Redefining retail: where customers become community
Far from the glossy high-street corners of high-end retailers, Langbrett finds itself in obscure parts of town where customers are encouraged to join the community, to get involved, or to simply hang out.
Leaving the drab winter weather behind and entering the refurbished car mechanic garage in the bohemian district of Düsseldorf, the senses are initially awash in color and impressions – it’s a little more chaotic than the average retail floor, with tools and machines placed amidst the product racks and shelves.
A person, probably staff, hunched over a sewing machine looks up and with a natural smile says, “Hi! Let me know if you need anything,” and resumes work. A passing customer invites to a meditation session in the shop tomorrow morning before opening hours. A group, with indeterminable status, is collected around all sides of the till, lively recounting last week’s surf trip to Holland. Who is who here is difficult to say, the interaction being more akin to mingling than sales. Say farewell to the traditional retailer: at Langbrett, the neighborhood pub and the artisan workshop have merged into one, and it might just be a match made in heaven.
Langbrett’s founders Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies were originally design and innovation consultants, and avid surfers. Time and again they found themselves drawn back to the idea of starting up an environmentally friendly surf, skate and outdoor label. Yet the fear of diving into the financial un-known held them back. After enough persuasion from their surf buddies, they finally took the plunge and opened the first Langbrett shop in 2008.
Right from the start, sustainability has played a foundational role in their product development, focusing on organic cotton and recycled materials in particular. Their supply chain is simple, and they like to keep it that way.
“We know each employee working at our two manufacturers, one in Spain and the other in Portugal, what they get paid, their working conditions etc.,” explains Alexander Nolte, and continues: “We also don’t put time and money into pursuing certifications, nor do we see any reason in doing so at this point. Having personally seen where every material comes from, we are able to vouch for our products.”
A genuine community
Dealing in such small-scale production with recycled goods can entail some novel challenges, especially for customers who have grown accustomed to a world of mass-produced goods:
“One of our best-selling products is a blanket made of recycled cotton. Customers will come in asking for it, and be like ‘hey, I want that other color I saw last time.’ Only each batch is completely different,” shares Alexander Nolte.
“Other times, supplies of popular products just don’t last. As a rule, we avoid overstocking products. This eco thing is the backbone of Langbrett – it’s the reason we exist. We won’t compromise on this at any stage.”
Langbrett prefers to think of its stores as clubhouses, and doesn’t like calling itself a business, but instead a community. The staff encourage community members to pursue whatever gets them fired up. And the very products stocked in their shops are extremely dependent on individual staff members, their charisma and expertise.
“We had an amazing surfboard shaper working here in Düsseldorf, who made selling surfboards good business for us. Then he moved to Vancouver Island, and now surfboard sales are down.
A pro skater took his place, so today skateboards have a more prominent presence.” This variation is not seen as negative, however, but is all part of the experiment in taking a positive, more natural approach to relationships and business.
Neither are the customers boxed into the passive role of consumer: they’re central stakeholders in the brand’s development. The model is organic, or perhaps even more fittingly still, symbiotic.
“Their demands on product functionality and sustainability directs the business. They help test prototypes in the field and provide feedback. They partake in and host workshops in Langbrett’s shop,” shares Alexander Nolte.
“Staff and customer hitch rides with each other to go surfing in Portugal. And while on the way, they sometimes transport recycling goods to our manufacturer there,” adds Oliver Spies.
Langbrett strive for protecting the environment in which they experience the best times of the year.
Customers who like to simply be customers, who like their espresso to taste the same from one side of the planet to the other, might be thrown off-balance by the genuine interaction and variation inherent to Langbrett’s business model. But perhaps even they will come around. Meeting points like this are still few and far between in the retail world, and such modern hubs are filling a latent need for authenticity and involvement that many customers didn’t realize they had.