A Top 10 USA Business & Marketing Podcast
A Story of Growth: How Buff City Soap is leveraging Shopify and it's people to take a giant leap foward

September 29, 2020

A Story of Growth: How Buff City Soap is leveraging Shopify and it's people to take a giant leap foward
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Who doesn't love to feel great and smell even better?! (Said no one!)
This episode walks us through the business model of Buff City Soap, as well as their vibrant and fun products!

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In this episode, host Ryan Alford and Director of E-commerce at Buff City Soap, Sanjay Jenkins, talk about the transition out of Woo Commerce as they head into a more integrated e-commerce approach. 

Sanjay entered the e-commerce space in a fun way, and his journey to Buff City Soap has proven fruitful.

Here are some highlights from the episode:

  1. Successful transition from Woo Commerce to Shopify
  2. The extreme growth of Buff City Soap. Buff City started with just a few stores in 2013, have grown to 44 and counting
  3. Marketing strategies in a franchise business model
  4. And more (We're not going to give it all away!)

Follow along in our series, The Future of Digital Commerce, to learn how to scale your e-commerce and marketing strategy |@the.rad.cast

Like our host? We do too! Follow him on Instagram | @ryanalford |


Ryan Alford[00:00:00]Hey guys, what's up? It's Ryan Alford. Welcome to the latest episode of the Radcast. We're in the middle of our e-series that's been going really well. We've had some fascinating guests and we've got a fast-growing company that I'm excited to be talking to, Sanjay Jenkins, who's the director of e-commerce with Buff City Soap. Sanjay, great to have you on the Radcast. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:00:34]Thank you so much for having me. It's an honor. 

Ryan Alford[00:00:37]Great. Well, you're the director of E-Commerce. We talked a little bit pre-episode about the growing role that you have. Let's talk about Sanjay. Let's talk about your background and then we'll dig into specifics on Buff City Soap. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:00:57]Yeah, I grew up in Missouri as a big nerd. I love learning about stuff. I got into e-commerce about seven years ago and I started a venture related to corn. It was my senior year project and we made five figures a month doing it from a revenue perspective. But that was my first lesson in profitability. And it's the complexity of operations because we made no money from a profit standpoint. We just did not plan out the costs associated with shipping and actually letting the customer choose where to send it versus us making those donations in bulk. So we ended up graduating college. We actually handed it off as a project for students in the entrepreneurship program at the University of Arkansas at our one where I went to college and I worked in e-commerce in a variety of places. I worked at an architecture and engineering consulting firm to a very specific thing, and they sold digital products. So they had information, books about what the salaries were supposed to be for your architects and your project managers who were civil engineering background project managers. So one of the cool things about how my career has progressed thus far is that at each job, there was one skill that I got to go deep on at that company was email marketing. So I was not familiar with email marketing at all at that point. I grew up in the age of social media being the number one thing that was always the focus, especially on the organic side. So I was email marketing to people, actually openness and seeing the power of it. So learning how to. I became a power user of Clavel in like two weeks and we ran about seven figures to the pipe on email at that business. From there I worked at an e-commerce platform startup, which is an interesting experience as basically a competitor to Shopify, plus enterprise-level software. And the thesis of that business was Shopify has got this entire ecosystem of apps and all these features like what happens if we consolidate everything and then build like a true enterprise software in that space? So I was the seventh employee. I was the first sales hire. I was an SDR there. I started as an SDR as I went along. I learned two major skills, that business. The first was selling. I became a proficient seller from SDR to close. And then the second thing that actually became like a cornerstone of my career since that moment was Media Buying. So I really went deep on media buying. And as that company progressed and I realized, it's probably not gonna work out for me here long term. We actually launched an email marketing tool, basically like MailChimp Lite, which MailChimp is by itself a pretty lightweight product. So something even less robust, very simple product. But we went from zero to about one hundred thousand dollars about a week and a half through media buying. I literally recorded the ads in front of the camera. I edited the videos, bought the bobcat's myself in full, and then build the landing page, the whole thing. So that was a really cool experience. I realized that I can make a little bit of a career out of media buying and doing agency work now that I have the email marketing skills, a buddy who worked at the company that that startup we left and we started our agency ran the agency for a little bit, working with e-commerce folks. So that was our bread and butter. What was interesting about that little experience as we were in northwest Arkansas. So that's predominantly Walmart, JB Hunt and Tyson. And if you're an agency world, the money is in servicing Walmart. We didn't do any of that. We worked with companies that didn't sell into Walmart.com or didn't sell to Walmart at all. So we're always the odd man out. And I was trying to figure out like, what's the next path? The bag was very clearly in servicing these Walmart clients, for 6-8 figure contracts. No one really understood direct to consumer the way we did at the time in northwest Arkansas. And so I was trying to figure out what to do. We were basically platforming off of new commerce, putting us on Shopify, building out the tech stack and just starting to scale this business from the basic, direct-to-consumer stuff, getting our Facebook and Google ads running correctly like the really simple it's honestly simple at this point. Maybe it's when you do it, I guess it's pretty complicated. And then in addition to that, I've been doing support for digital marketing for the entire Buff City system. So we are to give some context on Buff City,we are a primarily physical retail soap company. Everything that you see in a store is made in the store that you're seeing it in. And our physical retail footprint growth happens through franchising. So we're a franchise business. It's a really interesting model. I run e-commerce which is owned by the central franchise or entity and have to work really closely with franchisees. There's a lot of intricate stuff there in terms of trying to build an omnichannel experience for the customer and making it seamless on the back end. Also making sure that franchisees don't feel like this is corporate competition, but actually building a system long term that will actually give them credit. I mean, it's the goal. The dream is that we can build a system where we can credit them for ecommerce sales that occur in their territories or customers that are in their database. So we're trying to figure out how to execute that at scale. And then recently, as I was telling you about the pre-show. Last week I took over the production facility that we have. So it's basically one big soap maker. We're running very similar processes that we do in the stores to make all of our products. Our products are handmade daily. And I did the Six Sigma internship a couple of years ago at a shingle company. And I went from fiberglass to the asphalt lines to the finished shingle line, my diagram, all these things I could deploy, that sort of thinking, that experience into a facility that I control. The cool thing there is from the moment a raw material, the soap blend is made into a mould, gets cut to getting a customer to buy it online and then shipping to control that entire experience now and having these controls understanding the process just makes scale a lot easier to achieve in the long run. So that's the abridged version of my career. 

