Interview: How High-Tech Glasses Brand North Builds Futuristic Retail Experiences For Optimal Fits
The Canadian technology brand is creating a new way to experience smart glasses, with high-touch retail locations in Brooklyn and Toronto that enable personalized fit and function
The development and adoption of wearable technology has had an interesting trajectory. While wearables and fitness tracking technology took off, accessories like Google's Glass and Snap's Spectacles failed to really capture the interest of many consumers.
North, a technology brand based in Canada, is taking a new approach to smart glasses. Recognizing the modern, always-on dependence on smartphones and social media, the brand also takes into account the rising consumer interest in wellness and digital detox. With a fashionable design and interface that shows only what's necessary, the glasses help keep the user's hands free and attention focused. Customers can now visit and try North's Focals in two retail locations, one in Brooklyn and one in its native Toronto.
PSFK spoke to North's Chief Marketing Officer, Adam David Ketcheson, about the experience of visiting the brand's new brick-and-mortar stores and what the future holds for wearable technology.
PSFK: It would be great to start off with an overview of North and what you guys are getting up to.
Adam David Ketcheson: We’re a Canadian company. We are engineering, advanced R&D‑based. We're launching everyday smart glasses, which is the first consumer‑based everyday smart glasses that's on the market right now.
It's all based around this idea of giving people all the benefits of staying connected through technology, but also reducing their dependence and all of that anxiety that comes with the clutter of your phone or the distraction of all of those addictive apps that exist within that ecosystem.
There are a lot of different forms coming down the road as people evolve from desktop computers, to laptop computers, to phones. We believe that heads‑up display, like our glasses, is going to be one of those significant ways that people leverage technology in the future.
For us, it feels the most intuitive in the sense that you're leveraging that very powerful sense of sight. It gives you the ability to consume that information to stay connected but without ever leaving the moment that you're in without ever having to look off into a corner, or look down at your phone, or to be sucked into that vortex. It's this idea of being present but still being connected.
I know you have just two retail locations right now. Can you can speak to the ways that this retail space captures the value of the glasses? What elements help immerse the customer in that brand experience?
At the root of the product experience is fit. Fit, for us, has two different variables. The first variable is about function. Making sure that the product works really well for you and is super useful. You can actually see that hologram that's floating out in front of you at about arm's length. It becomes useful for you in your every day.
Then there's that portion of fit that's about how you express yourself from a style standpoint. What are the things that you wear? What does that mean about you? What choices are you making about what sizes you wear, about what colors you wear, about what forms you wear, etc.
Both those things come back to fit, and they're both actually very personal. It's about bending to fit the person as opposed to making the person fit the thing. Our whole retail store is, essentially, based around that idea: getting you the perfect fit. At its heart is getting you sized correctly. We have the ability here to capture a high-resolution 3D scan of your head.
We actually use that high-resolution 3D scan to figure out what is the optimal fit for you. Then we give you some choices within the range of what is your aesthetic. What do you want to look like from an aesthetic standpoint, whether that's a style, or that's a color, or that's a size? Then we custom manufacture that exact product to fit you perfectly.
Part of that retail experience is getting people comfortable with, “Hey, what is the display actually going to look like?” because this is a revolutionary technology. It's not something that people are familiar with. They haven't seen it before. There's a lot of elements within our retail experience of showing what a display is going to look like. This is what having an interface transparently on top of your world looks like.
We have some interesting immersion stations specifically around the store that allow you to show that. Then we take them through that futuristic experience of getting sized, which doesn't take very long, but it gives us a really precise direction on what you need. Then we have the ability to actually take that and take people through a demo, so they can actually experience it with a pair of Focals on their face.
All three of those experiences are pretty high-touch. At the end of the day we're trying to get people to a place where they get exactly what they need from a fit standpoint.
Is there any strategy for using your online platform to direct traffic into these stores, or anything about that cross-channel purchase path that you can speak to?
We're really focused on two lanes there. Because it's such a new technology, we're a new brand, and this is a new product, there's a lot of newness there. Part of that is about creating awareness for the category, the brand and the product.
For that, we're relying on social. Most of their information that people are consuming is in their social channels. For us, it's about focusing on those social channels, and making sure that we're creating not just our own messaging, but focus on word of mouth. Trying to get as many people to experience the product and be able to talk about their personal experiences with it as well. That's a combination of online/offline, but the online piece is social.
