Away co-founder Jen Rubio on customer experience and store design

Travel accessories brand Away has grown fast. Originally an online-only brand based in New York it sold its first suitcase in February 2016 and, just two and half years later, has opened its first European store, in London.

Driven by a direct-to-consumer model, Away produces its own luggage and accessories ranges and offers a carefully edited selection of travel books and products designed to make travel easier. A signature product is its suitcase range, which come with an integrated rechargeable battery, so travellers can easily give some new life to phones and other portable devices as they move around. A range of soft bags has been designed specifically to fit around the upright handles of the suitcases, enabling a hands-free dash to the departure gate.

The Away store in London’s Earlham Street in Seven Dials is the brand’s fifth permanent site, and is seen as a stepping stone to further expansion in Europe, says Away co-founder and chief brand officer Jen Rubio. “This is our fifth store, our first store in Europe – we have done a couple of pop-ups – we have four stores in the US… and we will be opening a lot more stores in the next couple of years.”

Rubio won’t reveal exact numbers, but confirms the store will be looking at digits that are in double figures – ambitious expansion for such a young brand. “I think it was always the plan… to be a direct to consumer brand, so that is about owning the relationship with our customers, wherever they are,” she says.

After starting online the brand soon began to experiment with pop-up stores, with encouraging results. “We realised this was great… our customers really appreciated being able to experience the brand offline, and to interact with the brand and the products,” says Rubio. “So, yeah, we weren’t sure, going into it, how big of a part [physical] retail would play in our strategy, but we’ve seen that it works really well for us. All of our stores are profitable pretty much immediately, they drive web sales in that area… they are like profitable billboards for us.”

Away currently has stores in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin, with a pop-up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Store locations have been chosen through a mixture of approaches, both using online traffic as a way to find out where there is demand for the brand, and through intuition, using stores to increase awareness where the brand wants to create online demand.

Each store is deliberately different, and is designed by an in-house team.

“We didn’t do much architecturally here,” says Rubio of the new London store. “I think because our design aesthetic is very minimal and modern, and very modular, it helps us just… go into a space and make the most of it. I think the things we are always drawn to are a nice variety of materials, so we have marble, Corian, terrazzo, perforated metal.”

The brand works with local artists to create points of interest in-store, and a large digital airport-style departure board is a new feature for the London branch. “For us the important thing is that we never want it to be about the fixtures, or about the architecture. We just want that to be a great backdrop to let our product shine and have a place to have things like the books and the artwork,” says Rubio.

Travel-themed events help pull friends of the brand into stores, and encourage the kind of wanderlust essential to a travel brand.

Physical stores also provide time for Away staff to explain product benefits to customers, and to convey the brand’s quality and commitment to its products. “We have a lifetime warranty. From a sustainability standpoint we don’t want people throwing away their suitcases, so we stand behind our product. Our goal here is not for your suitcase to break so you have to buy another one,” says Rubio.

The brand encourages repeat customers by offering suitcases in several sizes, along with a range of interior accessories that keep people coming back, says Rubio. “People buy them as gifts and recommend us to their friends,” she adds.

One key element of Away’s strategy is focus on how it interacts with its customers. “We are always thinking about what experience the customer has. It’s not about the channel – I mean obviously the experience they are going to have online is different than the one they will have in-store, but the things they care about are the same,” says Rubio. “So looking at the product, finding out what the features are, talking to people who are knowledgeable, not just about Away, but about travel in general. Those are the things that people care about… we think about the problems that people have, and how to solve them.”

What’s Hot on Essential Retail?