Ryan Alford[00:10:05]A lot to unpack there. We're a Clivia partner agency or Shopify partner agency. So when you first come into Buff City, was it already decided or did you make the decision to transfer from e-commerce, which runs on WordPress? Is there an e-commerce engine that is considered a legitimate e-commerce platform? I'm even going to lead you to an answer that I hope it is, because as a Shopify agency that does both.  I'll show my hand a bit. I am curious, was that your decision, a decision already made of you came in to help steer that or what was the decision you're moving from? What is a relatively robust e-commerce platform? Your commerce is not lightweight. It's not like some clients that come to us around Squarespace e-commerce or something. I can understand that transition. Walk me through whose decision that was and why the decision was made. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:11:17]So that was something that the CEO had already decided upon. And I was the verification step. I was like, “if we're going to run it like I want to run on Shopify, all of the sites that I've been able to scale, we built on Shopify, which is not to say that there aren't other e-commerce platforms. I think we'll evolve. We'll probably have a more custom solution as we grow, the nature of the business that we're in. But for right now, Shopify is the platform like we think about e-commerce that scares me the most. Is that like when you have a product or you add a product to a cart, it creates this phantom blog post. And that's how I view commerce on the back end, actually like tracks you think about, like the technical complexity of that system. Just you're trying to turn a blog tool into a shopping cart. It's scary as hell. I was so eager to get off of commerce. It was a decision that had been made. And I'm glad that it wasn't hard to put the final stamp on that. 

