying mothers. Here were, thinking we are going to launch a $1MM Kickstarter campaign and in reality, we raised $30k. So, we laugh about it now, but it is important to do your research and know your target market.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
BH: My sister Elizabeth has been instrumental to our success. Although she is the Director of Marketing of LowTides, she has become more of a partner in this venture. Elizabeth has handled everything from product development, logistics, social marketing, our email platform and more and is constantly coming up with new ways to grow the business. She truly does it all. There are many stories and experiences we’ve gone through as a team, but we’ve come to realize that launching your own business comes with so many ups and downs, wins and losses and everything in between. At the end of the day, it is so important to have someone in your corner who supports your vision, always has your back and pushes you to be your best. Elizabeth is that person for me.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
BH: Yes, many. One of the key reasons LowTides has been so successful thus far, is the direct result of my immersion into podcasts and Audible over the past few years. NPR’s “How I Built This” is a go-to, regardless of the industry you’re in. Guy Raz shares so many relatable stories about determination, grit, and building a business as an entrepreneur. Ed Mylett is the perfect pick-me-up. Tim Ferris has great guests and asks the right questions. I enjoy listening to his long form conversations, tackling a lot of different ideologies and subjects. Phil Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog, is a great read based on Nike’s beginnings, and it’s had the greatest impact on me by far. It’s a motivational read that delves deep into the company’s formation and covers the process of sourcing a manufacturer in Japan, negotiating terms and outsmarting the competition — the harder you hustle, the greater the reward. I’ve gone through these same steps myself, so I can definitely relate. I admire his tenacity and the brand he was able to build. Reading it gave me the hope and drive to create a valued brand in this world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
BH: The beach chair industry is sleepy and stale. You see the same patterns everywhere –stripes, solids, Hawaiian flowers — and only a handful of brands dominate the entire market. Historically, beach chairs have been made very cheap, not well designed or made to last more than a couple of seasons (as an avid beachgoer myself, I know from experience). My goal was to redesign the beach chair and build it with ocean plastics to support and preserve the environment they are in, make it stylish yet durable with new nautical patterns and modern with cup holders that actually fit your favorite water bottle, Yeti or Hydroflask. Essentially, make the beach chair an extension of the beachgoer’s personal style. We’ve received an overwhelming amount of support from customers who believe in our mission and agree that it’s about time we took a step back and reimagined the beach chair.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
BH: The key to growth and avoiding stagnation is to educate yourself and consume as much information as possible. Listen to podcasts, read books and gain a deep understanding of how others achieved success. By doing this, you can easily discover what processes work and stay up to date on the latest market trends, which will ultimately save you a lot of time, effort and money. Although you cannot avoid all pitfalls, we are in a day and age where many answers are at our fingertips. Use any and all resources available to you.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
BH: You mention some very well-known and respected brands in many different retail spaces. Each one of those retailers found a niche, then created the flywheel to perfect their products and business plan, and ultimately grow their brands. I’ve personally come to understand that technology moves fast, and constant attention is needed to recognize and implement new trends and apps. Successful brands adapt to the changing trends and markets. They’re using technology to their advantage in order to reach and engage with their target audience. Putting in this type of effort can ensure the sources of revenue are somewhat balanced, so that if a worldwide pandemic occurs, you don’t find yourself out of business.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
BH: Doing business with China is no longer viewed as inexpensive, as costs have gone up considerably over the past 18 months alone. Supply chains are strained, and shipping is expensive. It’s not a mandated principle, that in order to be successful, you must be the cheapest retail or ecommerce company. D2C are competing successfully against retail titans like Amazon. A quality product that is sold at the right price point, supported by memorable branding and has a solid backstory, works. There are many brands on the market who are doing it well, including Away, Bombas, AllBirds and MVMT.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
BH: Never underestimate the challenges ahead — starting a business is not easy. You may have an amazing idea, but it’s not as simple as turning on the “open for business” sign and expecting customers to automatically flood in and purchase your product — whether you’re launching an online business or brick and mortar retail store. There are so many levels of planning and marketing that need to occur beforehand in order to make any shop, store, or product successful. It’s a learning curve, not a runway. As a business owner, it’s important to be invested and “in it” for the long haul in order to ensure that the “amazing idea” you started with is tangible, successful and can achieve longevity.
