Using the crisis as an opportunity

Starting a business in the age of Corona? A field report from "Sneakers Unplugged"

October 21, 2020

Our contributor Svenya was on the hunt for vegan and preferably sustainable sneakers. How she found her perfect shoes and how a retail startup can work in the times of Corona and under the premise of sustainability, she tells us in a conversation with Christian Ohm from Sneakers Unplugged.

Svenya Scholl: Hello Christian! A short time ago you actively entered the retail world with the sustainable online shop Sneakers Unplugged. What was the motivation behind the idea of opening a shop for sustainable sneakers?

Christian Ohm: Since I love sneakers, I always wanted to build something in this field, but within the last almost 20 years I was in a 'normal' career in different industries and companies. In the beginning I lacked the means, later simply the time (and probably also the courage) to realize such a project in self-employment.

I quickly realized that while there are sneaker stores galore and even a sneaker exchange for trading limited edition models, there is still no specialized store for sustainable, vegan and fair sneakers. I wanted to change that, the idea was born and the implementation happened right after.

Svenya Scholl: In which areas in your company does sustainability play a concrete role and according to which aspects do you select the labels to be included in the shop?

Christian Ohm: Sustainability plays a very important role for us across all areas. On the one hand, we only stock brands with a serious sustainability strategy and with fairly produced, stylish, natural and environmentally friendly products. In concrete terms, this means that the sneaker labels on offer have questioned and renewed the manufacturing and distribution process from the ground up - sensibly, it must be added here, because the conventional fast fashion shoe industry has a negative impact on us and our environment.

That's why our labels work with smaller fair-trade certified companies, where the workers are treated and paid fairly and equitably and which mainly produce in Europe to avoid unnecessarily long delivery routes and CO2 emissions. In addition, the harmful chrome tanning of the leather is avoided, the CO2 pollution is neutralized through various measures and natural and organic materials such as corn waste, pineapple leaf fibers, cork, organic cotton or natural rubber are used. In addition, recycled materials from PET bottles or other plastics are reused. Almost all companies are active in environmental and social projects, where, for example, reforestation is carried out, plastic bottles are fished out of the oceans and parts of the profits are donated to appropriate organisations.

But we don't stop at careful product and brand selection either. For plastic-free shipping, we only use natural and reusable materials such as grass paper, silicone-free and environmentally friendly paper tape and ship via DHL GO Green, which offsets the transport-related CO2 emissions of individual parcel quantities. In addition, we reserve a small amount per pair of sneakers sold to donate to environmental and animal welfare organizations or to participate in concrete, transparent and measurable sustainability projects.

Svenya Scholl: Covid-19 is currently presenting many people and especially retailers with major challenges. Nevertheless - or maybe because of that? - you decided to launch the online shop. How has it been for you? Have you already been able to identify hurdles or perhaps even opportunities for your company that the current situation brings with it?

Christian Ohm: The current corona pandemic is - apart from the health risks and effects - a caesura for all professional, personal and social areas, which has never existed to this extent in modern times and which affects everything and everyone. In my case, it also gave me the impetus to start a business because of the closure of my employer's premises. I saw this as an opportunity to realise my dream of self-employment and to devote all my energy to it.
In our first few weeks, we were able to gather consistently positive experiences. An online shop is less resource-intensive and also less susceptible to lockdown restrictions than a brick-and-mortar store, but in 2020, even an online shop is not a no-brainer and requires a lot of work and dedication.

I am convinced that Corona, as a kind of fire accelerator, will expose inefficiencies, accelerate digitalization and also significantly and sustainably change the way we work and will work. I do not believe that a 'business as usual' will be purposeful or successful in a post-Corona world and I am convinced that this crisis is a unique opportunity for companies, but also for private individuals, to critically question all areas, processes and procedures and to initiate change measures or to reposition themselves professionally.

Svenya Scholl: I - as one of the first customers of Sneakers Unplugged - became aware of the shop through a simple Google search, but you can also be found on social media, where you are very active. How important is social media for your shop?

Christian Ohm: Our target groups tend to be younger, progressive and to be found in urban, post-modern milieus, so social media - and online marketing in general - is vital and absolutely essential for us to be able to reach these target groups. In terms of communication, we also try to break new ground. We want to reach people for whom the topic of sustainability is very important, but who don't want to sacrifice style when buying sneakers. This approach is very well represented via social media.

It is important for us to know the wishes and needs of our customers, not only to meet their expectations, but to exceed them and to communicate consistently across all channels. Initially, the learning curve is steep and we also do a lot of 'test & learn' experiments to build understanding and insight into what works and what does not. In reality, however, market penetration is incredibly difficult for small retailers like us, as we don't have the resources, nor the funds, to invest large sums of money in online advertising or influencer marketing - unlike the big online retailers or chain stores can. Therefore, it is very important for us to set a clear focus in order not to get bogged down in too many activities.

Svenya Scholl: Sustainability doesn't just mean environmental friendliness, but also entrepreneurial foresight for long-term success. Therefore, with regard to your keyword "clear focus": Are there any concrete plans that you would like to implement with your company in the future (also beyond the online shop)?

Christian Ohm: Our ambition is to become the "place to shop" for everyone who loves absolutely stylish and street-ready sneakers, but is looking for sustainable, vegan and fair alternatives to the mainstream. Our online shop offers the right platform here, but that alone will not be enough from our point of view, which is why we want to implement a few plans in the future.

On the one hand, we already have the largest assortment of sustainable sneakers to begin with, but we will continue to expand this quickly in order to increase our relevance in further target groups. Secondly, we are planning to hold pop-up stores in various cities starting in October. For us, direct customer contact is a very important concern and we are therefore planning to realize a total of three to five pop-up store events this year alone.

This hybrid approach between online and offline is important to give people the opportunity to feel and try on the sneakers, as sustainable sneakers are still a completely new field for many and only a few consumers can imagine how, for example, a sneaker made from corn waste, pineapple leaf fibers or even vegan leather feels. Possible reservations about quality, processing or material properties can be addressed much better this way.

In the medium term, we are also planning to open our own store in Cologne as soon as we have found a suitable location.

Svenya Scholl: You were able to fully convince me with your corporate philosophy as well as your product range and the entire purchase and delivery process. Then I hope that it goes on just as well for you! Thank you very much for giving us a little insight behind the scenes and for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you continued success and good luck with Sneakers Unplugged - also on behalf of the IFH KÖLN and the Mittelstand 4.0-Kompetenzzentrum Handel! A few months ago I was looking for sustainable alternatives to the well-known big brands myself, but unfortunately I couldn't find any, at least not without considerable research effort. Either you have prior knowledge, you google extensively or you stumble upon new sustainable sneaker labels by chance or corresponding advertisements in social media.

Source: IFH Cologne, Mittelstands Kompetenzzentrum