Ryan Alford[00:12:21]We've had a lot of clients come to us that have been on big commerce and other platforms that are seemingly but nothing scales like Shopify doe.  not want to be a shop by commercial. But I'm in agreement. We play both as well and some of the integrations and just they've figured it out. And now Shopify plus is the more commercial-grade as you grow, that's an opportunity or whether you customize your own site at a certain point. So you own the full experience and feel like you're running from the shop. Own land versus rented land. Another discussion is to be had in the marketing space. But talk about what that transition's done and just the overall growth that you guys are happening. Give us some of the landscape of where both cities at. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:13:13]So I'll be delicate about this in the way it phrases we have. This is September 23rd in 2019 since we have 10x to the top line of 2019 so far this year before hitting the holiday. And we are very much one of the retailers where like 40 to 60 percent of our revenue, maybe more, depending on how hard we can scale and the next few months will come from Q4. So Shopify has been a tremendous tool if we were still on e-commerce. So like. When covid lockdown started happening across the country, a lot of our stores had to shut down, so essentially, all of that store volume was processed through our store. We were still running e-commerce. It would have had like a disaster we had on April 1st, which was hilarious because I think April Fool's Day, we had our biggest day yet, like a single day was three X, what we did on Cyber Monday, 2019, which is just insane. Just a really great preview of what's to come later this year. But if we were Omukama tech, we would not have been able to support that even on just very simple things like customer service. So I run the customer service team. We are set up gorgeous. That's our customer service tool. The fact that our customer service team can if we need a reship in order for some reason or like they were missing a bar so we can take care of things really quickly. That is just one of the great parts of Shopify. It is so well integrated with so many things. It's so easy to use and it's so easy to train people on. If probably when we move to a custom solution, try to mimic as much as we can from the Sharkawi experience just because from the backend user perspective, it's pretty dialed in my opinion. 

Ryan Alford[00:15:21]What's been the path to growth from a marketing perspective for both cities from a tactical standpoint, whether it's social media, which I'm sure is a big role, but maybe what are some of that tactical past that have seen and driven the growth for you? 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:15:39]So we launched our first ad like Facebook marketing advertising in March. I think that's been a huge lever for us this year as we've scaled so like top-line customer acquisition stuff. Facebook advertising has been the cornerstone of that. Within that, we're really big on text message marketing and we use a tool called Vox, based out of Atlanta. It's two-way communication. So we can do a blast, we can do behaviour-based triggered text like a banning card, for example. But customers, text us back. And my customer service team is plugged in type two way communication. So if the customer texts in like a rule, send a blast on a weekend sale day and say, “Hey, like we're doing a laundry sale, stock up on your laundry”. So don't forget to add a dryer ball and customer and say, “Hey, what's a dryer baller like?” “What sense to the dryer balls like the customer service team comes in and says anything. So that list has been especially from a conversion standpoint, it converts a lot higher at a higher rate than our email marketing list. But for both email marketing and text message marketing, we've been doing a pretty aggressive push. Like lead generation stuff just to grow those lists, because once we have them, obviously it's a lot cheaper than trying to pay the taxes to acquire them again. So, Facebook advertising flows into true direct response and then also lead generation to build our email and text message. Listen, we're very intentional about that. We've been through 20 acts or emails since I took over. 

Ryan Alford[00:17:29]That's great. You got to own the customer relationship and then start with the email. But primarily is any other channels, so you've got the stores, you've got e-com. Are you guys Amazon or any other distribution is one hundred percent D2C? 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:17:48]It's D2C and I'll put a little asterisk on that, the core buff city business from a customer perspective is like, “wow, this is a place where I get soap”. But for us, when we look at it as stewards of the brand, as executives of the company, as our first customer, is our franchisees. So what cities value is really derived by the number of stores we have, and so that's always the primary focus. Like I have to always say, “the stores are more important than what I do online on e-commerce. And it's very interesting like I've been a D2C guy since I started in e-commerce. So like having the knowledge that what I do supports a larger mission that's like nothing related to e-commerce, really has been an interesting shift in thinking. But much like the baseline is growing, the franchise business is the most important thing. I'm sorry, what else? 

