It’s been a bit more than 20 years since German-based streetwear retailer Snipes opened its first door in Essen. Today there are more than 220 owned and operated stores in eight European countries. We talked to founder and managing director Sven Voth about how he formed a brand out of one indie multibrand store and even made his house brand popular among the kids.
If a brand is a promise: what’s the brand promise of Snipes?
It’s realness and authenticity. The message we bring across is not an advertising slogan. You can’t buy credibility, no matter how high the check is. That’s why I don’t believe that it’s all about the price today–you have to offer much more to your customer: atmosphere, lifestyle, entertainment. You have to earn that someone carries your shopping bag in the street.
How do you create that realness and authenticity?
One of our key USPs is the staff, foremost the ones on the floor, of course, because they directly interact with the consumers. These guys and girls work at Snipes out of conviction. They are close to our customers because they have the same mindset when it comes to music, fashion and lifestyle. They might even live in the same ’hood. You know, they are not fake, they are real, they are honest. In that sense Snipes functions like your best pal who you wanna spend time with, a retail pal in that sense. It’s the same with our whole team. We are all part of the urban and street culture; we have a passion for it. It’s from the community made for the community.
How do you recruit the right people?
It might sound funny but what actually has become one of our recruiting tools is our yearly team event, the Snipes family party. All our employees from all over Europe are invited to get together, play basketball, have fun, dance, eat and drink, plus we always have a big act such as Ludacris, Rick Ross or Busta Rhymes performing there. It’s almost like a festival with more than 3,000 people. These events have become so popular that people apply for jobs at Snipes because they want to get an invite and be part of our family.
You are the founder of Snipes, yet don’t want to be the face of it, for example you hardly ever give interviews. How come you prefer to stay in the background?
To be quite frankly I was kind of fed up with being reduced down to Snipes being nothing more than a daughter company of Deichmann. It’s no secret obviously that Deichmann bought Snipes seven years ago, but to constantly mention Snipes only in relation with Deichmann is missing the point. Don’t get me wrong: Deichmann supports us in doing our thing and we’re thankful for that. But Snipes had a history and DNA even before, and we remain acting as an independent company ever since. It feels like we are the only ones always mentioned in that context. That just felt a bit odd. And foremost Snipes is not about me, it’s always about the movement, the culture.
Looking back on 20 years of Snipes: what were some of the biggest moments for you?
You know, actually I still get a shiver when I just see some kids wearing a Snipes hoodie, or recently at our first store opening in France in the suburbs of Paris kids were queuing up through the whole center to get in. Or when during an event, festival or party we sponsor there’s this one special momentum, like a “Snipes momentum,” when the crowd just explodes; just any moment when I feel this brand power that we created over the last two decades. Social media helped intensify this brand heat for sure, but when you really see the people being enthusiastic about Snipes–these are the biggest moments.
What about the sports and music stars that Snipes hosted? Any personal highlights among these?
There were quite a few highlights during the last 20 years; it’s really hard to say. For sure the visit of Michael Jordan at our Hamburg store in 2006 was a blast. As far as I know, he had never been before and never after showed up at any independent fashion retailer, and he is such an icon, that I will never forget. It was outstanding in any respect because at that time we existed for only eight years running–about 30 stores–we simply weren’t that experienced in dealing with the arrival of such a megastar. You know, Michael Jordan has the status of an official rep of the USA. That means that the CIA is involved for security reasons when he appears in public. One year later we hosted Sisq in our Bonn store and it was almost a riot among the kids, in the end mounted police were on duty. It was crazy! Today, things are so much more planned in advance to avoid any danger. And the kids just want to take some pics, it’s not that hectic anymore when a couple of years ago they all wanted an autograph....
Did it all go right? Or are there some things you would do differently now?
I would do it all over again. But of course I also made some wrong decisions. One dark moment was during the economic crisis after the Lehman crash. Consumers’ behavior changed in that time: Back then, people still came to our stores but they bought much less and I was worried about the potential loss of turnover. So I made a wrong decision: I thought the solution would be to create a broader approach and attract more people instead of mainly addressing to the 17-year-old street- and urbanwear kids by adding more commercial products such as some denim brands and more commercial sneaker styles, at the same time by opening up our marketing concept to reach a wider audience.
What exactly did you do?
