Steen Knigge of BoConcept: “Simple”

Simple. Do not clutter your store experience, your sales pitch, etc. People disengage when they are presented with too many choices. As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steen Knigge. Steen Knigge, originally from Denmark, immigrated to United States back in 2003. He is currently Head of […]

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Simple. Do not clutter your store experience, your sales pitch, etc. People disengage when they are presented with too many choices.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steen Knigge.

Steen Knigge, originally from Denmark, immigrated to United States back in 2003. He is currently Head of Marketing for BoConcept Americas. With a long and successful track record in marketing (Procter & Gamble, Gillette, FilmNet), advertising (Lowe & Partners), Steen also has a solid entrepreneurial experience from creating both a Marketing Consultant agency as well as a successful Scandinavian Lifestyle retail business in New York City. Currently residing in Jersey City, NJ, Steen is a proud father of a budding high-schooler, Nyasha.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While my career has taken several turns, from corporate marketing to advertising to entrepreneur over to retail and then back to marketing, the common thread has always been a wish to create a win for the consumer with their purchase. I have a deep interest in psychology and consumer behavior, which is why advertising and its ability to convince people to select one product over another has always intrigued me.

This intrigue led me to earn my degree in marketing and subsequently a job in brand management in, what was then, and likely still, known as the premier consumer marketing company, Procter & Gamble. While you can’t undo career choices in hindsight, it is still, to this day, a job I truly enjoyed; challenging, very bright colleagues, and a company that always strived to have the very best products for the consumer, all based on research and development.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The most interesting story, at least to me, happened shortly after I recently immigrated to the US and was working as a consultant for the NHL on the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. The day of the Championship match was also the day when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expired, and the NHL and NHLPA (Player’s Association) could not come to an agreement, and the 2004/05 season was subsequently canceled leaving me out of a job.

With my only professional experience being in Europe and a small network in the US, I had a hard time landing a job in line with my experience. So instead of continuing that route, I dove head-first into a project where I had zero experience… opening a Scandinavian lifestyle retail store in Manhattan. Sure, I understood branding, but fashion? POS systems? Space needed? Designing a store? Building a store? Running a store? Establishing a merchant account with no credit? There were literally thousands of things that I had no experience in.

After recruiting business partners from both Scandinavia and the US, architects working on pure speculation, my best friend literally built out the store with his dad, some friends, and my 6-month-old daughter in her playpen in the basement while I tried figuring out how to input data in QuickBooksFast, we opened our doors! I had successfully opened our “[hus] a scandinavian” store to the public and celebrated with a grammy-nominated Swedish band playing live to a packed house.

Just one year after opening, we were awarded “Best of New York, Boutique Store” by New York Magazine.

The moral of the story? Do not let the fear of the unknown deter you from accomplishing things; it might look impossible from the outside but just trust yourself and believe in the process.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I can assure you that it was not funny at the time. It was 1989 and I was driving down to New York from New Hampshire after finishing my MBA for my first job interview with BBDO New York. I was staying with a friend in Hell’s Kitchen and after getting all ready and dressed in my suit and tie, I left their apartment about 30 minutes before the interview. I naively figured, it’s only three blocks from 9th to 6th Avenue and not knowing Manhattan, I thought it would be a quick walk.

It was in the middle of summer, so just your typical sweltering New York day, and after 20 minutes of walking, I finally made it to 6th. I start panicking as I realize I have to get more than twenty streets uptown. Not having a dollar in my pocket, I started running. When I finally got to BBDO, I was about 20 minutes late, my suit was drenched, my hair soaked and sweat was streaming down my face. To no surprise, I didn’t get the job, but I learned a life-long lesson to always know your surroundings, be prepared and don’t be late. Oh, and never walk in a suit made of polyester during the summer in New York.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

This one does not relate specifically to my current work, but rather it is derived from my interest in health and fitness. It’s still ‘under construction’ so I can’t mention too much, but the gist is helping people live a higher quality life, not just a long life.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Not necessarily a unique tip, but I often see people getting overly emotional and stressed over things that, when looking at it from a higher level, is outside one’s sphere of influence. We are living in the most prosperous and amazing time in the history of mankind and yet so many seem to be under the constant impression that the sky is falling, leading to emotional distress, anxiety and depression. Yes, we can and should always try to improve, but life is pretty spectacular as it is. Enjoy every moment; accept your failures, enjoy your successes and don’t stress over things that you have no control over. Basically, celebrate your life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