Ryan Alford[00:19:08]I want to go down that path of the e-com franchisees share model like I want to hit that. But didn't know if there were plans in the works for other distribution points. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:19:25]So the reason why we don't do Amazon, we don't do wholesale is because we're trying to grow the franchise footprint like the store footprint. So that is like our true mechanic of growth and scale and distribution. I mean every time we open a store, that's just more fuel for the economy as well. It's just by nature of franchisee spending, money to grow marketing and people become more the brand of spending marketing on behalf of our marketing dollars, on behalf of the franchisees to grow awareness in new markets, things of that nature. We've got a vending machine that we're testing out; all the crazy stuff that we do. The stores are the primary growth channel.

Ryan Alford[00:20:10]It's a grey area to everything else that's going on in a covert world if we just want to call it what it is. Obviously, you guys are generating success from it. We're going to talk about some of that growth. But, you're at 40 plus stores. You've had a Covid-19 world still in a little bit of a coverall where everything's moving online. You guys are growing online, but you got to see the growth through the stores and through that experience. So that's unique to you guys for sure. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:20:40]What we're so lucky to be selling soap like making and selling soap in a time when the world needs it. And then for us, we feel this great sense of duty for people to provide people with something that they need, but in a really delightful way. So our fragrance is our product forms like the way you use them. All of these things are designed to be delightful and pleasant and like spark joy in your life, which is a great thing to come in and every day and like we're trying to make the world a little bit better place from our supply chain, like all the good stuff that we're trying to do. They're making sure we're not supporting any man-made, micro minds. Like we're kids working like we cut that and make sure we avoid all of that and we don't support those kinds of entities and all the way to the end customer experience where they receive it and they can smell a bar, whether it's in-store or in the receivership. I feel like it's almost like a noble cause in that way of what we're doing. We're really lucky to be in this game right now, like so many things. And it's a very jarring thing to say because the luck has not been evenly distributed across the ecosystem. So we're trying to grow as much as we can. It's gratifying to be able to provide people jobs at a time when it's really hard to get a job. That's the stuff that we're really working for us. It's that we want to be stewards of growth, to be able to provide opportunity in a time. It's really hard to access opportunities. 

Ryan Alford[00:22:23]That's great. So you're at 40 plus stores this year and growing and some significant growth plans for next year. Talk about that and the e-com share, which is how you guys are envisioning; a lot of times the stores are and see themselves as in competition with their corporate e-commerce site. You can buy online then I sell less and store. But you guys are approaching it a little differently with your growth. Can you talk about that a little bit? 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:22:55]So, the primary growth metric is the number of stores that are open. Our goal is to have a thousand stores open in the United States alone by 2025. And just like so what we're doing, we will be. To our third of the way there or so like about the estimation right now, by the end of next year. So, the rest of the solid two years and we've made some amazing progress. And it depends on how quickly we can get real estate approved and get stores set up. It's not 100 percent franchise. It's mostly 95ish, I think. I don't remember the exact number, but it'll be primarily French-owned, 

Ryan Alford[00:23:52]Some company-owned and primarily franchised?

Sanjay Jenkins[00:23:57]Right. So our corporate stores right now, we've got some in Memphis, which is where the company was founded. We're opening 2 here in Dallas is our new headquarters in the next couple of months to be really exciting, some amazing flagship stores and then our Denver market. It's also corporate right now. But everything else right now that we have is this franchise owned. 

Ryan Alford[00:24:18]But the e-commerce site is being tailored to where franchisees will share in the revenue that – say you come on to the site and we're in Greenville, South Carolina. So let's say we have a store that opens in Greenville. Hopefully soon,

Sanjay Jenkins[00:24:38] It’s likeQ1 or Q2 of next year. SoBuff Cityopens and I'm on my phone store locator and I'm here and I purchase. There's going to be some attribution back to the store that comes here.

