This is the next in a series of interviews Christopher Durham, founder of My Private Brand and VP of retail brands at Theory House, will conduct with private brand leaders around the world. Today, he discusses retail-owned brands with Jeff Gamsey, Vice President of Private Brands at online retailer Boxed.
A corporate lawyer by trade, an entrepreneur at heart, an occasional musician and a former painter, Jeff combines his meticulous attention to detail and his passion for art and creativity to lead a talented team of pioneers with aspirations to revolutionize the private brand universe. Jeff is an executive at Boxed with multi-functional experience and a track record of building and growing businesses from inception through execution in fast-paced environments. He has a proven ability to think strategically, prioritize effectively, and lead teams to outperform and outpace the competition on tight budgets. He is responsible for all brand strategy and product development with full P&L ownership for Boxed’s innovative private brand business unit.
Christopher: What is your first memory/experience with Private Brand?
Jeff: My grandparents would always have a tub of salted cashews and chocolate covered raisins to feast on when I would visit as a kid. At the time, I didn’t notice the brand — I just knew the snacks were ever-present and delicious. When I visit these days, I can’t help but recognize that they’re Kirkland Signature.
Christopher: How did you get into the private brand business?
Jeff: I moved to NYC after law school to be a corporate lawyer. I was an M&A attorney running deals for a few years, but at heart, I’ve always been an entrepreneur. When I was practicing law, I was working on startup ideas and co-founded a couple as side projects. When I joined Boxed in 2014 as its tenth employee, it was an opportunity to become a full-time entrepreneur and join a group of more seasoned entrepreneurs looking to use their mobile tech experience to solve the puzzle of online wholesale. I joined the company as its General Counsel and Director of Business Development. The day before I officially started, the CEO sent me a private label contract and said, “I want you to launch our private label”. For a startup, it was a bold idea and turned out to be a brilliant move. As Boxed grew from 10 to now over 200 employees, I chose to hand off my other duties one by one to focus exclusively on growing our brand, Prince & Spring, and turn the project into a full business unit. With as much fun as I’m having, I haven’t regretted that choice for a single moment.
Christopher: What does the future of retailer-owned brands look like?
Jeff: The future of retail and private brands is online. I think the success of digitally-native vertically integrated private brands like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Clubs may be the bellwether for things to come, but retailer-owned brands, in particular ones that are built as private brands rather than private labels, have a huge opportunity to not just take share from national brands, but to blur the lines between what is a national brand and what is a retailer-owned brand. I see two key trends defining the future of private brands: 1) commerce moving online, and from web to mobile; and 2) the rise of the millennial shopper, a defining characteristic of whom is a willingness to try new brands. In 2016, CPG’s posted their lowest growth rate in a lackluster 5 years. I think that’s in large part a consequence of these trends. CPG’s are rethinking their online strategy, which for many, until recently, has been fairly monolithic. As more commerce moves online in the coming years, companies like Boxed that were born in the digital age, are mobile-centric, and embrace private brands as a strategic priority from their very inception will have a significant advantage over large retailers that either move too slowly to capture the opportunity in front of them, or resist it for fear of disrupting their core business.
Christopher: What private brand accomplishments are you the proudest of?
Jeff: So many. I’m proud that we were able to bring so many great products to market as quickly as we did with such a lean team and so few resources. At the speed we were moving, there was no margin for error. A lot of things needed to go perfectly and they did — the brand grew 1065% year-over-year and is continuing its explosive growth this year too. The success the brand is enjoying now feels like validation for many of the tough choices and challenges we solved along the way. It also feels pretty good to have beaten a few competitors to market with the launch of our private brand 🙂
Christopher: What keeps you up at night?
Jeff: Unread emails.
Christopher: Is private brand a strategic priority for your organization?
Jeff: Absolutely. Grocery is a low margin business. Some people view the slim margins as a barrier that prevents online retailers from winning. When you add in shipping costs, it became clear early on in the history of the company that a strong private brand that drove margin expansion and enhanced platform loyalty would play a very important role in the success of the company.
Christopher: What role should design play in solving private brand/retailer problems?
Jeff: The importance of design cannot be overstated. The package is the most important canvas to tell the story of a brand and to augment it. Our talented designers use a variety of unique approaches to breathe life into Prince & Spring and amplify its personality. We write puntastic, tongue-in-cheek tag lines that usually make a joke about the product or lead image and use a touch of wit and humor to tie everything together cohesively. There are quite a few designs I love, but my favorite has to be our design for Almonds. The front shows a picture of a meditating Buddha made out of almonds, gesturing bliss, each hand propping up a singular perfect almond. The tagline, a numinous mantra: Aaaaaaalmonnnds.
Christopher: What advice do you have for retailers trying to take their brands to the next level?
Jeff: I love this quote that counterintuitively suggests “that brands are not owned by companies, but by customers. That they exist as an intangible bundle of perceptions, memories, associations and feelings in the minds of those who have experienced them in one way or another.” When you pour your heart and soul into your craft, customers will sense that passion and authenticity and show their appreciation to those brands with their loyalty.