July/August 2015 Issue
Acumen Brands was founded with the idea of being “25 stores wide and 1,000 brands deep,” but the runaway success of one website has them betting the farm on country living.
Photography by Beth Hall
Top photo: Acumen Brands state-of-the-art warehouse in Fayetteville features the latest technology for filling its Country Outfitter orders.
doctor, a lawyer and a golfer walk into the e-commerce sector …
This setup doesn’t exactly have a punch line, considering the company that resulted — Acumen Brands in Fayetteville — has basically taken over the online boot sales market and is looking to become the leading force in country lifestyle marketing.
That wasn’t the original plan for John James (the doctor) and Terry Turpin (the lawyer) when they founded Acumen in 2009; they brought in Rich Morris (the golf pro) at the start of 2010. The idea then, according to Morris, was to be “25 stores wide and 1,000 brands deep.”
Five years later that metric has reversed, to a degree, with the focus narrowed around a single main brand, Country Outfitter. The strategy involves building deep “verticals” within that brand in order to capitalize on the audience Acumen has built, including the 6.6 million people who have liked it on Facebook.
“Horizontal expansion was getting costly, so we called time out, and the board challenged us to focus on one thing and see what happens,” said Turpin, a veteran of global marketing firm Saatchi & Saatchi. “We were centered here in Arkansas, a bunch of people with country roots, and decided let’s focus in on being this retailer that caters to the country lifestyle.”
In June 2015, the company launched the Country Outfitter Home store, featuring a curated collection of country-inspired decor, including pillows, rugs, kitchenware and more from brands like Ashton & Willow and Bella Taylor.
Country Outfitter was actually the 10th brand Acumen developed, and in 2011 and 2012, it experienced astonishing growth. Doing justice to its star brand, though, meant closing some of its predecessors, such as All Around Dance, The Baby Habit, Trail’s Edge, Hectic Gourmet, Musket Creek and Top Slugger. Its second brand, work boot purveyor Tough Weld, was folded into Country Outfitter. It still operates medical clothing supplier Scrub Shopper, the first online store the partners opened and a nod to James’ M.D.
Such changes are inevitable, said both Turpin and T.J. McDaniel, the vice president for strategic relationships. And they don’t come without a cost — in this case, the layoffs of an unspecified number of employees in January of this year.
“A lot of times when you’re strategically changing some things, some priorities, the types of people you need end up being a different type,” said Turpin. “It was definitely not moving backwards or a problem situation; it was more our only real way forward.”
“We really want to call it restructuring,” McDaniel said of those layoffs. “Anytime you go from [version] 1.0 to 2.0, you have to make necessary changes. Things are headed in the right direction now. We have so much clarity as to where we’re going as an organization.”
And that clarity is focused around Country Outfitter. “This is the darling,” he said. “This is the direction of where we really go as an entity.”
Country Lifestyle Source
The destination is far more than increased boot sales, although that’s in the cards given the house brands are meant to appeal to distinctly different audiences — from the more traditional to the hipster and rebellious types. No, the vision for Country Outfitter now is to provide everything the consumer wants for a complete country lifestyle. And the company is working with country recording artists in Nashville, Tennessee, interested in building their own brands in housewares, decor, furnishings and the like.
Once you start talking about lifestyles, of course, certain names come to mind: Martha Stewart, the grande dame of genteel living, or Arkansas’ resident gardening and lifestyle expert, P. Allen Smith. So it makes sense for Acumen to identify its own guru and put them out front as the face of Country Outfitter, wouldn’t it?
“I think you’d be correct when you assume you’re going to see a face, or multiple faces, for Country Outfitter,” acknowledged Turpin. “And again, people like to associate product with personality in that way. There’s real power behind that, and we’ll absolutely be harnessing that power where we can.”
That could mean one person to represent the company’s entire lifestyle effort, or possibly separate people to represent its footwear, apparel, accessories and maybe even outdoors equipment. But as for who is likely to be the face or faces for these various aspects of country living, Turpin isn’t saying yet. No need to tip Acumen’s hand to competitors, he figures.