That has to be my best friend, Lasse. I mentioned the buildout of my [hus] store and the tip to celebrate life previously; that comes from him. I sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome and fear of failure. I think most people do. Lasse sees the glass not just half full but overflowing, which makes him the best sounding board when undertaking a problem or project you’re avoiding or procrastinating because you’re afraid. When I was hesitant to start the [hus] project, he simply posed the question, “there are literally millions of retail stores, why wouldn’t you be able to open one? Don’t focus on what you think you can’t, focus on making it better than the rest.” Simple advice, but damn true.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Goodness to the world sounds a bit big, but I try to volunteer knowledge wherever I can, try to help where help is needed and always treat people the same no matter where they come from or what they do. We are all humans; success, money or celebrity does not make you a better one.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

If I look directly at BoConcept, the enormous shift to online/ecommerce has stressed the need for a better web experience, virtual showrooms, live chat, product availability transparency, AR/VR experience and bringing the showroom inspiration online. We have achieved some of this and have to work feverishly on optimizing or introducing other parts.

As a player in the premium furniture business, it poses unique challenges, as many products are made-to-order, so the assembly, shipping and returns are very complicated, and the tactile feeling is lost. So, for us, it is much more of a multi-channel challenge on how to marry the brick-and-mortar with the online segment; how do we meet our clients in a connected way? One of the key reasons we are successful is our highly skilled Design Consultants that not only help retail clients but also Interior Designers and B2B clients. In the end, we need to make sure we maintain our intimate relationship with our clients.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

I absolutely think they will continue to exist. People are social animals and if there is one thing we have learned from the past year, it’s that we don’t function well in isolation. The convenience of Amazon Prime and similar products obviously fill a need, but it also removes the personal and physical shopping experience where we can mingle, touch and talk. Don’t get me wrong, e-commerce will continue to increase, however, for many categories, it becomes a play on optimizing the multi-channel experience, not an either/or proposition.

A new Furniture Insights Report from ZETA Global Holdings (NYSE: ZETA) underlines this concept. Their key finding was that a hybrid in-store and online business model are the best way to capture market share, with a majority of consumers preferring a brand that offered both.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. 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?

Again, for many it becomes a quest to deliver a superb multi-channel experience. Several DTC brands started exclusively online but soon realized a retail presence is key to building the brand. Warby Parker, eyeglass retailer, is an excellent example of this; worthy of a case study.

In our space, home furnishing, you have seen several mattress brands starting exclusively online but soon needing actual retail outfits; Caspar comes to mind. What is true for most successful companies, Lululemon being a great example, is that online and physical retail are both important, but building a trusted brand is paramount. So, it is not a question of whether you are online or in a brick-and-mortar location, the question is do you offer a product that has a higher intrinsic value to the consumer than the relative cost they have to pay for it.

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 to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

It goes back to what I mentioned with the relative value proposition; you need to offer a product that is worth more than the relative cost, with ‘worth’ being the sum of price, quality, service, design, brand, etc. It is doubtful you can compete on price versus the Amazon’s of the world, but you can compete on service, quality, after-sales and even brand value. Going back to Lululemon, they do not compete on price, they compete on transferred brand identity, on quality, on “lifestyle,” etc. In our industry, Room & Board competes on “USA Made,” B&B Italia competes on “design,” IKEA competes on price/value so on and so forth. We compete on “customizable Danish Design.” You have to find your niche.

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. Simple. Do not clutter your store experience, your sales pitch, etc. People disengage when they are presented with too many choices.
  2. Service. No, the client might not always be right, but to the best of your ability, try to keep that mindset.
  3. Win-win. Do not try to weigh the transaction in your favor; create a transaction where both you and the consumer win. That creates loyalty, word of mouth and ultimately more sales.
  4. Empowerment. Make sure your staff is empowered and have some latitude to handle most claims and grievances, within reason of course.
  5. After-sales. The sale is not over when you cash the check; it has only just begun.
  6. I need a 6th — treat your staff like you would treat your best friend. They are by far your most important asset and can greatly increase sales. Treat them badly and they’ll become a reflection of you and your brand, and not in a good way.

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. 🙂

Gratitude for your life. Don’t wallow in grievances, your perceived victimhood or whatever negative energy you’re receiving. Look around you and celebrate the good. You only have so little time, don’t waste it on not living your life.

How can our readers further follow your work?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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