Well, I thought let’s address all consumers out there, or let’s say, as many consumers as possible. And so we hooked up with ADAC [Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club/General German Automobile Club] and started the ADAC shopping week with discounts for ADAC members, the typical ADAC black-and-yellow POS merch in our shop windows and so on. Our regular customers were slightly irritated, let alone the fact that many of these were under 18 and didn’t even have a driver’s license. The whole approach was totally missing the point, because it didn’t fit to our brand DNA.
What was your lesson?
My lesson was that you have to stick strictly to your brand identity, come what may. If you face an economic crisis like we all did you have to persist.
While many retailers struggle with a decrease in footfall you open more and more stores, all owned and operated: at current over 220 in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Italy and France. What makes physical stores still important to you?
We are lucky to say that we don’t experience a decrease in footfall in our stores. In fact, we plan to open around 70 new stores all over Europe in 2019. The reason why brick and mortar still works-next to our web shop-is because the customers feel comfortable there. The main aspect is our staff, just as I mentioned in the beginning. They are real, and customers recognize and appreciate that. But it’s the atmosphere as a whole in the stores that create this shopping experience, it’s about the light, the interior, the music, and of course the product. Kids see Snipes as a hangout, they are like: “Hey, let’s meet at Snipes after school.”
Does the current hype about streetwear in high fashion help your business or does it rather take market share from Snipes?
It’s weird because everyone talks about the streetwear hype. I think it’s sportswear that has an enormous hype right now, think brands such as Fila, Champion, Kappa, and so on–they all have a performance sports background. Streetwear that is rather connected with skate and BMX culture faces a difficult period actually. There is not really a streetwear brand around selling huge numbers. It’s all sportswear. Since the high fashion sector takes heavy inspiration from that segment it’s aspiring for fashion retail to jump on the bandwagon. Thus it creates a lot of competition. For us at Snipes it’s important to differentiate from the rest and the heavy sportswear offer. Of course, it’s part of our assortment, too, but I take care that we carry at least 30% of streetwear which includes brands such as Carhartt WIP, but also those strongly connected with hip-hop and urban culture such as Karl Kani. Our sister company Urban Styles is global distributor of the latter, among others.
So we expect a comeback of the ’00s?
Right now it’s all about the ’90s, so the next logical thing would be a ’00s revival indeed. We see it’s happening, because especially Karl Kani sells extremely well in our stores, not to mention some of our competitors that order it.
How do you yourself keep up with youth culture trends?
I am 45 years old now. Personally, since about two years now I don’t follow every trend that I used to because I feel it’s not appropriate anymore. For example I used to wear base caps all the time, but now I think that would look ridiculous on me.
...and on the business side?
When it comes to business decisions, especially the buying and product part, I know about the budgets we provide for each brand but I am not the one anymore who writes the orders. On one hand I simply don’t have the time anymore, on the other hand there are others in my team who are much more into the details when it comes to the product. I try to keep up with trends though and I know what’s going on a wider scale. One example is Snipes’ Engagement in e-sports and gaming that I initiated. All in all, my job these days is to recruit the right people and to hold things together.
What is it about the new Snipes store concept that was unveiled last November?
With this new concept called Snipes 2.0–respectively XX.–our stores will become much more digital. In fact, the year 2019 for Snipes runs under the slogan “digital first.”
2.0 is a paperless concept, which means you will not find posters or any other paper displays in there anymore. Instead we work with digital screens and LED panels in different variations which allow us to always show different products but also feature the many events we sponsor–finally, because before we didn’t have a means to promote those in the stores. But you know in the end the kids might mostly appreciate our free in-store Wi-Fi and USB ports-which we had already installed.
But also in terms of mere interior design we implement a new look and want to underline our street roots by using elements such as concrete bases of displays, asphalt floors with authentic manhole covers and container walls. We plan a massive rollout of Snipes 2.0. By the end of 2019 we want 70 stores to run under the new layout. It’s the goal to have all stores revised as soon as possible.
How do you further see in-store digitization develop at Snipes?
We already offer services such as click and collect or a Europe wide one-channel return policy, so no matter through which channel you bought something you can return it via any of our channels–online or at any of our European outlets. We currently work on e-payment methods, be it Apple-pay or Ali-pay which shall start in 2019. People should not have to wait in front of a cash desk but should be able to pay anywhere in the store. So in the future staff will be equipped with iPads.
2019, very likely in spring, will also see a total new set-up of our web shop and the start of a new Snipes app, which will make our plastic bonus member cards redundant.
Looking in the future: where will Snipes be in 20 years from now?
Well, I will be 65 by then and will hopefully be chilling in my hammock [chuckles]... Seriously, in 20 years from now I want Snipes to be globally positioned.