Sanjay Jenkins[00:24:49]So that's the goal we. That was that's one of those like five-year infrastructure projects that we had 

Ryan Alford[00:24:59]That actually seems like a long term play that's so difficult to play in the movie not to get too geeky on the technology side of that, but that's pretty high development, the stuff there. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:25:14]Our CTO, his name is Brandon Powers. He is a wizard, a technology wizard. I wish I could have a tenth of his brainpower. So that was like when he came on earlier this year or the beginning of the year, his five-year vision was like to be able to build that model. We piloted it. We tested it throughout Covid-19. So when the stores shut down or variable, we started doing rebates. So basically using the store customer database to cut checks to stores, say, okay, this is like the customer was acquired at your store or was processed online. You can't be open legally. So like here's the money. That allowed some stores. We're able to continue to grow through it. But if they were able to do curbside the other stores, they were from those cheques at least able to pay rent, which is so critical. The fact that we were able to help these businesses stay upright and going in the right direction in a time when it was very difficult for retail to exist at all. Long term, so we're calling this program “Ship From the Store”, which is which rolls in both the attribution model and as the name suggests, the ability to ship from the store. So all of the products that we have can and are made in the stores so we can turn those into mini production and distribution centers. So in the future state that we're working to, we've built some way to attribute cleanly and reliably the sale to the store as when it gets processed online. And then we haven't worked out any of the details on what the percentages are and how that's calculated yet. But in addition to that, the same way that when you order like a pizza from Pizza Hut, your closest franchised Pizza Hut is the one delivering it, like they're the ones making it and shipping it to you or if they have, like a delivery vehicle, for example, they'll deliver it to you. So that's a future we're working on. That's probably when we leave the Shopify ecosystem, and build a custom income setup that's deeply tied to our store point of sale system, which is unified across the system. And that's the core. And then from there, it’s layering on loyalty, like a unified CRM. We can track lifetime value in-store and online versus just like those two entities separately. That's where the stuff gets really crazy and fun. 

Ryan Alford[00:27:57]Is there anything else on the marketing side that's been successful for you guys? I mean, influencers or direct mail? We work with a lot of direct mail. It is funny people have given up on it and it still works. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:28:17] We've done it both for the stores and online, and we have a kickback. Like you're 20 percent off or 5 dollars off laundry or a free bar of soap, that sort of thing. That's been really effective for us. And I think through the Postal Service, takes 17 cents to send a postcard and it's super cheap. The influence has been good. We haven't used that as aggressively as I would have liked from a sales growth, for example. We're doing a lot of work on the influencers doing parties with their followers in the stores, getting people in the stores. Again, that's the primary thing that we want to support and grow like all the stores that we have. We've got some influencers. I think the best channel that we've had influencer effectiveness on in any sort of return has been TikTok. But we'll give influencers a discount code for them to share with their followers. We'll send him a care package and they'll post about it along with a code. We got some like it's 80-20 rule to the max. So we've got a ton of people who like to see sales here and there. And then we've got a few. They're just like massive returns and they've got four thousand followers. It's not a crazy follower count. Is that for us? The local communities, our model for the stores works well in ten thousand like Pied Piper populations of ten thousand people and much more than that. We can support such a wide range of folks. So it's just cool to see like those micro-influencers. 

Ryan Alford[00:30:06]Talk about who's your customer, I know they are different, but who is theBuff City’s customer? 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:30:25]Sure. So I'll use some of the terminologies that we have in our brand. But she is someone who is scent-obsessed and wants something that is good for her skin, and are conscious of their skin. The scent-obsessed part is the critical thing. We are a scent first brand. Our fragrances are amazing. Like we've got such a wide range of them too, and we can customize a lot of things. So people who care about the plant-based like the natural ingredients that we use in our soaps and skincare products, but really like they're primarily motivated by fragrance. So these are the overlap a lot of customers with Lush and Bath and Body Works. I think those are probably the two best competitor practices that we have. So it's like from an age range, it's so weird. I come from a client services perspective. So, everyone's our customer. Like, we don't have one specific customer profile. We can slice and dice our customers in a variety of ways. We do, but there is a lot of evenness in the size of our customer demographics. Apart from gender is probably the most polarized one. I think it's 25-75 females. The male what our age apparently ranges between 13-65. 

Ryan Alford[00:32:15]Yes, everybody needs some soap and they smell good. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:32:17]And yeah that's, that's a very universal thing. 

