Frank & Oak’s new reality: stores, stories, brands and beards

Frank & Oak is in a good place. The Montreal-based men’s clothing ecommerce site has expanded beyond the border, opened retail “experience” stores in six Canadian cities, and is well on its way to becoming the de facto omnichannel clothier for the “creative professional.”

That surfeit of quoted words comes from the fact that Frank & Oak doesn’t want to be pegged so myopically: it’s a lifestyle company, an experience provider, a culture club.

“We value three big things,” Frank & Oak COO and co-founder, Hicham Ratnani, tells me. “Creating culture and content; designing and being at the forefront of creative and successful product; and pushing the boundaries of a personalized service. This comes together online, on mobile and in retail.”

Still recovering from the launch of Select, a new personalized shopping experience for Frank & Oak’s annual Hunt Club subscribers, Ratnani says that there’s a palpable sense the company has figured out how to appeal to shoppers on all levels.

“It’s really exciting to be in this new phase,” he says. “We’re trying to balance these three pillars, and we’re focusing on the personalized aspect of this model.”

He acknowledges that the shopping cycle, as defined by the expanding definition of multi-channel commerce, is not just about pressing the Checkout button or handing over a credit card. “Some guys are happy to make their own selections every month, and some guys want a little help. They want a deeper relationship across all those channels.”

Though it designs and manufactures all of its clothes, from socks to jackets, Frank & Oak considers itself more a tech company than a Gap competitor. Though the gulf is shrinking — Uniqlo has a series of well-received apps, and Old Navy has a social media presence like no other — F&O relies on banks of user data to improve suggestions, and to help its own employees help its customers make the right decisions.

“We’re deeply integrated; we built a pretty deep data infrastructure. The technology of data collection is key: we have more web developers than actual designers.”

Ratnani says that the success of its physical stores, now open in Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver, have unveiled even more data about its customers — not just about shopping, but lifestyle habits. The flagship stores in Montreal and Toronto have Stumptown Coffee-branded espresso bars in the front, and in the back, tucked behind the impeccably-coifed racks of clothing and the earnest CSRs, a full-service barber shop.

The stores are less about buying things than getting a sense of the Frank & Oak culture. Ratnani refers again and again to his company and its customers as a community of likeminded individuals where they fulfil the evolving sartorial needs of a certain demographic of creative professionals.

On the mobile side, this evolving need comes to the fore. “People shop very differently on their phones than they do on a laptop,” he tells me. While around 30% of total commerce is performed on smartphones and tablets, people don’t complete as many transactions there, preferring to use F&O’s mobile apps and mobile site for reference. In recent months, they began offering books and grooming items under the category of Apothecary, using the rustic hues of anachronism to proffer shaving creams and moisturizers. The company’s editorial section has also expanded, offering drink recipes (Maple Syrup cocktails!) to a blog post exploring the house of one of its models, designers and evangelists, Waris Ahluwalia.

Increasingly, that full service culture is becoming inextricably linked with e-commerce: there’s a reason men choose to do all their shopping in one place, Ratnani intimates, hoping that Frank & Oak will be that portal. The stores are home not only to racks of clothes but free classes on money management and whisky tastings. It’s a hearth as much as an event space, a way to promote a brand and a culture. Over time, those two things are becoming interchangeable.

Hicham Ratnani is a featured speaker at this year’s Dx3 Digital Marketing and Retail Conference, running March 11-12 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Tickets can be obtained at dx3canada.com.