This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?
BH: The most genuine and organic form of marketing will always be Word-Of-Mouth. Make this a core focus. Your product should be talked about in a positive light amongst friends and families, while maintaining a high level of customer service. A negative experience that isn’t responded to respectfully and in a timely manner can not only harm your relationship with that that customer but can potentially affect the other three or four customers you might have had if the service was exceptional. It is imperative to come away with a good experience, and it starts with customer service.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
BH: If you’re trying to wear all the hats and don’t have the right personnel, it’s hard to find the time and effort as a founder (or executive team) to pay attention to Customer Service. It’s time consuming and always urgent, especially in today’s environment of immediacy, which makes it a lot to juggling when you’re also focused on growing the actual business. It can also be challenging to find talent that can adequately handle customer service and do so effectively and on brand. It takes a certain type of person to tackle questions and resolve any issues that can occur on a daily basis.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
BH: We had some growing pains with the first version of our chairs during LowTides Season One, when we discovered that one of the parts that held together was failing. I decided that instead of sending updated parts directly to the customers experiencing the issue via mail, I would go out and replace it myself when possible. I coordinated when they were home. Showed up with the parts and tools in my trunk and made the adjustments on site, whether it be on their decks and porches, or in their driveways, wherever was convenient. By going above and beyond for my customers, not only were people ‘wowed’ with the hands-on service, but the brand benefitted as well. Our customers found value in connecting a face to the LowTides brand and we were able to connect with them on a deeper level. We gained direct insight into why they purchased from us, what they liked and disliked about the product, etc. It was a learning experience that we’ve taken with us as we’ve continued to grow.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
BH: Absolutely! I recently saw a couple of women while visiting a potential retailer at his store a few weeks back. They noticed the LowTides box I was carrying and were pretty excited to see me. They complimented me on the service we provided last year and went on to say, ‘We love your mission and product…’ The best part? This happened right in front of the owner of a retailer that I was trying to sell to! It came down to good timing, hard work and a little luck from the universe.
A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?
BH: It starts with a great product design and simple, yet effective, packaging. Brands should use clear marketing, showcase verifiable user experience, practice engagement with customer base and follow ups. I believe these steps enhance and complete the experience.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Product Development — Taking what we learned from our first season to update our patterns and redesign our chairs structure before going into Season Two.
2. Tell A Good Story — Consumers have a keen sense of brand awareness and want to support companies/products they can relate to and get behind. We’ve found that so many people relate to our story of growing up at the New Jersey Shore and wanting to preserve our beaches and oceans for future generations — we’ve found that it resonates across all ages and coast lines.
3. Staying Top of Mind — Today, quality content generation is vital. We are very active and engaging on social media platforms and constantly communicate with email campaigns. When the need arises and it comes time to purchase, make sure you’re the first brand customers think of, without hesitation.
4. Add Value — We tie education into our brand outreach by highlighting the detrimental impact plastic waste has on our oceans and marine life. Whether they are shopping for a beach chair or not, we want to draw in customers by addressing a ‘real ‘problem’ and bringing it front and center. We do this every Sunday in our email campaign titled ‘Why LowTides’.
5. Listen — Try and be open to ideas or opinions of others. We receive many emails from customers requesting a favorite pattern, wanting a certain accessory, or a particular chair design that lays flat. This is all constructive feedback and directly indicates what they are willing to buy. We encourage the conversation, because at the end of the day, we sell more by listening.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
BH: Although it may be obvious based on my industry — stop pollution within the environment. Unfortunately, we’ve made a solid footprint on this Earth and have caused some irreparable damage, but moving forward, we can all do our best to raise awareness and do everything in our power to reverse the tides of pollution. Find ways to make a change, because no change is too small when you’re working towards making an impact.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
- LowTides Ocean Products — Website: https://lowtidesop.com/
- LowTides Ocean Products — Instagram: @lowtidesocean
- LowTides Ocean Products — Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lowtidesop/
- LowTides Ocean Products — LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/lowtidesop
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!