As to whether there’s an adequate market for sustained growth in that niche, McDaniel shows a “temperature map” of their 2014 shipping destinations, and the dark red blobs marking the hottest spots happen to be not out on the range, but in big urban areas.
“It shows ‘country’ is not a ZIP code,” he said. “We ship, literally, coast to coast. Even up in the Pacific Northwest, it’s one of our heavier markets. The New York area, the northeast … it’s like everyone in the U.S. wants some way to tap into the country lifestyle.”
Don’t look for a copy of that map with this article; again, it’s not something Acumen shares, because “we don’t want competitors to see our market penetration,” McDaniel said.
They will, however, talk about some of the artists they’re partnering with for this country life push. There’s Colt Ford, a “hick-hop” country artist whose demographic is “into tractor pulls, 4x4s and mud.” He already has his own line of boots under one of the company’s house brands, American Rebel.
There’s also John Rich, of the duo Big and Rich, with whom Country Outfitter is partnering on his Redneck Riviera lifestyle brand.
“We’re now moving into a situation where we will help build out his entire business, from footwear to suntan lotion, you name it,” McDaniel said. “For these folks it’s great, because music and artists only last for awhile. So the smart ones are looking for ways to diversify their portfolio and build a brand.”
Lela Davidson, Acumen’s vice president for media and entertainment and one of the point people in the company’s work with the Nashville music industry, said it is engaged in parallel brand-building with clients. The Country Outfitter Style line will be rebranded as Country Outfitter Life, embracing elements far beyond boots and couture.
“You can only send so many emails about the latest boot,” she said. “We were looking for a way to really encompass the whole country, Southern lifestyle, to talk to these people about what they cared about beyond ‘I want to buy something today.’ Home decor, food, travel and entertainment are our main verticals.”
As the general manager for the Country Outfitter operations, Morris — the former golf pro — noted he had no e-commerce experience when he came on board. But he believed in the vision of James and Turpin and felt he had something to offer: persistence and persuasiveness.
“Someone had to pick up the phone and make vendor call after vendor call and tell the story over and over,” he said. “You have about 30 seconds on the phone to convince somebody to give you a follow-up call or interview because they get hit up every day.
“We’re not in our garage selling stuff online; this is a legitimate company that has real horsepower from not only the depth side, but [also] our creative-to-content customer service operations. If they can see it, if I can get them to walk in our doors … I’d get them.”
A few doors down from Morris, in an office almost completely devoid of decoration, Nicholas Sammer, Acumen’s vice president and general manager, offers up his marketing experience from Saatchi & Saatchi (where he met Turpin), as well as from running pet food brands for Mars Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee.
“When [Turpin] told me what they were doing with Acumen, my ears perked up,” Sammer said. “The opportunity to come here and build something, to be part of building something that had never been done in the industry, that was very enticing.”
He joined the company in May 2013, and said he’s still impressed by the same things that struck him when he walked in the door: a big corporate environment with an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Give them the tools and let them go, and they run with it,” he said of his approach to managing the Acumen workforce. “If you hired smart people in the first place, it’s really a recipe for success.”
That recipe isn’t the one Turpin and James envisioned in 2009 when they kicked off their e-commerce venture with the Scrub Shopper and Tough Weld stores. But now that the primary ingredient has been distilled down to Country Outfitter, Turpin is confident they can still find plenty of niches within the lifestyle market to grow wider and deeper within one main brand — especially since he thinks they see that market with different eyes than prospective competitors.
“Are we likely to see other verticals that maybe don’t fit a very narrow description of country lifestyle? Probably,” Turpin said. “By the traditional definition of boots and hats and rodeo and those kinds of things, sure, I think we’ll be outside of that. But in terms of our definition of country lifestyle, we see that as a bull’s-eye, but it’s a very broad bull’s-eye.”