Bombas socks all spread out on a light blue background.
Sock brand Bombas credits much of its startup success to new technologies, from customer service chatbots to digital procurement processes. — Bombas

Why it matters:

  • More than three quarters (76%) of retailers and brand manufacturers surveyed believe that shopper insights are critical to their performance.
  • Yet only 16% consider themselves experts when it comes to data harnessing, while 24% describe themselves as “newbies.”
  • By adding tech to analyze inbound customer requests, like shoppers seeking a refund, sock brand Bombas was able to service more customer requests faster while reducing headcount.

Bombas was initially founded upon learning that socks are the most requested item in homeless shelters.

“The founders set out to create a comfort-focused digitally native brand that would provide elevated basics to customers, as well as ensure that for each item sold, we would be donating an item to those in need,” Adam Weinstock, chief technology officer, told CO— in a recent interview.

From that first pair sold in 2013, the company is currently profitable. Bombas ratcheted up to over $100 million in revenue in 2018 and experienced 40% year-over-year growth between 2019 and 2020 as it added T-shirts and, most recently this January, underwear.

Along the way, the brand donated more than 45 million items to those in need. “Obviously there is revenue growth in sales behind that,” said Weinstock, “but understanding that the company was first founded with that [giving back] mission in mind, it's just such a phenomenal growth metric.”

[More here on how to incorporate technology into your business operations.]

A streamlined approach to scaling amid a pandemic sales bump

Most startups don’t scale with complete ease, and Bombas was no exception. In the startup’s case, “Part of the challenge when we were growing so rapidly is that information is moving fast,” Weinstock said.

The company was adding staff quickly to meet demand and it was expanding its network of “giving partners” comprised of homeless shelters and other community programs spread throughout North America. Adding products and entering additional sales channels just added to the number of moving parts that needed to be managed and streamlined.

That made it critical to have a way to centralize data, and to create and share consistent definitions of key metrics and other aspects of the business. “That's where the breakdown in communication happens which can lead to interruptions in our planning process,” he explained.

To maintain clear communications with the entire workforce as well as with customers and community partners, Bombas turned to software to create a control center where every bit of data could be held, analyzed and shared. For this, they turned to NetSuite’s integrated cloud business software suite to manage processes such as accounting, production, supply chain and e-commerce.

The solution allows Bombas to manage every part of the sales process — from procuring raw materials to manufacturing and shipping.

This proved especially important over the last year, when more people focused on supplementing their sock and underwear drawer rather than making trendy apparel purchases.

According to data from the NPD Group, during the make-or-break holiday season, when brands generate a disproportionate chunk of their annual sales, 31% of total U.S. apparel spending fell squarely into the comfy basics category which includes sweatpants, sleepwear and socks, compared to 26% last year.

Tapping tech to boost customer service and operational efficiency

“As a retailer, Q4 [the fourth quarter] is a busy time,” Weinstock explained. “Not only is our order volume increasing, but we have to augment our staff to be able to support all of that customer growth,” he said.

Traditionally, Bombas would solve that demand spike by simply adding staff to handle customer service calls, the chat on its website, and to monitor email and its help desk. But the ramp up didn’t necessarily mean it was leveraging technology to its advantage by maximizing shopper insights.

Bombas isn’t alone. Among over 300 retailers and brand manufacturers polled, more than three quarters (76%) believe that shopper insights are critical to their performance, yet only 16% consider themselves experts when it comes to data harnessing, while 24% describe themselves as “newbies,” according to a survey by Alteryx and RetailWire.

For Bombas’ part, by analyzing inbound customer requests, it was able to isolate specific patterns such as customers tracking an order, looking for a refund or seeking to make an exchange. “That's where we decided to make a technology investment,” Weinstock said. So, the brand added a chatbot to its website. As a result, “We were able to service a high percentage of customer requests through that technology and provide them with a faster response, while also achieving significant reduction in headcount,” said Weinstock.

[More here on understanding relationship intelligent software.]

 Headshot of Adam Weinstock, chief technology officer of Bombas.
Adam Weinstock, chief technology officer, Bombas. — Bombas

Nixing spreadsheets to digitize the product procurement process

Technology solutions also offered Bombas an opportunity to streamline the product development and procurement side of the business. Weinstock said that historically all the company’s purchase orders were managed in spreadsheets across teams. “Inevitably, data was lost or there was miscommunication internally, or with a supplier.”

With technology digitizing that entire procurement process, it ensures that all of the purchase orders are managed in a system, and Bombas is able to apply strict forms of approval and control with key checks and audits.

According to Weinstock, what’s been key to transitioning from a startup to a growth company has been “really looking deeper [into] the business and asking our people to document and improve the ways they work allows us to automate that through technology, and overall, allows us to be more efficient as an organization.”

Including employees in tech decisions: ‘They’re able to steer the vision’

Although Bombas is a digitally native brand, and Weinstock observes that everyone in the company, regardless of their function, is technology-minded, he admitted that change management is difficult. And no technology solution can work if the humans using it aren’t bought in.

That’s why Weinstock said that Bombas’ approach was not about dictating the solution. “It's about having empathy for our employees, treating them as customers, really trying to understand what their goals are, what their pain points are, and working with them to find creative solutions,” he said.

As such, Bombas engages employees in the process, said Weinstock, “all the way from ideation of what we're building and how we're building it through to user approval and testing and training. In many ways they're able to steer the overall vision.”

The proof that the tech solutions they put in place were all a worthy investment became clear during the long months of the pandemic. “From a workplace perspective, what we found almost immediately was that we were set up already to be able to execute in a remote environment,” said Weinstock. “I think that's a testament to some of the technology we already had in place.”

That's not to say Bombas won’t continue to invest in people. “What we found is that if you have the right technology that allows people to again, look at accurate, consistent data, and communicate in real time, they can do their work at a very high level of output,” he noted.

What’s more, “We've managed to really engage in our mission even more deeply during this period,” he said. Bombas has not only maintained its commitment to donating product, but also engaged more locally with the community to donate food and other essential items.

“Our team has been great throughout leveraging technology to stay in constant contact,” Weinstock said, “and ensuring that we're moving forward without any interruption.”

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Published April 06, 2021