Then the second piece is focusing our web platform itself, our own website, to make sure that it's very much based around research, functionality and driving appointments. Helping people start to research the product. Understand whether it's the right product for them. Understand where they could get it.
Was there any particular reason why you chose these two locations? Was it about the audience there, or something else?
It was a combination of things. Part of it was the fact that we want to be thoughtful about how we roll this out. We have to build our audience at the same time, pace as we grow the business. Both Brooklyn and Ossington Street in Toronto, they're very good retail markets for consumers that are living busy lives, are urban, are not afraid to try new things. A lot of trends come out of both of those areas.
Then we wanted to make sure that our first touchpoints from a consumer's standpoint were very neighborhood‑based and not super high traffic retail locations because it is a pretty intimate experience. It's also because we want to be respectful and build slowly.
The tech industry has struggled over the years with hyping up these magic solutions that are theoretically going to change the world and make everything better. We're trying to be a little bit more humble and thoughtful and earn our way into this brand new space.
It also goes along with the ethos of North—that human connection and not getting distracted.
Yeah, and it is very much anchored in the values of our three founders. It's authentic in the sense that they learned some really good lessons along the way that, if you want someone to wear your product, it has to fit in with their life, and that technology's an incredibly powerful thing.
Can the store also facilitate things like maintenance or provide more guidance for owners? Are those stores set up for these kind of post‑purchase needs?
There's two lanes to that. The first lane, it's that traditional eyewear lane where you come in. You pick your frames. You make sure you've got the right size and fit. Then you go away while they cut your lenses for you.
Then you come back a week later, or two weeks later, or two days later, depending on the model, and you try them on. You get your final adjustments made. Then out the door you go.
Maybe, a week later or two weeks later, you're having a fit issue, like it's uncomfortable around your ears or your temple. You come back and you get it tweaked again. That's a very common experience. Almost anybody that wears prescription eyewear, they've had that experience.
The second side of it gives us an advantage like Tesla—in the sense that you're going to go to sleep one night, and Tesla is going to, essentially, add more features to your car during the night. You're going to wake up in the morning, and your car is going to be able to do things that it couldn't do last week.
These glasses are the same way. We will constantly be updating the experiences that your Focals have the ability to do as we integrate new partners and we add new functionality. Most importantly, we learn what works for people and what doesn't work for people.
That's something where, absolutely, the showroom is a great place to come in. Those things are going to happen, regardless, as soon as you connect to your phone. From a Bluetooth standpoint, that's going to update right away.
Also, if you want to come to the showroom and get another demo, or get a run‑through, or give feedback on them, we're encouraging people to come back and give us a lot of feedback because this is a big learning process for us as well.
Can you speak to any details about how you collect and incorporate customer feedback?
We take it any way they're going to give it. We're a very modern company that says that we have a flat organization. The idea is we want to be innovative as possible. There are very few boundaries between our frontline staff and our product development engine.
Obviously, with this kind of high‑tech product and how nascent this industry is right now, your sales associates need to be experts in the product, right?
Yeah, 100%. We focus on pulling people from the eyewear industry. We have a lot of opticians who work for us. We also focus on pulling people from the tech industry, from a retail standpoint.
We look for people that are really good humans at the end of the day, that are customer service centric. Ultimately, your experience with the brand is going to come down to your experience with the product itself. Then it's going to come down to the experience with the people who represent the brand, whether that's on the phone, online, or in person.
What's your vision for the in‑store space for North over the next couple of years?
We're going to continue to expand our footprint. We're focused on big markets because we're a small brand. It's important that we focus on the places where there is that population density that we need.
They will, for sure, continue to evolve both as our technology gets better with respect to our ability to learn around fit, sizing, and experience. I can't tell you what the stores are going to look like because, to be honest with you, we just opened them two days ago.
This launch is about a learning. This generation of product is about learning. We're going to learn. We're going to let these stores run. We're going to spend a lot of time seeing how it works. Just like on the product side, on the retail side it's going to be the exact same process. Then we'll iterate.
That's one of the beautiful things about coming from an advanced R&D and engineering company, is you have that culture of prototype, test, learn, ideate.