Ryan Alford[00:32:21]I love it. So we're a product development like that. Seems like that would be a huge one. Maybe we'll tie it up with that like product development and where we've talked about it overall. But, I dare say I don't like to say endgame, but, where are we headed with all this overall for both you and the brand and then maybe touch on developing a little. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:32:48]So I'll do product development. Then I'll do the long, engaging stuff. So our CMO is named Chad Brizendine and I love that guy. In his off time, he runs bourbon companies. He just had his first bottle launch for his new bourbon company this week. He and our first snowmakers, our founders of the company, Brad and Jen who work together really well. They will be coming up with new products, new product categories that can still be manufactured within the store. So that's the context that we always like to take things back to. But the goal is, how do we get and own everything and in your bathroom and then your skincare routine. And then obviously, like our bar, one of our best products ever is our laundry soap, which is a replacement for laundry detergent. It's a powder and then it's literally the best stuff. I'll make sure to get some. It's going more into the home care stuff. Like these are the plans that we've put in action, trying to contextualize that as much as possible, too. Can it be made in the store? I'm sure at some point we'll have to deviate from that. Perhaps, but primarily it's like let's try to do everything we can in the store to own bathroom laundry, like home care, like bathroom and home care for the company in general, like a thousand stores, 2025 in the United States. But the long term goal, Toledo to Tokyo – we're going to be everywhere globally. We're very aggressive about our very intentional, not aggressive, but intentional about trying to break into Asia and Europe. I'm really keen on trying to break into Africa. There is something about that continent that fascinates me. And I think that because of how universally applicable our brand is to be a lot of cool stuff we could do there and something that is like a passion of mine. And then for me personally, like. I'm trying to ride this game as high as I can go and maybe buy some apartment complexes and self-storage units all along the way. But apart from that keep cranking in the soap game, build a really beautiful omnichannel experience. I mean, that's like the buzzword of the country right there, omnichannel. But I truly believe in giving customers the ability to buy their stuff from anywhere, whether it's in-store, online, and then on the back end empowering our store operators, whether their corporate stores or franchise store operators, like from a digital marketing perspective, like having access to the LTV data to make really great decisions, having access to the real-time cross-selling ups ended up selling decision systems to increase their revenues because ultimately we are like the brand is supported by our stores. They always come first. And everything that I do, everything we all do is to support the stores. 

Ryan Alford[00:36:16]I love it, man. How can we to keep up with all things Buff City and Sanjay? What are our best destinations? 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:36:33]So forBuff CitySoaps.com.Please get you some soap as it were and social media app city soap. If there is a Buff City Soap near you, they'll have their own local Instagram and Facebook pages and follow our corporate Buff City Soap on Twitter. And then if you want to hit me up, I'm pretty active on Twitter at Sanjay@play is my Twitter handle. Message any time I happen to have a conversation with anybody. 

Ryan Alford[00:37:11]Sanjay, it's been a pleasure. Let's follow up, maybe at the beginning of the year. I want to see where all this started. And, it seems like you said, I mean, you're fortunate. I believe people create their own fortunate. We're in a time where there's hypersensitivity to cleanliness and those things, which is helping things. But it sounds like you guys are also creating and generating your own path. So congrats to all you guys and really appreciate you coming on the right test. 

Sanjay Jenkins[00:37:44]Thank you so much for having me and then giving us an opportunity to share or build our guys. 

Ryan Alford[00:37:50]Thanks so much, man. We'll talk soon. He has really enjoyed the sit down with Sanjay Jenkins the director of e-commerce with Buff City Soaps. We cover the gamut of e-commerce in this episode, everything from transitioning fromWooCommerce to Shopify and the opportunity to build Shopify plus or bigger platforms. We talked about Sanjay's growth in his position and the extreme growth of both cities. Soap's really fascinating franchise model. They have a lot of exciting content. Check out more with Buff City Soap and always learn more about theRadcast.com or on Instagram at the.rad.cast. Look forward to seeing you next time.

Sanjay Jenkins

Director of E-commerce at Buff City Soap