Big Interview: Kris Bromley, MD, Firebox

Kris Bromley, managing director at Firebox, calls the online retailer "a boutique, mixed with a start-up which has 17 years of experience".

And with that combination comes an abundance of ambition, led by the energetic and personable Bromley, who has taken the e-tailer onto the high street for the first time.

"The problem with shopping centres is that every one is exactly the same," exclaims Bromley. "God it's boring, so it's a perfect time to inject our brand into them – we're going to save the high street!"

Following a collaboration with Intu shopping centres, the pureplay gift and gadget e-tailer launched its first pop-up store in Newcastle, followed by two more in Watford and Nottingham in a bid to learn from physical retail in the run up to Christmas.

Bromley says the "stars aligned" which enabled Firebox to launch a store. "It was a combination of the economy, our confidence in our branding and people, and the opportunity was there."

While he says it was always in the long-term plan to open a physical store, the current shifting landscape meant the retailer jumped at the opportunity this autumn. "With a long-term strategy, you have to revise every year or every few months – what you decide five years ago isn't always right when the time comes around."

The retailer has spent a lot of time trying to make its pop-ups not look temporary, but Bromley says it is important to find a middle ground and not to invest lots of money when it is only a seasonal opportunity.

Nottingham flagship

But while the three Firebox stores are called "pop-ups", Bromley says there is a good chance the Nottingham store may become its permanent flagship post-January, with plans to have more pop-ups next year.

"Q4 makes the most sense – you experience good footfall and good foundations," he says, noting how the retailer has used the opportunity to try new innovations and learn how physical retailing differs from online.

"We've made some mistake and we learn from that – it's an intense learning curve," he adds. "Online and in store is very different. From merchandising and seeing products in the flesh – it is so different than images and copy online which is sometimes difficult to bring to life."

Bromley describes how Firebox's distinctive tone of voice which it has perfected over the last 17 years has helped it stand out from the crowd.

"It makes us different and they are products you can't get elsewhere. It's also our voice and our cheekiness, humour and unusualness – most people wouldn't be able to do that and are more corporate."

A lot of this attitude comes from the "Firebox family". "We don't take ourselves too seriously, we're passionate, and everything you want in a friend, we try to employ," he explains. "We're privately owned so we don't have to answer to a board, and end up being masters of own destiny. We like mucking about and having a laugh."

This definitely comes out in the Firebox products, which Bromley says embody the owner. "They speak about who you are and reference to your pop culture tastes," he says referring to a copy of the Usual Suspects Kobayashi mug sold by Firebox. "They make you feel warmer and lightens up a bit of the day. If in the middle of the day you grab a pencil and it has something funny on it - it's the small things in life which are very important."

But between the Amazons and Etsys of the online world, as well as the upstarts and "whippersnappers", there is much competition hot on the heels of the 17-year-old company who would love to have a fleet of high street stores one day.

"We're ambitious, but we're very new to this and we're judging as we go," he says. "We've got lots of things to do next year and this is a big strand of that. It's really exciting going into a store, I can't explain how cool it is to see our stuff, but we don't want to get too carried away."

Pop-up trend

And it has been the increasing trend for pop-up shops which has helped Firebox catapult itself from online-only to the high street.

"There's been an explosion of niche businesses, start-ups and websites, and the recession meant there was an opportunity to get cheaper rents and spaces which were unavailable before – whether it's the hipsters taking over or not."

Firebox is incidentally based in the middle of hipsterville and pop-ups in London's Shoreditch and it has watched the trend explode out of London to rest of the country.

"I'm not sure how far the 'flat-white culture' reaches, but eventually it becomes more commonplace," explains Bromley, saying how a few years ago while London was embracing pop-ups, somewhere like Nottingham would not have been so accepting, but now the culture has expanded and both shopping centres and customers enjoy the variety it adds to the high street.

"Shopping centres have to be creative themselves and seasonal stores are an advantage to make sure someone is in the shops all year," he adds. "With the death of the high street and rise of the everything-is-a-pound-shop, the landscape is changing, you look at brands like Apple Stores which are basically showrooms. It's not heavily retail, but a mixture of everything.

Bromley says Firebox has taken this inspiration to try and build a community with its customers. "That's why it is important we keep the Firebox voice and brand consistent across the stores. It's part showroom, but also customers can come down to get to know us and play with the products and make it a bit more personable."

Data and cross-channel retail

The next step is to understand how these Firebox customers shop across the online and offline channels. "We'll try and use postcode data to figure out how these three stores might have affected surrounding areas and buying online," he explains. "It's definitely having an impact we couldn't have with online only, but it's quite difficult to attribute footfall with subsidiary sales."

After joining the business in 2002 as a customer service advisor, Bromley has "zig-zagged" his way up through the business and along the way watched how the eCommerce landscape has changed. Firebox rebranded its website and rebuilt its infrastructure two years ago and not long after that it released a responsive site. Now it is experimenting with introducing GIFs and Easter Eggs hidden among the e-tailer's distinctive tone which stands out in the copy used to describe its products.

"All of that is hard to replicate and it's quite labour intensive, we have talented individuals but it's not just systems and shaving off percentages."

Black Friday

But unsurprisingly, for a business which is reliant on seasonal purchases, Bromley says Black Friday has been a big game changer.

"Black Friday has completely changed everything, but the horse was let out of the stable a long time ago and it's how you interact with it."

But day-to-day, Bromley's main challenge is getting carried away with all the ideas the company wants to implement.

"Sometimes you want to move faster and do it all at once, but you have to reign yourself in and know that some things take time. You do need to stay still and think these things out, rather than bounce from one idea to another."