Without customer experience, Buff City Soap improvises

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2020 12:50 PM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 4:00 AM CT

The final step of the interview process for a job inside Buff City Soap’s corporate office is the hardest part.

A set of instructions and a box of Legos is handed to the interviewee, who is then ordered to build a space ship.

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The task is more than difficult. It’s impossible because several of the pieces are missing and the instructions are worthless.

Those who earn the job are the ones who improvise and build a space ship anyway, even if it doesn’t match the model.

“Headhunters have given me a lot of crap for that,” said Justin Delaney, the company’s CEO.

But now he believes that process makes more sense than ever before.

“That’s literally what we are going through right now,” Delaney said. “Coronavirus is Buff City Soap’s rocket ship. How will we improvise?”

On the surface, the answer to that question appears straightforward. A soap store in the middle of a pandemic figures to be a popular place. Why not just stay open and continue selling?

It’s not that simple.

“The biggest part of Buff City Soap is the experience,” Delaney said. “It’s going into the store, smelling the soap, ordering a custom loaf and talking with the soap maker about the ingredients. That’s what we’ve been invested in since the beginning, providing a customer friendly experience. There’s just not a lot of ways you can do that if there’s a shelter-in-place order.”

For that reason, along with employee safety, Delaney opted to close most of the Buff City Soap stores last month. Only a few provide curbside pickup.

“But online has done fundamentally well,” he added, “so that has been the good.”

It’s a credit to the way the company has adapted, although it’s not been enough to exceed the previous income from foot traffic, soap-making parties and team events.

Some of the adaptations include speeding up the timeline for foaming hand soap sales, listing a do-it-yourself bath bomb painting kit online and allowing customers to name new products on social media.

“It’s been a challenge,” Delaney said. “I think a lot of businesses are learning that when you take away the experiential component of a business, and you’re not used to that, then you have to find new ways to engage your customer.

“That’s what we’ve been really focused on,” he added. “How can we engage with these people and keep in touch? We even launched a texting platform that allows for two-way conversations instead of just blasting information out.”

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It doesn’t stop there.

The company also created a “Happy Birthday Song” bar of soap, which was inspired by the CDC’s recommendation to sing the tune while hand washing for 20 seconds. For every bar purchased the company is donating $1 to local and national charities fighting the pandemic.

It’s been a hit.

“We made that bar of soap full of shea butter and other moisturizing oils because most people are washing their hands like 50 times a day and they are drying out,” Delaney said. “We figured they needed some extra moisturizer.”

But even the most creative products cannot offset the opportunity for customers to touch and smell the soap. Delaney knows that. The hope is that the new products will, however, keep loyal buyers invested until they can return to stores.

“For us, retail will always way outpace digital,” Delaney said. “… In this environment people are going to forgo relationships for convenience every time. But, one thing that we’ve noticed since the late 1990s when Internet companies started to become successful, is that there’s a lot of people that still crave personal connection and experience. It’s just really hard to foster that online.”

If an unintended consequence of the convenience vs. experience tug of war Delaney described is more online orders in the future, it’s a win for Buff City Soap anyway.

Forget it if the new business model (the space ship) doesn’t exactly align with the original soap-making participation plan (the box).

“In that exercise, we have to figure it out without all the pieces,” Delaney said. “In the place of stores, we improvised by texting with our customers, leaning on e-commerce and creating new products to keep customer engagement.

“That’s the thing, life serves up these sorts of instances for you. The companies that do the best are the companies that are good at improvising and making the best of a bad situation.”


Buff City Soap
Drew Hill

Drew Hill

Drew Hill covers the Memphis Grizzlies and is a top-10 APSE winner. He has worked throughout the South writing about college athletics before landing in Memphis.


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